You could say actress Barbara Minkus has been studying for her current role her whole life. She's always been rather petite and has always loved to sing and perform.
"I had such a big voice for such a little girl that people would always say, 'She's a regular Molly Picon,'" Minkus said.
The comparison stuck with her, and when Rose Leiman Goldemberg offered to write a show for her, she decided the role she most wanted to play was that of the legendary Yiddish theater star Molly Picon. Minkus flew to New York to research Picon's life with Goldemberg, spending time in the Second Avenue Deli and at the Lincoln Center and New York public libraries. Their research resulted in the musical "Picon Pie," which opened on April 6 (Picon's yahrtzeit) at the Santa Monica Playhouse, and has recently been extended through Dec. 15.
The play received an extension partly because of its popularity, particularly among seniors who often come back to see the show a second or third time. The extension can also be attributed to Goldemberg's nomination for a Theatre L.A. Ovation Award in the World Premiere Musical category. The awards, which are voted on by the theater community, will be presented at a Nov. 24 ceremony.
Minkus said she is thrilled for Goldemberg, whom she called gutsy. "She's doing a dramatic musical ... and the show is in Yiddish!"
Minkus isn't kidding about the Yiddish. The show is more than peppered with choice Yiddish words, phrases and songs. Minkus herself didn't speak the language at all before taking on the part. She prepared for the role by taking a course at the University of Judaism and studying with Cantor Nathan Lam. But, by the time previews began she was far from fluent. "People would come during the previews and they would correct me."
Although she's perfected her pronunciation since the April premiere, audience members are still vocal. The crowd sings along to the Yiddish songs, and Minkus said, "They talk to me during the show."
Many of them remember Picon's performances from years ago. As Minkus says in the play, Picon's name "was as big as Sophie Tucker and Boris Tomashevsky."
Picon first made a name for herself on Second Avenue in New York, known as the Yiddish Broadway. But her career eventually took her beyond that, to the real Broadway and to film roles. She received an Oscar nomination for her role in "Come Blow Your Horn," and played Yente, the matchmaker, in the film version of "Fiddler on the Roof."
It seems Minkus has now come full circle. She's no longer compared to the petite Picon, she is actually mistaken for her. One night, Minkus said, a man called to her from his seat, "Oy! I saw you 77 years ago." His wife followed up with, "And she looks better!"