Joel Grey, the Tony and Academy Award-winning Master of Ceremonies in Cabaret finally tells his remarkable life story. Born Joel David Katz to a wild and wooly Jewish American family in Cleveland, Ohio in 1932, Joel began his life in the theater at the age of 9, starting in children’s theater and then moving to the main stage. He was hooked, and his seven decades long career charts the evolution of American entertainment - from Vaudeville performances with his father, Mickey Katz to the seedy gangster filled nightclubs of the forties, the bright lights of Broadway and dizzying glamour of Hollywood, to juggernaut musicals like Cabaret, Chicago, and Wicked.
Master of Ceremonies is a memoir of a life lived in and out of the limelight, but it is also the story of the man behind the stage makeup. Coming of age in a time when being yourself tended to be not only difficult but also dangerous, Joel has to act both on and off the stage. He spends his high school years sleeping with the girls-next-door while carrying on a scandalous affair with an older man. Romances with to-die-for Vegas Showgirls are balanced with late night liaisons with like-minded guys, until finally Joel falls in love and marries a talented and beautiful woman, starts a family, and has a pretty much picture perfect life. But 24 years later when the marriage dissolves, Joel has to once again find his place in a world that has radically changed.
Drawing back the curtain on a career filled with show-stopping numbers, larger-than-life stars and even singing in the shower with Bjork, Master of Ceremonies is also a portrait of an artist coming to terms with his evolving identity. When an actor plays a character, he has to find out what makes them who they are; their needs, dreams, and fears. It’s a difficult thing to do, but sometimes the hardest role in an actor’s life is that of himself. Deftly capturing the joy of performing as well as the pain and secrets of an era we have only just started to leave behind, Joel’s story is one of love, loss, hard-won honesty, redemption, and success.
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About the Author
JOEL GREY is a Tony, Golden Globe, and Oscar-winning actor, and director. In his seven decades in entertainment, Joel has acted in more than a dozen Broadway productions, in over twenty films, and countless television appearances. Along with his work on the stage and screen, he is a renowned photographer. He lives in New York City.
Read an Excerpt
Master of Ceremonies
By Joel Grey, Rebecca Paley
Flatiron BooksCopyright © 2016 Joel Grey
All rights reserved.
Great platters of food covered the table. There was herring, glistening pink with onions and swimming in sour cream; warm, homemade coffeecake; and sour pickles from the barrel. Chewy bagels and garlic-centered bialys and a seeded rye sliced thick and fat, dense pumpernickel. Big slabs of sweet butter, pot cheese, eggs, fruit (dried and fresh), everything top-of-the-line.
"Morris! You forgot the whitefish," my grandma Fanny said to my grandfather, who ran his own fruit-and-vegetable stall in Cleveland's Central Market. Having the pick of the produce, he always brought home perfect specimens of apples, pears, pineapples, cherries, or whatever was special and costly. Grandma Fanny wouldn't take anything less than top-drawer. Using elegant china and starched, white linen almost blue in its cleanliness, she arranged the bounty so that her table was as beautifully composed as a Brueghel painting.
That Grandpa Morris had a job in the first place during 1938 was not so easy, but selling produce was backbreaking work. He'd leave every morning at three o'clock to head downtown to the market where, in Cleveland's freezing cold or scorching heat, he'd lift and lug gigantic boxes of potatoes, cauliflower, and onions. Despite his punishing efforts for the benefit of the family, Grandpa Morris did not get a lot of sympathy from its members.
"War is everywhere, and your mother wants whitefish," he said.
"Sha!" Grandma snapped. "My soup is getting cold."
Life had never been simple for either of my grandparents, who had arrived in Cleveland as part of the great migration of Eastern European Jews fleeing pogroms and poverty. But the Depression and increasing anti-Semitism at home and abroad brought an uneasiness to the city's East Side, where most Jews, including my grandparents, lived.
