Katz

One of Mickey Katz’s many humorous album covers.

Mickey Katz, the great klezmer clarinetist and comedian, moved from Cleveland to Los Angeles after World War II to play in Spike Jones’ band. Katz was Joel Grey’s father and Jennifer Gray’s grandfather.

Mickey Katz was a shag carpet guy, I suspect, like my folks. Mickey and his wife lived in an apartment building in L.A. in the 1980s. I’ve read enough about Mickey Katz to guess what kind of carpet he went for.

Also, he liked Ba-Tampte pickles. (Another guess.) I occasionally run into relatives of Mickey Katz at Cleveland gigs. I feel I’m related to Mickey in a Big Fat Jewish Wedding way. My parents liked Don Hermann pickles, a local brand.

When philanthropist Milton Maltz started planning a local Jewish museum, he decided it needed a unifying theme. I called his secretary and said, “Mickey Katz.”

She connected me to the museum’s creative director, who, as it turned out, had gone to Brush High School with me. But I didn’t know him. He was a gentile from Lyndhurst; I was a Jew from South Euclid. I told him that Katz represented Jewish Cleveland history perfectly for the following reasons:

1. Katz played on the Goodtime on Lake Erie in the 1930s.

2. Katz played the Alpine Village, Herman Pirchner’s club at East 17th Street and Euclid Avenue, during the war.

3. Katz played the Ohio Villa casino in Richmond Heights. Gangsters like Moe Dalitz hung out there.

4. Katz played with Phil Spitalny, who later toured with his all-girl orchestra.

The museum’s creative director went to New York, to Viacom, to purchase a video clip of Mickey Katz on “The Mike Douglas Show,” July 1973. This video clip is only viewable at the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage in Beachwood. I, too, have a copy of it, but my Brush buddy requested I not post it. I wonder how much longer I can hold out. I’ve held out 9 years.

***

In Mickey Katz’ autobiography “Papa Play for Me,” Katz tells a lot of dirty jokes. He also name-drops (“I was part of a regular bridge game consisting of George Burns, Dave Siegel, George Raft. Occasionally Chico Marx …).

He kvells about his family (“My creative wife (Grace), my sons Joel and Ronny.”).

And he mentions many Cleveland landmarks. The first half of the book reads like the Jewish Encyclopedia of Cleveland. For instance, Katz mentions a musician who went to an East 105th Street bagel shop at 1 a.m. in 1935 and demanded a half-dozen fresh bagels, which he ate next door at Solomon’s Deli with his corned beef sandwich, because Solomon’s was out of bagels. Where else are you going to find info like that?

Katz was once in an elegant London hotel but didn’t like his room, so Katz, who was short, marched to the front desk and said, “I’m Mickey Katz.” The clerk, peering down at Katz, said, “I don’t know any Mickey Katz, but I’ve heard of Mickey Mouse. Is that you, old boy?”

I’m not sure why Katz’ biography even exists. Maybe in 1977 – when the book came out – there was some media bounce because Katz’ son Joel Grey was huge in “Cabaret” then. The first line in the book is “… my son Joel Grey.”

Not everybody liked Katz or his persona. I used to bring Katz’ Yinglish (Yiddish-English) lyrics to Workmen’s Circle meetings for translation. My translators – mostly elderly Yiddishist purists – considered Katz shund (literary trash). Songs like “K’nock Around the Clock” and “Nudnik the Flying Shisl” (Pest the Flying Saucer) were beyond the pale.

When I lectured on Katz at a national Yiddish convention, I met two musicians who had worked with him: Hale Porter, a cantor; and singer Tanja Solnik. They had appeared in “Hello Solly” with Katz, which was a 1960s off-Broadway show.

I asked them what Mickey had been like, because I couldn’t really tell from the celebrity as-told-to bio.

Solnik couldn’t answer the question because she was only 8 when she performed with Katz. She had been “Little Tanja.” She said Mickey had always treated her right.

Porter said there were no Benny Goodman-style horror stories. (Benny was a tough bandleader.) I figured Katz was an OK guy. A Cleveland Depression boy, like my dad.

I had a lot vested in Mickele. Cleveland and klezmer music turned out to be my life!

Hale Porter and Tanja Solnik said Katz was OK. Leave it at that.

***

In 1950 Mickey Katz’ Hollywood agent Hal Zeiger told Katz to strike out on his own. Zeiger said, “If this many people want you, why work for any of them?” The agent, who had grown up with Katz in Cleveland, eventually represented and/or promoted just about everybody: Frank Zappa, Lenny Bruce, Ray Charles.

Zeiger and Katz’ variety show “Borscht Capades,” went to Broadway for a short run in 1951 and bombed.

Katz said he lost $40,500 on “Borscht Capades” ($332,100 in today’s money). Katz – like many musicians – liked to talk about money, because he was never sure where his next check was coming from.

Sociologist Herbert Gans, who interviewed Katz in 1951, wrote: “Katz is always selling: Our conversations were dominated by his need to sell himself; advertise his product and knock that of his competition.”

In September 1951, the competition, “Bagels and Yox,” played on Broadway just two blocks from “Borscht Capades.” “Bagels and Yox” featured the Barton Brothers comedy team, famous for their off-color comedy song “Joe and Paul” (which Yiddishe cup performs!).

There wasn’t enough money to go around for two similar shows two blocks away from each other on Broadway. Katz lost everything, sold his house, moved into an apartment in L.A. and resumed played one-nighters around the country.

By 1956 he owned a Cadillac again. “I’ve always liked to go first-class if I thought I could make it,” he said.

Here is the executive summary on Mickey Katz:

1. Cleveland native Katz succeeded, failed, and rebounded after failure. All good.

2. Katz liked to go first-class. Katz on food: “We were served oysters Rockefeller, chateaubriand, artichoke hearts with hollandaise sauce, petit fours, French ice cream with strawberries . . .” Genug (enough).

3. Katz’ family did all right: Son Joel Grey, big star. Son Ron Katz started a company called Telecredit. In 2008, Ron put up $1 million to endow the Mickey Katz Chair in Jewish Music at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music.

4. Katz played Fairmount Temple in 1971. Shawn Fink (who often sings with Yiddishe Cup) was on stage with The Mick that day. Shawn was 1½ months old (and in the arms of his father, emcee Phil Fink). Katz played one-nighters on the Florida condo-circuit and around the country in the 1970 and 1980s.

5. Katz died in 1985 and is buried in California.

6. Katz’ music lives on. Mickey isn’t Shakespeare, but he’s not bad. Yiddishe Cup is in a way a Katz tribute band.

Bert Stratton is bandleader of Yiddishe Cup, the Cleveland-based klezmer group. He blogs regularly for the CJN at www.cjn.org/opinion/blogs.

WHAT: “Tribute to Mickey Katz” concert by Yiddishe Cup

WHEN: 7 p.m., Thursday, Aug. 9

WHERE: Alma Theater in Cain Park, Cleveland Heights

TICKETS: 216-371-3000, www.cainpark.com or www.ticketmaster.com


Did you ever see Mickey Katz perform? Share your memories at www.cjn.org or email to editorial@cjn.org with “Mickey” in the subject line. Some submissions may be published in print or online.

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