His work spans the history of entertainment in modern America. Fyvush Finkel, one of the last performers from the heyday of the Yiddish theater, opens this weekend at the Folksbiene in “Fyvush Finkel Live!,” a nostalgic recap of his illustrious career on both stage and screen. Finkel, who turned 88 last weekend, will be joined by his two sons, pianist Elliot and xylophonist virtuoso Ian, along with veteran performers Merwyn Goldsmith and June Gable, in a revue that showcases the talents of one of the country’s most versatile and durable Jewish performers.
Highlights of the new show, directed by Motl Didner, are Finkel doing his signature number, “Ikh Bin a Border Bay Mayn Vayb,” (I’m My Wife’s Boarder”), Finkel’s sons performing the Aaron Lebedeff classic “Rumania Rumania,” Merwyn Goldsmith singing “The Butcher’s Soul” (a song that was cut from “Fiddler on the Roof”), a scene from “Café Crown,” and a Jewish Dracula sketch.
The third of four sons born to a Polish immigrant tailor and his Russian wife, Finkel began performing in a Yiddish theater in his native Brownsville at age 9, warbling “O Promise Me” in a wedding scene, for which he received the princely salary of a dollar a night. For more than two decades, Finkel was cast in a new Yiddish play on an almost weekly basis, appearing with such stars as Boris Thomashevsky, Maurice Schwartz, and Molly Picon.
He made the jump to Broadway in the original 1964 production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” first as Mordcha the innkeeper for the eight years of the initial run, then as Lazar Wolf the butcher in the 1981 revival, before finally graduating to the role of Tevye in the national touring company. Returning to New York, Finkel snagged the coveted role of Mr. Mushnik in the long-running Off-Broadway musical, “Little Shop of Horrors.”
Then, after six decades in show business, Finkel launched a screen career. His feature films have included Oliver Stone’s “Nixon,” Sidney Lumet’s “Q&A,” and the recent Coen Brothers drama, “A Serious Man.” He won an Obie for his stage performance in the Yiddish classic “Café Crown,” then an Emmy for his role as the bombastic Jewish lawyer Douglas Wambaugh on the TV show “Picket Fences.” His TV career continued when he played an irascible history teacher, Harvey Lipschultz, on “Boston Public.”
In an interview with The Jewish Week, Finkel said that theatergoers will take a lot of pleasure in his new show. “Have a good laugh, refresh your memory,” he urged. His advice for young performers is to “take your time, since I got my big break when I was 70.” He hasn’t had to audition for a role since. “I tell the producers that they’re not buying a house. They should take a chance.”
Zalmen Mlotek, the musical director of the Folksbiene, called Finkel a “true icon” and a “living history of the Yiddish theater in America” whose later success in film and television make him unique among Yiddish performers. Mlotek said that Finkel’s abilities as a stage performer remain undimmed. “There is no one alive who brings the Yiddish theater, the vaudeville stage, and Catskills entertainment to life in the way that he does.”
“Fyvush Finkel Live!” opens Oct. 17 and runs through Nov. 7 at the Baruch Performing Arts Center, 55 Lexington Ave. (enter on 25th Street between Lexington and Third). Performances are Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 6 p.m., with matinees on Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday at 2 p.m. For tickets, $55, call the box office at (646) 312-5073.