A weekly feature in which my five-year-old son is let loose on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one of the most popular tourist attractions in Los Angeles, and chooses a star from among the more than 2,500 honorees. His “random” picks sometimes reveal unexplained connections such as the summer day in 2012 when he sat down on the star of actress Celeste Holm and refused to budge. We later learned that the Oscar-winning actress had died only hours earlier. There are five categories on the Walk of Fame: motion pictures, television, radio, music and theater but Charlie tends to favor the movies.
Some days Charlie seems so determined on the Walk of Fame that I almost feel like he’s looking for someone in particular. I don’t know what’s stranger — the sight of a five-year-old boy wobbling across Hollywood Boulevard like a Ouija Board marker until he suddenly lands on his prey and refuses to budge, or the sight of me explaining who these obscure stars of yesteryear are to my young son. When Charlie chose Fanny Brice this week, I told him about the singer/comedienne’s work in the Ziegfeld Follies and on radio and the movies and then I talked about the woman who is largely responsible for keeping Brice’s memory alive today: Barbra Streisand.
If you think you know Fanny Brice’s history because you saw Streisand’s Oscar-winning performance in William Wyler’s Funny Girl, think again. Oh, I love that movie, don’t get me wrong, but it definitely plays fast and loose with the facts, even though the Broadway musical and the subsequent film were produced by Brice’s actual son-in-law, Ray Stark. Born Fania Borach on October 29, 1891, the real-life Fanny did drop out of school to work in a burlesque revue and a few years later she did begin a longtime association with theater impresario Florenz Ziegfeld. And yes, she married a professional gambler named Nicky Arnstein (actually her second husband) but he was about as far from the glamorous ruffled-shirt heartthrob played by Omar Sharif as you can get. The fictional Arnstein ended up in jail because he got involved in a shady business deal so he wouldn’t have to live off his wife’s earnings. The real-life Arnstein didn’t seem to have the slightest problem spending his wife’s money and he landed in Leavenworth Prison for reasons that were far more nefarious.
Charlie picked Fanny’s star for her accomplishments on the radio but she also has a star for her movie work a few blocks away. On radio, Brice was mostly identified with her popular Baby Snooks character, a mischievous little girl that was beloved by millions. “Snooks is just the kid I used to be,” Brice once said in an interview. “She’s my kind of youngster, the type I like. She has imagination. She’s eager. She’s alive. With all her deviltry, she is still a good kid, never vicious or mean. I love Snooks, and when I play her I do it as seriously as if she were real. I am Snooks. For 20 minutes or so, Fanny Brice ceases to exist.”
When the talkies burst onto the scene in the late 1920s, Fanny Brice was signed by Warner Bros. to star in a vehicle based on her hit song, My Man (which Streisand’s fictional Fanny also sings to great effect in Funny Girl). But Brice was more of a New York girl and she went back to the stage for most of the 1930s, returning to Hollywood only to make sporadic films such as Everybody Sing with a young Judy Garland and Ziegfeld’s ex-wife, Billie Burke, and appearing as herself in The Great Ziegfeld (1936) and Ziegfeld Follies (1945) which both featured William Powell as her former boss.
Following her divorce from Nick Arnstein, Fanny Brice married producer Billy Rose (played by James Caan in Streisand’s equally fictional and much less successful Funny Lady) but that marriage also ended in divorce. Brice died of a cerebral hemorrhage on May 29, 1951, at the age of 59. Thirteen years later, her name was forever linked to Barbra Streisand’s when Funny Girl opened on Broadway. Four years after that, the story of Fanny Brice was brought to the screen, winning Barbra a Best Actress Oscar for her first movie role (she tied that year with Katharine Hepburn for The Lion in Winter). Reading about the real Fanny Brice, I can see many similarities with her stage and screen counterpart. Despite her reputation as a bit of a kook, she was very introspective and intelligent. “Being a funny person does an awful lot of things to you,” Brice said toward the end of her life. “You feel that you mustn’t get serious with people. They don’t expect it from you, and they don’t want to see it. You’re not entitled to be serious, you’re a clown.”
With apologies to the real Fanny Brice who had a beautiful voice, here is Streisand’s show-stopping rendition of Brice’s signature song from the end of Funny Girl.