Mickey Katz

Mickey Katz
The Most Mishige (1959)
Mickey Katz posing with Sandy Warner

Mickey Katz (June 15, 1909 Cleveland, Ohio - April 30, 1985 Los Angeles, California), was an American comedian and musician who specialized in Jewish humor. He was the father of actor Joel Grey and grandfather of actress Jennifer Grey.



Mickey Katz was born Meyer Myron Katz to Menachem and Johanna (Herzberg) Katz on Sawtelle Court in Cleveland, Ohio. Although originally one of five children, Mickey lost an older sister to diphtheria when he was about four years old. [1] Mickey's father provided for the family by working as a tailor, but money was always tight in the Katz family. As children Mickey and his siblings contributed to the family's finances by entering amateur musical contests in the neighborhood theaters and bringing the prize money home to their parents.[1] Even after graduating high school Mickey continued to support his family with the money he earned from his music.

Out of high school Katz was hired by Phil Spitalny to go on a road tour. While waiting at the train station to leave, Katz met Grace Epstein, his future wife. He was seventeen and she was fourteen. [1] In 1930, at the age of 20, Katz married Grace Epstein. They had two sons, Joel Grey and Ronald. [2] Each of Katz's sons had two children. Joel fathered Jennifer Grey and Jim Grey, and Ronald fathered Randy Katz and Todd Katz. In 1977 Katz told the story of his life in a biography called Papa Play for Me.[1]


Finding the Clarinet

One evening when Katz was eleven his father took him to a concert at the Talmud Torah, where Katz heard a clarinet solo. On the way home Katz told his father that he wanted to play the clarinet. However, expecting his father to pay for a clarinet and lessons was out of the question. The next day Katz asked the bandmaster of the local high school for a school clarinet, and within a few days he received an old and dusty clarinet. The next step was to find a way to pay for clarinet lessons. Katz went to his Uncle Sam and offered to clean his tailor shop if he would pay for the lessons. His uncle agreed, and soon Katz was studying under Joseph Narovec. Katz excelled with the clarinet, and he quickly learned to play saxophone, too.[1]

Starting His Career

Fresh out of high school, Katz scored a gig playing clarinet and sax for Phil Spitalny and went on a road tour with his band. After the tour Katz played in Doc Whipple's big band at the Golden Pheasant Chinese Restaurant for about a year, at which point he left and joined Angelo Vitale's band at the Park Theater. Deciding to try his luck in New York City, Katz left Cleveland in 1929. Initially Katz had a hard time finding work, and he bopped around from one small, unsuccessful job to the next. Finally Katz ran into Ed Fishman, a man he knew from Cleveland, who helped him find a job playing in Howard Phillip's orchestra at the Manger Hotel. After he married in 1930, though, this job disappeared, and he was forced to live with Grace in her uncle's home.

Katz was soon saved from this situation when he received a phone call from Jack Spector, a friend back in Cleveland. A spot for a clarinet and sax player had recently opened up in Maurice Spitalny's band at the Loew's State Theater, and Spector had recommended Katz. Katz moved Grace back to Cleveland and played with Spitalny until the leader left Loew's Theater in 1932. Katz continued to play at the Loew's Theater for another year, then rejoined Spitalny at the RKO Palace Theater and played there until the Musicians Union in Cleveland went on strike in 1935. Unfortunately for Katz, the union lost the strike since movie theaters were becoming more common and theaters did not need musicians any more. Once again Katz needed to find a job.

Katz soon found work playing for vacationers as they sailed around Lake Erie on the excursion boat Goodtime. This gig lasted every summer from 1935 to 1939. During the off season Katz found what work he could playing at various one-night gigs. When the Goodtime went out of business in 1939 Katz moved on to take a position as bandleader and MC at the Ohio Villa gambling palace.[1]

Katz goes to war

In 1942 Katz was hired as bandleader at the Alpine Village theater-restaurant in Cleveland. He was subsequently drafted, but received a 4-F classification on the Selective Service System and was released from military duty after his preliminary physical was completed. Katz found other ways to help, though. Back at the Alpine Village he began to sell war bonds after the shows, bringing in US$25,000 to $30,000 a week for the U.S. government. He also played for servicemen at the USO canteen at Cleveland's St. John's Cathedral. Then, in 1945, Katz took his six-man comedy and band group (Mickey Katz and His Krazy Kittens) on a USO tour to Europe with Betty Hutton. For this trip Katz was made a temporary officer. This is the closest Katz ever came to military service.[1]

Katz Hits His Stride

In 1946 the national jukebox convention was to be held in Cleveland, and Katz was asked to conduct for it. While there, he met Spike Jones, and a week later Jones asked Katz to join him in Hollywood. Katz played with Jones for a year, but he never felt he was paid enough, so he left Jones in 1947.

