Kansas City comedian/magician Shane Baker invigorates The Jewish Community Center with Yiddish humor.
From the moment prehistoric man laughed at his companion slipping in the mud while hunting for dinner, humor has been part of life. Humor has developed and matured throughout the centuries. One of the heights of this maturation came with the development of vaudeville.
Historically, vaudeville ran for about 50 years, the early 1880s to the early 1930s. During the early 1900s, vaudeville was running the circuit with musicians, singers, comedians, trained animals, magicians, jugglers, celebrities and more. Some of the leading entertainers in vaudeville also happened to be Yiddish. Much like American burlesque, Yiddish vaudeville is laced with unpretentious and sometimes crude humor. One individual bond and determined to make sure Yiddish vaudeville survives is an Episcopalian from south Kansas City, Shane Bertram Baker. He brings his show to Kansas City March 8 and 9 at the Jewish Community Center.
Krista Lang Blackwood, the director of cultural arts at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City, calls Baker’s show, The Big Bupkis: A Complete Gentile’s Guide to Yiddish Vaudeville a perfect fit. “The 2013-2014 Season at the White Theatre is designed to have a little something for all ages and backgrounds. With Paul Mesner creating a Hanukkah puppet show designed to appeal to younger audiences, it just made sense to book Mr. Baker, with his throwback to the golden age of Yiddish vaudeville, and appeal to our older audiences. As a bonus, Mr. Baker’s act will provide a doorway to our younger audiences to this almost-lost art form.”
Baker has even spent time with some of the last Yiddish vaudeville stars including Fyvush Finkel, plus others such as Arthur Tracy, also known as The Street Singer. “The typical Yiddish vaudeville bill was shorter than what we think of on the American English stage, and usually with a little less variety, typically a comedian, a husband and wife team who would tell jokes and sing and dance, a solo singer, and then the body sketch – what we know as a tab show (shortened version of a popular play),” Baker explains. “The broader variety would be covered by the opening act, when they usually brought in a juggler or magician from uptown. In any vaudeville bill, the opening spot was a kind of throwaway, the roughest for the performer, because folks would still be wandering in.”
When Baker was about 13 years old, he had the chance to see Tempest Storm, the burlesque star, at the Folly Theatre. “I think the fact that we had my grandmothers with us was a little bit funny, but Ms. Storm is a good comedian and I saw that,” Baker says. “However, the real start came when I was about 5 years old and I heard Groucho Marx say a Yiddish word in one of his films. It’s not like I knew I had to study Yiddish, but it might have been an early signifier.”
The magician bug bit him first because of long-time neighbor Claude Enslow. “He was the Magician of the Year, but he was that kind man who taught me about show biz. He showed a number of routines and I still do many of them, with modifications.” Baker also learned some tricks from Whizzo the Clown. Whizzo, known as Frank Wiziarde, came from a circus family. In 1930 they created the Wiziarde Novelty Circus, a traveling act that made appearances at stores, shopping areas, and any place where a crowd was desired. But the circus life had its up and downs, and by 1947 he was working as a radio announcer in St. Joseph, Missouri, where he became known for his man-in-the-street interviews.
Baker knows the drive is not just in preservation, but in propelling the art form forward. When Baker moved to New York, he spent time with some of the legends of the Yiddish stage including Mina Bern, Shifra Lehrer, and Luba Kadison Buloff. Buloff actually played opposite actress and teacher Stella Adler. “Luba taught me to act,” he says.
Baker also spent time learning Yiddish. He studied the language for about three years, often juggling lessons from books and those from his friends such as Buloff and Bern. “Mina invited me for soup and I heard her story. I became friends with her. At the time, I understood about half of what I was hearing in Yiddish,” he says. “Then I started becoming a regular in her apartment. Being around Mina and Luba was being immersed in the Yiddish cultural world and I knew it was not just keeping a culture alive, but being inspired and seeing the relevance.”
So with that spark, the desire to work in the field of Yiddish entertainment and bring everything into the best possible light, Baker studied the language even more. “I find the work amusing today and I wanted to create a show that mirrored that light and humor. What I have put together may be called a kitchen sink show. There are routines I learned from Claude, Mina and Luba.”
By the way, in a means to clarify the title of his show, Baker defines “bupkis.” “It’s a rude way of saying nothing. It’s like saying beans or goat droppings. So my show is the Big Nothing.”
In New York, the Sholem Aleichem Memorial Foundation and the Congress for Yiddish Culture often celebrate Yiddish vaudeville. It’s not only about the performance, but collecting the scholarly data. “Vaudeville was the industrialization of entertainment where performers were assigned specific tasks. That fascinates me.” Baker has also received support from David Mandelbaum, founder of the New Yiddish Rep.
When Baker brings The Big Bupkis: The Complete Gentile’s Guide to Yiddish Vaudeville to the White Theatre in early March, he will bring in a refreshed show. He has been working with co-writer Lewis Rickman. “Families will be welcome. As with all vaudeville, good taste is stretched. I can remember Claude telling me that a person can work ‘blue’ – that sort of inappropriate humor – and get a laugh. The trick is not to look more at the humor that you don’t see on TV. Slapstick is fun and so is refined word play. I like to be a monologist.”
The show will be about 40 to 50 percent in Yiddish, Baker explains. “I will clarify jokes, but there are also supertitles. The material will be almost all vaudeville, but there is a modern, tongue-in-cheek feel. There is some self-lacerating humor. There is self-mockery. While vaudeville used to have a goal of a laugh every 15 seconds, I think I take a little bit longer for my jokes. However, there will be broad variety. I even dance.”
Finding new audiences for Yiddish, Baker said, requires showing people that Yiddish is a language of both the gutter and the academy, and everything in between. “I want to advance the language. We add color to our own language with Yiddish words like schlep, schlock and shtick. Yiddish is a full language, rich and real. That is one of my jobs to show that in roughly 75 minutes.”
In the end and at the end of the show, Baker wants to leave an audience with a smile. Baker is perspicacious. He has a unique understanding of the past and hopeful future. “The influences of acts that recycled their great skits, say such as a Burns and Allen, can’t be underestimated. I’d say that first and foremost I want them to have a really good laugh as well as the desire to see more Yiddish theater. I like to laugh … I like belly laughs, side-splitting ones as well as knee slappers. I hope my humor delivers just a few of these.”
Learn more about The Big Bupkis! by clicking here.