If anyone could weather trouble, however, it was the Epstein clan. With their dukes-up hostility, they were one tough bunch — and the toughest of all was Grandma Fanny, née Borodofsky (changed later to Borad). A small woman with a strong presence, she made the long trip from Russia to Cleveland all alone at sixteen. In America, she found herself with no immediate family members or education, but Fanny was a fighter and raised five daughters with very little money and even less English. What a force she was. Even though she could barely read English, Fanny got a driver's license ("I gave da guy a couple bucks"), which she used to drive Grandpa's truck.
Fanny ladled out her signature barley soup, finishing each bowl with a large pat of butter that melted into the velvety, salt-and-pepper-speckled surface. With her hair cropped short in a no-nonsense style, she wasn't one to make a fuss over appearances. Her favorite accessory was the apron she always seemed to be wearing.
A natural in the kitchen, she was highly specific about how her food was prepared and consumed. And that included Sunday brunch, which was a non-negotiable event. Every week, all members of the family were expected for better or worse to sit and enjoy Grandma Fanny's fantastic spread, which was her singular form of mothering. No matter how tough times were or how cruelly they treated one another, as long as everyone was present and there was an abundance of food, Fanny felt the family was all right.
Sunday brunch at the Epsteins' was a kind of battlefield. My four aunts — Helen, Esther, Frieda (who called herself Fritzi), and baby Beverly (whom everyone called the "mistake" because she was born eight years after her older sister) — were always present. The Sisters, as they were known, took their mother's side against Grandpa Morris, who could do no right. Whether forgetting the whitefish or losing an entire day's pay in a pinochle game, there was always something to criticize.
If the weekly gathering at Grandma and Grandpa's brick house on Grantwood Avenue was a combat zone, then Mother was its biggest offensive. Sitting next to her, my baby brother, Ronnie, and my dad at the big dining room table, I could see The Sisters jealously appraising the charming dress and matching coat Mom had sewn for herself from a Vogue pattern. Wherever she was, my mother, a small, dark beauty, always made sure all eyes were on her.
Everywhere we went, the butcher, the baker, the grocer, people fussed over her not only because she was so pretty but also flirtatious and eager to be seen. At the market, I noticed how the owner, Mr. Friedman, would look her up and down while personally fulfilling her request for large pearl tapioca. She made the most of her feminine powers and charm, but it wasn't just men who found Mother appealing. She also had tons of friends, like Bea Sandson, who looked up to her, copying her daring style and recipes. The phone never seemed to stop ringing in our house, and it was always for Mother.
My mom's charisma was just one aspect to the trouble between her and The Sisters. There was also the matter of Grandpa Morris. The man her sisters considered a bum was nothing short of a prince to my mother, and she was naturally his favorite. A very tight pair, both were olive-skinned, attractive, and always pulled-together (at the table Grandpa wore a snappy bow tie, white linen shirt, and pleated trousers as if he were a Southern gentleman rather than a Midwestern fruiterer). They both also loved gambling (Grandpa played pinochle and poker; Mother and her circle played mah-jongg) and dancing. She was her father's daughter, Grandpa would say to Mother, which galled not only The Sisters but also Fanny. Their criticisms only strengthened the bond between my grandfather and mother, and they frequently defended each other to the rest of the family. Case in point:
"Why are you wearing a tie," Grandma Fanny said to Grandpa Morris. "It's brunch."
"Leave him alone, Ma," my mother responded sharply to her mother before training her big, lovely smile on her father. "I think he looks very handsome."
The Sisters pounced on my mother in retaliation. Ronnie and I put our heads so close to our soup bowls that we nearly dove in.
"What? You didn't have enough money to add buttons?" said Fritzi about my mother's swing coat. "How do you close the thing?"
My aunts snickered, but Mother was undeterred.
"There isn't meant to be a fastening. It's the style. I made it from the same pattern Carole Lombard wore in Fools for Scandal."
"Listen to her," Aunt Fritzi said, shaking her fork in my mother's direction. "Now she thinks she's a blonde movie star!"
