Eddie Cantor may be best known today as a character in the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire.” But the real Eddie Cantor entertained audiences in almost every medium available from the 1910s through the 1950s.
But if you don’t recognize his name, you’re not alone, and that’s a shame, local author David Weinstein argued recently at Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac.
Cantor, a Jewish comedian born Edward Israel Itzkowitz in 1892, not only deserves more recognition for his work in vaudeville, movies, records, radio and TV, but also should be remembered for his involvement in Jewish causes at a time when most entertainers were trying to Americanize their identities, said Weinstein, author of “The Eddie Cantor Story: A Jewish Life in Performance and Politics,” which was published last month, and a program officer at the National Endowment for the Humanities.
“That’s the big story of Jews in the 1930s and 40s — they assimilated and hid their Jewishness,” he said. “Eddie Cantor is a different story. He’s representing a different type of Jewish performer in a time when most stars were going one of two ways — totally hiding their Jewishness or going to the other extreme and portraying Jewish stereotypes.”
Cantor set himself apart by not hiding his Jewish identity and then fighting for it, Weinstein said. He incorporated Yiddish phrases and Jewish holidays into his act and talked about life on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, signaling his Jewish identity to any audience who could pick up this coded language.
He was Jewish, Weinstein said, “but not too Jewish” to be a mainstream success.
He became a household name primarily through his longtime radio shows and chart-topping recordings of songs that included “Makin’ Whoopee” and “Yes! We Have No Bananas.”
In the 1939 film “Whoopee!” Cantor portrays a Native American who begins to bargain with a white man at a trading post. Cantor moves into the Jewish salesman mode, Weinstein said, including telling the white man he had “chutzpah.”
Like many white performers of that era, he also performed in blackface.
He earned the nickname “Banjo Eyes” for his trademark eye rolls.
Far less remembered is his outspoken response to the rising Nazi threat and anti-Semitism.
“Cantor was very savvy about how he used his fame,” Weinstein said. “He didn’t just sell products on his radio show, but advocated for social and political causes.”
Cantor started working with Hadassah, then a small Zionist organization, in the 1930s to build support for Jews fleeing Europe to Palestine, Weinstein said. Cantor made several major speeches condemning anti-Semitism and spoke out about the dangers of fascism and Nazism before the United States’ entered World War II in 1941.
He sparked a backlash and received death threats for telling the press that Henry Ford should not have accepted the Grand Cross of the German Eagle, the highest honor for a non-German, which the Nazi government bestowed on the auto pioneer in 1939.
The same year, Cantor gave a speech at the New York World’s Fair, in which he denounced anti-Semitism and Father Charles Coughlin, the anti-Semitic radio broadcaster. This was one political stand too many, Weinstein said, and Camel cigarettes dropped its sponsorship of Cantor’s radio show, and he lost the show.
Cantor, who died in 1964, was no stranger to Weinstein’s audience. Many grew up seeing him on “The Colgate Comedy Hour” or listening to his radio shows.
“The family would all gather around the radio on Sunday to listen to him,” said Jack Kranton of North Bethesda, a B’nai Tzedek member, who sang a bit of one of Cantor’s signature songs, “If You Knew Susie:”
If you knew Susie, like I know Susie
Oh! Oh! Oh! What a girl
Howard Erdrich of Rockville remembered the Sunday lineup of Cantor, Jack Benny and Edgar Bergen.
“You sat around the radio for two to three hours [on Sundays], just one show after the other,” he said.
Neither was aware of Cantor’s involvement in Jewish causes.
Today, Cantor’s legacy is less enduring than it deserves to be, according to Weinstein. And integral to that legacy is Cantor’s Jewish identity.
Or, perhaps better put in song, “If you knew Eddie, like I know Eddie … what a guy!”