Courtesy Millibo Art Theatre
Borscht Belted, Jan. 24-26, 7:30 p.m., Jan. 27, 2:30 p.m., Millibo Art Theatre, 1626 S. Tejon St., $18-$25, themat.org.
Actor, journalist and playwright Warren Epstein doesn’t want the world to forget his hometown, but not just because of the memories it holds for him, personally. Because he grew up in the Catskills, also known as the “Borscht Belt,” in New York, during one of the most innovative and exciting periods of American comedy, Epstein knows his experiences and the history he witnessed matter to the world outside the mountains. “It’s funny about when you grow up in a place that’s unique,” Epstein says, “you think everything is entirely normal. So to me, Milton Berle playing on Saturday a few blocks from my house — that was just another Saturday night.” Milton Berle, along with comedians like Woody Allen, Jerry Seinfeld, Joan Rivers and Marc Maron got their start in the Catskills resorts, where the Jewish population of New York would go to unwind. The Catskills comedy scene has long since died away, leaving empty hotels and a fading legacy. Epstein says: “I’m realizing that my memory and my experience, along with the historic significance of it, you know, it called me to do something theatrically about it.”
Channeling these comedians and his own memories of sneaking into comedy shows and working in famous hotels, Epstein has created a one-man show to honor both the famous and the forgotten Borscht Belt funnymen who changed the landscape of American comedy. The audience can look forward to meeting Jimmy Grecco, Epstein’s composite of the comedic personalities he knew and witnessed, who will narrate a journey through a formative piece of theatrical history. It’s an important story for Epstein to tell, and not just because it connects to his childhood. It connects to his heritage, and the shared heritage of many American Jews.
Epstein says that the community in the Catskills grew in large part out of World War II. “As a people and a culture, it was about comedy. This was our way to express. When we ran out of tears, we found we could laugh. And I think that’s been a guiding culture of our people for a long, long time.”