My aunts never held back their hostility toward the sister they had nicknamed the Schwarze Jabbe ("black frog"), because she had darker skin than the rest of them. Instead, they laughed at her expense over their barley soup. In the open war between my mother and her sisters, each side gave as good as it got. (When Aunt Fritzi was on her deathbed, suffering from emphysema and barely able to talk, lying there ashen and frail, she beckoned me to come closer. I thought she intended to kiss or embrace me, but instead she whispered in my ear, "I always hated your mother.")
Mom acted like she couldn't have cared less what her sisters thought about her. At home she called them "classless" and "vulgar." My mother's ambitions went way beyond them.
She was the only one in the family who changed her name, going from Goldie to the more American Grace Anita when she was twelve years old. (When Grace didn't suffice in her remaking, she changed the spelling to Grayce.) After she appeared in a few school plays, she started to dream of a career as an actress — and even entertained the idea she might end up in the movies. Like so many other young girls at the end of the 1920s, she loved the new, exciting medium of the "talkies." Mother saw herself up on that big screen while watching Mary Pickford play a melodramatic flapper in Coquette or Ruth Chatterton as the mother of an illegitimate child in Lionel Barrymore's Madame X.
But her deadly practical family thought she was out of her mind. No matter how beautiful she was, according to everyone except her adoring father, Morris, Goldie would never be in pictures. Grandma accused her of faygelech in bosom: "fluttering birds in her breasts," or unrealistic dreams. By the time Mother became a wife and the mother of two sons, the only remnant of her acting fantasy was her singing "Papirosen" around the house. While preparing a pot roast for supper or rearranging the tchotchkes she so carefully accumulated, she warbled the lyrics of the popular Yiddish song about a poor orphaned immigrant girl, dressed as a boy, selling cigarettes and matches on the street.
Kupitye koyft zhe, koyft zhe papirosen.
Please, please buy my cigarettes.
Still, she continued to see herself as someone special. She took after her mother's hardworking ways only in the effort she put into reinventing herself. Mother took great care and a lot of time every day with her hair, makeup, and clothing — taking her cues from the latest styles of movie stars and magazine models. She was resourceful, making beautiful outfits with very little money, proud to look like a wealthy woman even though she was far from one.
The most glamorous choice my mother made, however, was the man with whom she had fallen in love and married. Meir Myron Katz, better known to the public as Mickey, was something of a minor celebrity as a clarinet and alto sax player in Cleveland's biggest music halls and popular nightclubs. Mickey couldn't have been more different from the plodding fellows her sisters had married, such as Irv, the kindly husband of Helen (the eldest), who ran a candy store; or the deadly practical Eddie, who ran a grocery business with his wife, Esther. Although Mother adored her father, Mickey was in a different sphere from him as well. Yes, they were both incredibly hardworking, but my father got applause and adulation for his work. Sure, our family didn't have any more money or live too far from the rest of the Epsteins on Cleveland's East Side, but Grace had married an artist. To her mind that made us inherently better.
In some ways my father's family wasn't too different from Mother's. They also had emigrated from Russia with little to nothing, but the Katzes were a far gentler bunch than the Epsteins. My grandfather Max, well known in the community as Mendel the tailor, had brought my grandmother Johanna to America after their marriage had been arranged by a broker in Latvia, where he had stopped on his way to the New World. Johanna was an educated woman who spoke several languages, while Max had had no schooling whatsoever. But together they navigated a life in the new land that was Cleveland, which offered its own share of hardship. I remember my dad telling me that one of his earliest memories was of standing by his father's side outside a hospital, where his mother was suffering from a breakdown after losing an infant child, and wondering when or if she was coming home.
My father eventually had three siblings: his brother, Uncle Abie, and two sisters, Jeannie and Estelle. Despite financial struggles, all the children somehow received music lessons. Abie played the violin, Jeannie the piano, and Estelle danced ballet en pointe and sang. The family held concerts at home on Saturday nights, which they called Katz's Follies. On summer evenings, neighbors would gather on the street outside their apartment to listen to the music coming through the open windows.
