Sunday, August 09, 2015


The last I heard from Theo Bikel (May 02, 1924 - Jul 21, 2015) he wanted me to join him on an Alaskan cruise.

Why would a venerable old Jewish actor/folksinger want to be in Alaska, the land of Sarah Palin? For fun, adventure and the unusual and spectacular views, of course. And what else are you going to do, if the folk scene is diminished, the coffee clubs and intimate concert halls are mostly gone, and almost all your contemporaries are either retired or dead? Bikel had enough star power from his length career as a singer, stage star and film actor, to attract plenty of rich elderly people for a sea cruise. Since I'm neither rich or elderly, I just wasn't among them.

Bikel always had plenty to do, even when he hit 90. Just this year, he was on the West Coast doing a show with Peter Yarrow and Paul Stookey, then taking part in an Israel fundraiser in New York at $150 a plate. In between, as you can still see if you visit his dotcom, he was working on all kinds of musical and acting projets.

Most people who know his name probably can recall some role he did as a character actor, but he's best remembered for stage musicals and his slew of ethnic folk albums. On Broadway, he was the original Baron Von Trapp in "The Sound of Music." In a nod to his coffee house success as a folk singer Rodgers and Hammerstein gave him a highlight: "Edelweiss," to be performed on his guitar in a solo spotlight moment.

He holds some kind of record for having performed as Tevye in over 2,000 performances of "Fiddle on the Roof," for a variety of touring companies. He probably holds some record for the number of folk records issued during the late 50's and early 60's. Even now, most any surviving record store is bound to have "A Harvest of Israeli Folk Songs," "Jewish Folk Songs," "More Jewish Folk Songs," "Bikel Sings Yiddish Theatre and Folk Songs," "Treasury of Yiddish Folk Songs," "Songs if Israel," and "Songs of the Russian Gypsy" and "Songs of Russia Old and New" among others.

Along with Burl Ives, he was an "actor/singer," and because he was older, and more traditional, it wasn't likely that the same people who bought Elektra label mates Judy Henske, Shel Silverstein and Phil Ochs were buying his stuff. He was a "think ethnic" type, recording in over a dozen languages, and in 1961 he was one of the founders of the Newport Folk Festival.

Actor/singer Bikel was not particularly hurt by the waning folk era's switch to electric guitar. In 1964 he played Zoltan Karpathy, the pushy Hungarian expert in phonetics (and rival to Henry Higgins) in "My Fair Lady." He followed his with the role of the Russian captain in the 1966 comedy "The Russians are Coming." And so it went, through the 60's and 70's and beyond, Bikel performing concerts at times, but also working in films and (wining an Emmy in 1988 for "Star Trek: The Next Generation") plenty of television. He also returned to Broadway many times, including productions of "Zorba," "The Lark," and (earning yet another Tony award nomination) "The Rope Dancers."

Bikel was a typical Liberal, ready to defend Israel (even against fellow performers like Vanessa Redgrave), appearing as a delegate (to the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, where he joined Phil Ochs and others in protests) and becoming a leader in his profession (he was once president of the Actors' Equity union). If there wasn't a cruise or a film or a TV appearance on the horizon, he looked for bookings for his one man show, "Sholem Aleichem" Laughter Through Tears."

A very live wire, Theo married his fourth wife, Amy in 2013, only a year after divorcing his third wife Tamara (they were married rom 2008 to 2012).

Ironically, Bikel's work as an actor seems to have completely overshadowed his recognition as an important folk singer. One of those smirky "Celebrities Sing" collections added him for having the audacity to cover George Harrison's "Piggies." Hardly as questionable as Leonard Nimoy's "Proud Mary" or William Shatner's "Rocket Man," Bikel did a nice adaptation of the song, which Reprise released at a time when it was fighting "ageism" and allowing older performers to update the repertoire. Theo (not Theodore) released his "A New Day" album, which covered "For No One," and songs by Joni Mitchell and Donovan. It was produced by Richard Perry, who was working with Fanny and a lot of other very cool artists. At the same time, Ella Fitzgerald was doing Randy Newman's "Yellow Man," and the veteran Hamilton Camp got a chance to record "Star Spangled Bus." Bikel knew there is something not at all kosher about "Piggies."

Theo Bikel PIGGIES

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