Joel Grey Remembers Showbiz Start in ‘Borscht Capades’

joel grey Big Break Variety
illustration: Viktor Miller-Gausa; photo: greg allen/invision/ap

Joel Grey won a Tony and an Oscar for playing the Master of Ceremonies in the Broadway production and Bob Fosse’s 1972 screen adaptation of “Cabaret.” Known primarily as a song and dance man, Grey went on to appear in numerous other TV series and films as well as legit juggernauts “Chicago” and “Wicked.” His autobiography, “Master of Ceremonies: A Memoir” drops this week. Long before Hollywood success, Grey was a 9-year-old kid touring with his father’s Yiddish-language stage show, “Borscht Capades.”

Your father, Mickey Katz, created “Borscht Capades” in the early 1950s. How did that come about?
He was a musician — a clarinetist and a saxophone player — in bands around the east and he was playing in Cleveland, Ohio, which is where I was born. And (musician and bandleader) Spike Jones needed a clarinet player who could do bits, funny things. He went on the road with Spike for about a year and we all went to California. One day he was doing a recording session at RCA/Victor and during a break — he always wrote parodies to pop songs for fun and had just written this parody — he was singing it to one of the other Jewish musicians. Unbeknownst to him the mic was open in the control room and this group of non-Jewish, whitebread heads of RCA/Victor were sitting in there, and he’s singing (a Yiddish song), and they didn’t know what he was singing, but they were laughing and laughing, and they decided to record it, and it became an enormous hit. The records were so successful they put together a variety show that sold out every week in Los Angeles at the Wilshire Ebell Theater.

You were just a little kid when you joined the show as a performer. Did you have to audition?
I knew, even at 9, that I was going to become an actor and so when he had this show I said, “How can I be in it?” And he said, “Well, what do you want to do?” I said, “I don’t know how to sing and I don’t dance, but I’ll run around and I’ll move.” So my aunt dropped me a song that was a big record in New York, a Yiddish song — it was a million words and very fast and it was very popular with the audience — and I learned it by rote. I had no idea what I was saying or singing and the next thing I knew I was boxed in to being a song-and-dance man as opposed to an actor.

Did you have a favorite song and dance number?
“Romania, Romania.” It was like a Danny Kaye spectacular, fast, patter song that left a lot of room to dance and sing and mug and do all the things like my hero at the time — Jerry Lewis.

How long did you perform in “Borscht Capades?”
Maybe two years. Eddie Cantor saw me in Florida and put me on his “Colgate Comedy Hour” and that was the end
of the “Borscht Capades” for me and the beginning of my long tenure in night clubs all over the country.

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