Dad was the serious musician in the family, even something of a prodigy. With his small pencil mustache, pomaded side-part hairstyle, and fine features, he looked like a performer (although not a Jewish one — there was nothing the least bit Semitic about his appearance). As a teenager he played clarinet and saxophone in the high school band and picked up small jobs around town doing the same. He and his baby sister, Stell, entered every amateur night they could find, but not as a brother-sister act. Pretending not to know each other, each gave an individual performance, doubling their chances of winning the grand cash prize. "Myron Katz" played a version of "The Saint Louis Blues" that brought the house down, while "Estelle Kay," a perfect doll in her hand-sewn ballet costume, melted the audience's hearts with her song and dance routine en pointe. Often, it was a tie between the two of them, and Dad and Stellie would split the prize, which they would turn over to Johanna for much-needed grocery money.
At fifteen, Dad became a professional musician. He joined the Musicians' Union and was a regular with the Johnston Society Orchestras, playing everything from stag parties to country clubs. Although he continued to attend high school until he graduated, my father became the major breadwinner in his family. He supplemented his own father's meager income and supported his brother through college so that Abie could become a pharmacist.
Right out of high school, Dad was hired to go on the road with Phil Spitalny (one of the talented Spitalny brothers, who both were composers and orchestra leaders from Cleveland). It was while waiting at the train station to leave for the tour that my seventeen-year-old dad met and fell instantly in love with my mother ("The most beautiful thing I'd ever seen in my life," he said). She was fourteen, and after they married, two years later, they were hardly ever apart again.
By the time I was born — and Ronnie, four years later — Dad had become a fixture in the Cleveland music scene. As a kid, I loved to tag along with Dad to the RKO Palace Theatre, where he played in the orchestra under the direction of Maurice Spitalny, Phil's brother, who was well known for the tight white flannel pants he wore to show off his "manhood" while conducting. There was no more magnificent destination than the vaudeville theater and picture house. You couldn't get any grander than the two sweeping staircases of white marble, imported crystal chandeliers, and hand-woven, 67-foot gray carpet adorned with roses. And that was just the lobby! The gigantic, 2,800-seat theater with its vaulted ceilings of painted friezes and gold leaf could have been a real palace. It was nice enough for the famous comedians George Burns and Gracie Allen to get married there.
I never saw the show from the audience, but I couldn't have cared less. As far as I was concerned, the view from the orchestra pit underneath the stage was the best one in the house. Hidden off to the side, I kept true to my promise to be quiet and not "get in the way" of stagehands, wardrobe people, performers, and anyone else running around. There was no way I would have ever misbehaved — I just so loved being there. (That's why Ronnie wasn't allowed to go; he was too little to be quiet.) I watched the supporting acts come onstage, which could be as many as ten in a night. There were magicians such as Ade Duval, who could make a cocktail shaker disappear and brought scarves to life in his "Rhapsody in Silk" act, and dancers such as Toy & Wing, formerly of the tap-dancing trio the Three Mahjongs, who were dubbed "the Chinese Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers." I marveled at the pageant of comics, animal trainers, opera singers, mentalists, and more, all introduced one after the other by big, electrically operated name cards, just as they were in nearly every vaudeville house across the country.
The bright lights were always changing, changing, changing as I tried to see what was going on and who was doing what. When the card would flip to the name of the famous headliner — Jean Harlow, Edith Piaf, Sophie Tucker, Jack Benny, Milton Berle — the excitement and applause would rise to a delicious crescendo. It was something I wanted to be a part of, although I didn't know why or how.
I loved being around Dad when he was at work. He was not only a virtuosic clarinetist, but I could tell that his fellow musicians absolutely adored him. Whether it was the other players in the RKO orchestra; the members of the big band he used to play with at the Golden Pheasant Chinese restaurant; or the klezmer musicians with whom he did bar mitzvahs and weddings, they all wanted to hang around him, because he had a story for everyone.
Excerpted from Master of Ceremonies by Joel Grey, Rebecca Paley. Copyright © 2016 Joel Grey. Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books.
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