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Sheldon, Sheldon, Don't Change Your Name
by Jon Schuller

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In the 1960's there were many great comics whose specialty was stand-up. Mort Sahl, Woody Allen, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby and Shelley Berman. Shelley's routine was an imaginary phone conversation, with the comic holding the phone to his right ear. One routine I remember was Shelley talking to his father about going into show business and the father tries to, at first, dissuade him. Eventually, the father relents, realizing that his son wants his blessing more than his permission. It's poignant, truthful and reminds us of the power of love. At the end Shelley's father admonishes him "Don't change your name."

Most, if not all, of the original founders of Hollywood movies and the motion picture studios that churned them out were Jewish immigrants who escaped the pogroms and rampant anti-Semitism of Europe and Russia. Their new-found freedoms stimulated their imaginations and love for story-telling. Leaving the Old World behind meant leaving the terrible privations and hatreds they suffered behind. I guess some of these New World inhabitants associated Judaism with the ghettos and overt hostilities they'd endured for generations. Of course, like all newcomers they too encountered the indifferences and covert hostilities each wave of immigrants

discovered here. Separation from Judaism meant changing their names for more "acceptable" ones; names that didn't sound so "foreign."

Interestingly enough many actors, who were not Jewish, either changed their names on their own, or, more frequently, had the names altered by the studios. Some had to change their given names because they were the same or similar existing actors or actresses. Nathan Lane, one of today's great Broadway stars, changed his name from Joseph Lane, already in use. One of the most famous changers was John Wayne, who started out as Marion Morrison. No one at the studio thought a rugged six-foot-plus cowboy would be believable as Marion. Cary Grant started out life as Archibald Leach not very appropriate for a handsome leading man-type. In the world of music, especially rock-n-roll, a distinctive name (like Sting or Freddie Mercury) attracts a lot more attention than ordinary given names.

But I wanted to use this column simply to discuss and highlight how one ethnic group, new to America's incredible spaciousness and freedoms, came up against the age-old prejudices they thought they'd left far behind. I admit that other groups were immediately recognized by their names and strove to overcome the same fears and ignorance.

Unfortunately Jewish newcomers tried to integrate themselves, some did so successfully, but others remained locked in their New World ghettos. There was an innate distrust of foreigners due to the rise of Communism in Russia and Fascism in Europe. Americans assumed a "foreign" name meant an anarchist. There were (and are) many famous Jewish comedians (some actors and comedians started out in vaudeville or the Yiddish theatres especially in New York City in the early days, like Muni Weisenfreund who became Paul Muni.). Here's a small list:
Jack Benny (Kubelsky), Red Buttons (Aaron Chwatt), Joey Bishop (Joseph Gottlieb), Mel Brooks (Melvyn Kaminsky), Milton Berle (Mendel Berlinger), Jack Carter (Jack Chakrin), Gene Wilder (Jerome Silberman), Jackie Mason (Yakov Mosher Maza), Don Adams (William Yarmey), Joey Adams (Abromowitz), Buddy Hackett (Leonard Hacker), Jerry Lewis (Joseph Levitch), Danny Kaye (Kaminski), Victor Borge (Borge Rosenbaum), Rodney Dangerfield (Jacob Cohen), Joan Rivers (Molinsky).

Hollywood beckoned and so they traveled to California. Lazar Meir became Louis B. Mayer; Schmuel Wonsal or Wonskolaser became Sam Warner; Schmuel
Former New Yorker

Former New Yorker
Gelbfisz became Samuel Goldwyn; Erich Oswald Stroheim became Erich Von Stroheim. In a world apart from Europe and Russia, even apart from the Lower East Side of New York, a new world was created by these men. For them a "country" without prejudices, where they could live amongst Americans without being held up for special scrutiny, ignorance and hate. Maybe even an America they themselves created and put on film. Whether or not they blended in wasn't even in question. They became quite rich, quite powerful, even influencing political parties. It's entirely possible they added to the then-prevalent stereotypes of "rich Jews" or "the international Jewish conspiracy."

One thing's for sure: the American movie industry grew rapidly thanks in no small measure to these men. Overcoming stereotypes by attempting to erase them was one of their goals if not by choice. There are several excellent websites where you can see how many Jewish actors and actresses changed their names; who went on to fame and fortune, regardless of where they started their careers or how they arrived there. In later columns I'll continue this theme, possibly concentrating on a specific actor or actress and how the name changed their lives. William Shakespeare said it best: "What's in a name?"

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Mike Thomas
Aug 25, 2011 1:15 AM
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Great column, as usual, Jon. You dig to find the best nostalgic info.

Comic Books also reflected the Jewish Prejudice. Some have said that Superman, the ultimate All-American hero, is a metaphor for the Jewish Experience in America. He looks like everyone else, but hides a secret. The same was said about the X-Men.

My favorite conversion, however, were the Horowitz Brothers, and their friend Lawrence. Moses, Jerome, Schmool Horowitz, and Lawrence Feinstein changed their names to Howard and Fine respectively when they performed in Vaudeville as the Stooges.

And don't get me started on the McCarthy Witch Hunts.

You really got the history thing going, man.
Sep 2, 2011 10:54 AM
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The comic book industry started in New York City and guess who the majority of the illustrators were? Thanks for the complimentary thoughts Mike

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Cinema Savant
Every other Thursday

My views on an eclectic mix of films and personalties, past and present; emotional interpretations; some laughs, some cries.

Other Columns
Other columns by Jon Schuller:

Have You Been Spying On Me Lately? For How Long?

But Can She Act? That's What I Want to Know

They're Not the Same People They Used To Be

Time Does Fly When We Watch Movies

Before Minimum or Maximum, There Was Only Prison

All Columns

Jon Schuller
I am a former New Jersey native, living in Charlotte, N.C. for almost 30 years. I am a lifelong movie lover with lots of movie trivia knowledge and soundtracks in my CD collection. I enjoy sharing my love of films with everyone and have so many fond memories growing up in darkened movie theaters. I have been married 50 years (as of December 22, 2018) and we both share a passion for film (and each other of course).

If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Jon Schuller by clicking here.

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