Fanny Brice (1891-1951) is best known for her successful career as an entertainer and comedienne, her starring role in Ziegfeld's “Follies” for over two decades, and her work in radio and film throughout the early 20th century.
The third child and second daughter of Rose Stern, a Hungarian immigrant, and Charlie Borach, a French bartender, Fania Borach, as she was named at birth, grew up in a nonreligious Jewish middle-class household in Newark, Brooklyn, and Manhattan. She began her life of performance as a young girl, singing and dancing on top of the bar at her father's saloon, while he, her first big supporter, tossed her coins. When she was 15, Brice, who adopted the name of family friends for the stage, began performing on “Amateur Night” at Keeney's Theater in Brooklyn, the leading vaudeville theater of the era. Her first impromptu performance there was met with a standing ovation, and her career as a singer and entertainer was launched.
In 1909, when she was 17, Brice received her first contract to perform in a touring burlesque show called “The College Girls.” In 1910, she left “The College Girls” to join Florenz “Flo” Ziegfeld's 3-yearold “Follies,” a new genre of musical theater combining burlesque and comedy. She soon became the audience's favorite performer and was a perennial of the Follies until its demise in 1931. Brice attained real stardom in the 1921 edition of the Follies, in which she introduced a French torch song, “My Man,” which became her trademark. Other songs identified with her were “Second Hand Rose,” “I Should Worry,” and “Rose of Washington Square.”
In 1919, Brice married her longtime boyfriend Julius “Nick” Arnstein, a charming con man who became one of the most wanted fugitives in the United States in the 1920s; they had two children together. After Brice divorced Arnstein in 1927, she married the songwriter Billy Rose in 1929, divorcing him in 1938.
Owing to her success with Ziegfeld's Follies, in the 1930s, Brice began to appear in Broadway shows and motion pictures with such major performers as W.C. Fields, Eddie Cantor, and Will Rogers; she starred in My Man (1928) and Be Yourself! (1930). In Crazy Quilt (1931), she introduced the character of Baby Snooks, a mischievous brat she had first played in vaudeville in 1912. Baby Snooks later became a Follies favorite, and Brice played the character on radio from 1936 until her death in 1951.
Following her divorce from Billy Rose, Brice moved to California, where she lived for the rest of her life. She continued to work in radio and film, appearing in The Great Ziegfeld (1936) and Everybody Sing (1938). Her life was the subject of the film Rose of Washington Square (1939) and of Funny Girl, a Broadway musical (1964) and a motion picture (1968).
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