Tell Marilyn I LOVE her!!!

Posted: April 15, 2011 in Broadway, Cabaret, Comedy, Culture, Entertainment, New York City, Nightlife, Performance, Theater, Theatre, Uncategorized

Many people think they know or know of Marilyn Michaels. They truly and honestly think they do know or know of  her. They DO know that she was really launched upon the public as Fanny Brice in the first national tour of Funny Girl, and they know that the bulk of her career has been built upon impersonations of other celebrities. They may also know that her mother was the great Yiddish entertainer Fraydele Oysher, and that her uncle was Moishe Oysher (arguably the single finest cantorial artist the world has ever known or will ever know), as well as that her father was Harold Sternberg of the Metropolitan Opera. They may even know of her current marriage to retired lawyer/judge Steven Portnoff, which seems to be absolutely made in heaven and clearly meant to last forever. Or they might know of the writings and musical talent of her son, the prodigious Mark Wilk.

But, they don’t really know Marilyn. I REALLY know Marilyn, and I’d like to talk about her here in light of her upcoming appearance at the May 7th gala fundraiser at The Jewish Heritage Museum of Monmouth County in Freehold, New Jersey at 7:30 PM that night, which will feature her incredible artwork.

My life has been inextricably linked to Marilyn’s since before I was born. My late lamented grandfather, Louis Z. Siegler, was the second tenor in a seven-member cantorial choir called Kadima (the name comes from “Hatikvah,” the Israeli national anthem), and they frequently would provide background vocals for Moishe Oysher at such locations as the Stone Avenue Synagogue in Brooklyn as well as on Oysher’s many studio recordings. As such, my mother (who herself was a featured variety entertainer on television throughout her childhood and adolescence in the 1940s and 50s) was one of the few who was privileged from the inside out to watch Marilyn’s meteoric rise to stardom in the 1960s. One thing that many don’t know about Marilyn is that her career as a vocal impressionist was actually something of an afterthought; initially, she set her sights on a career as a singer and recording artist, and at the age of seventeen, in 1960, garnered a Top Twenty hit in the United Kingdom with the song “Tell Tommy I Miss Him,” a companion record to Ray Peterson’s “Tell Laura I Love Her,” which was also recorded by Skeeter Davis to great acclaim. Of course, by 1964 she was not only headlining as an impersonator on such television shows as The Hollywood Palace and Ed Sullivan’s show, but preparing to star in the aforementioned first national tour of Funny Girl, in which she proved a smash hit all over America. By 1972 she was a household name as a co-star of The ABC Comedy Hour Presents The Copycats, alongside such other celebrity impressionists as Rich Little, George Kirby, Charlie Callas and Fred Travalena, but a few years earlier, in 1968, she scored a moderate hit with a recording of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s pop tune “Don’t Count The Days.” The early 1990s saw Marilyn make her debut in the acclaimed Catskills on Broadway with Freddie Roman, Mal Z. Lawrence and Dick Capri, and she basically hasn’t stopped working before or since. Another facet, of which many might not know, is that she’s a brilliant studio artist and an exquisite needlecrafter. She doesn’t profess to be an accomplished chef, although when she prepared her one chicken dish on TV with Robin Leach some years ago, it was absolutely spectacular. The occasional parties she throws at her home are the place to be, because she’s an impeccable hostess. And it’s clear that nobody on earth should ever have any qualms about working with Marilyn, once they’ve experienced her intense intelligence and endless charm.

I personally only met her for the first time in ’93, soon after she’d finished Catskills; I’d made arrangements to interview her for my then-magazine at her home on the Upper West Side. It wasn’t merely the amazing detail of her immense apartment that caught the eye, it was that every single inch of the space showed a little bit of her, from the movie-star portraits she’d drawn and the large painting of Ted Nugent, to the hand-sewn needlepoint pillows and the astonishing gallery of photos with various celebrities she’s known. She herself wasn’t present when I arrived, for being held up at a recording studio, so I was greeted by the marvelous then-housekeeper Linda, who couldn’t have possibly been more gracious in offering me fruit and cookies and a soft drink. Marilyn finally did arrive, carrying an antique table she’d purchased at auction on the way back home, and we settled into what was one of the greatest interviews of my career. I also met Mark for the first time, who was then just nine years old. And as expected, the two hours I spent with her were fraught with laughter, but her deep insights turned out to be an unexpected delight. And we’ve been friends ever since.

And so, if the question, “Do you know Marilyn Michaels?” enters a conversation, unless you really do know her, simply say, “Yes, but I also know I have a lot more to learn about her.”

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Comments
  1. Stephan says:

    I remember her appearances on TV shows and I used to watch Copycats as well. I’m so glad that she is still doing her thing and leading an exceptional life. And thank you for the fascinating history.

  2. Lots of history here. Will your essays be compiled into a book?

  3. Jeanne Rejaunier says:

    What a great article. And the videos are wonderful, too.

  4. Dr. Ron says:

    So much talent and pedigree. Is this really all one person? And she must work for the IRS as well, OMG- it’s all 4/15 day. Wish I knew her better as well…

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