I recently had a chance to visit the NY Public Library for the Performing Arts and was delighted to have had an opportunity to view the excellent exhibit, Molly Picon, Yiddish Star, American Star. One fact that stood out immediately was the true passion of the curator, Diane Cypkin. Many of the captions and descriptive writings were executed in a very personal style, which is somewhat unusual and which has the potential to be annoying and self-aggrandizing. Happily, though, in this case, the style suited the exhibition perfectly and was, in actuality, completely charming.
The exhibition makes it clear that Picon, in some ways, was a kind of Yiddish Edith Piaf (minus the self-destructive behavior, the multiple lovers, and the reputation for being difficult to deal with). Picon’s music fills the room while one is gazing at the cases of photographs, letters, costumes, posters, show programs, etc., and it is impossible to not be struck by the power and incredible range of her voice. An exciting plus–probably the most popular section of the exhibit–is the self-controllable video monitor that plays some Picon clips, including a wonderful segment of Yidl mitn fidl (1936). Picon and her co-star riding on a donkey cart through the Polish countryside, with actual villagers waving along the way, is almost breathtaking. I certainly could not stop tears from welling up.
Also surprising to me was the section at the end that featured information about Picon’s work in the latter part of her career. I was taken aback by the number of Broadway shows and films in which she appeared. One of these films, Come Blow Your Horn (1963), co-starred Frank Sinatra (as a nice Jewish boy), and, kind of incredibly, wound up being screened on TCM on the very same night that I viewed the exhibition.
The exhibition is recommended highly and I applaud Ms. Cypkin for her excellent work. It is sad, though, that NYPL is not promoting the exhibition very well and that all of the programs connected to the exhibition took place in June, in spite of the fact that the show is actually on display until late September. Additionally, I felt that very little attention at all was being paid by NYPL staff to the show, since some captions and description plaques were falling down and some pieces in the display cases were in need of straightening or readjusting (unlike the objects in the more prominently displayed Merce Cunningham exhibit on the main floor of the library).