“There was two little minks in the woods. A hunter comes by and shoots one and aims at the other. The first mink turns to his friend and says, ‘See you in shul.’” Belle Barth’s Borscht Belt humor typically involved body parts, so this may well be the cleanest joke she ever told, but I think it captures her savvy, self-mocking schvester style. Belle is the missing link between Sophie Tucker and Bette Midler, and Chicago audiences can meet Belle in the wonderful new show Belle Barth: If I Embarrass You, Tell Your Friends.
Belle Barth is a musical with a book by Joanne Koch, and original songs by Ilya Levinson (music) and Owen Kalt (lyrics). Born Annabelle Salzman, Belle ran her own club in Miami and released eleven best-selling adult party albums in the ‘50s and ‘60s. The highpoint of her career should have been her debut at Carnegie Hall, but a misguided manager “persuaded” her to tone down her lewd material, (where “persuaded” means he threatens to shut her down unless she complies). This new show rests on the premise that Belle is still beating herself up months later because she didn’t have the nerve to call his bluff. Everything that happens in this new show happens during the rehearsal for her comeback. She’s flashing back over her life, and reaching within to try to find the courage to get herself back on stage.
When I called Kalt for more details, he told me: “Writing lyrics for Belle was fun because she didn’t hold back her thoughts or emotions—she let it all hang out.” Here’s a sample: “Dirty little secrets; I like to explore ’em. Dirty little secrets on a smoky stage. Private little secrets in a public forum made me all the rage.”
Screenwriters take note!!! We typically think of the 1950s as the calm before the storm, but the winds that eventually blew Donna Reed’s skirts to smithereens didn’t gather momentum over night. As I said in my Sept 08 JUFN column, as I watched Belle Barth, I was always aware of two more Jewish-American women, also big and brassy, waiting in the wings: Bella Abzug and Betty Friedan. Did either of them ever see Belle perform live? I can’t say, but I’m willing to bet they both had copies of her LPs J