Katz soon decided to create an English-Yiddish comedy record. Having written the lyrics to Haim afen Range years ago, Katz received approval from RCA. He quickly wrote another song for the flip side, Yiddish Square Dance and had his friend Al Sack sketch out the melody for it, as well as create a musical background for Haim afen Range. The original run of 10,000 copies released in New York City sold in three days, and RCA received orders for 25,000 more. Katz then went on to parodize Tico, Tico with Tickle, Tickle, and backed his new record with Chloya, a parody of Chloe. At this point Katz hired a manager in Los Angeles, and in 1947 he performed in Los Angeles' Boyle Heights, a largely Jewish- and Mexican-American neighborhood. In Katz's words, he was a "double-ethnic smash."[1]

Katz Receives Some Opposition

Despite Katz's appeal with particular groups, there were many who did not like his music. Most of these people were affronted by the way he emphasized Jewish differences, convinced that his antics would help perpetuate Jewish stereotypes. In "The Yiddish are coming" Josh Kun sums up the atmosphere of the time with the following: "As historian Howard Sachar has noted, the prevailing attitude after World War II was a fear that anything that promoted a "separate identity as Jews...would somehow lend credence to Hitler's racial theories."" [3]

Although Katz had his fans, not everybody loved him. There were many radio stations that refused to play his records, and several venues feared hiring him. In his biography, Katz recalls asking a radio station manager why he wouldn't play any of Katz's records. Here an excerpt of their exchange:

I asked him why he wouldn't play my records. He said, "Because some of our listeners are offended."
I asked, "Who, besides you?"
He said, "I don't think that's any of your business."
I answered, "I think it is my business because this is how I make a living. You play Italian records, you play Polish records--"
He cut me off. "I will not play any record with Yiddish in it. Yiddish is the language of the ghetto."
"My friend," I said, "Yiddish is the language of our forefathers."
"I do not care to hear it."
"Then why don't you play some of my instrumental records? They're some of the greatest music in the world, played by some of the greatest musicians in the world-Ziggy Elman, Mannie Klein, Nat Farber--"
Again he cut me off mid-sentence. "There will be no Yiddish spoken, or Jewish music played, on this station."[1]

Katz Continues On

Not one to let others get him down, though, Katz continued to create parodies until 1957 and performed through the late 1970s. In 1948 Katz produced the English-Yiddish stage revue Borscht Capades, co-starring with his son Joel Grey. The show did well until it went to Broadway. Right before Borscht Capades opened, an almost identical show, called Bagels and Yocks opened up down the street. In competition with each other for such a small, particular audience, both shows ending up failing.

From 1951 to 1956 Katz operated as a disc jockey for the Los Angeles radio station KABC while going on occasional road tours and playing engagements at the Bandbox nightclub. In 1952 Katz also did some shows for the United Jewish Appeal. In the same year he joined the California Friars Club and proceeded to conduct at their major functions for the next 25 years. In 1953 Katz decided to play Las Vegas, and after a successful start at the Frontier, he returned to Las Vegas for four more years.

In 1955 Katz played a brief engagement at Harrah's, located at Lake Tahoe. The following year he became a Continental Kitten and played in Europe and Australia. In 1958 Katz finally played the Catskills, an area where most of his peers made their start. Unfortunately for Katz, the booking office that hired him was determined to make as much money off of him as possible, and he ended up with a packed schedule, playing "anything north of Atlantic City."[1] In 1961 Katz went on a tour through South Africa, playing in cities that included Cape Town, Johannesburg, Benoni, Durban, Port Elizabeth, Pretoria, and Muizenberg. Finally, at the end of his career, Katz began playing the Florida condominium circuit, often playing two shows a night.[1]

Katz' Style of Music

Katz was largely a jazz musician. All of his parodies have a distinct klezmer flavor, though, either throughout the entire piece or as a brief "break" in the middle of the song.

Katz's Parodies

Mickey Katz emphasized Jewishness during a time when most people wanted to pretend that Jewish ethnic differences didn't exist. The Holocaust left many people afraid of the potential consequences of delineating differences between those who were Jewish and those who were not. Many Jews ended up distancing themselves from things that would designate them as Jewish. Katz, on the other hand, reveled in the unique identity of Jewish Americans. He created parodies with Yiddish lyrics, sang in a Yiddish accent, and included a klezmer "break" halfway through each song.[1] His particular style allowed him to make fun of America's most popular, traditional, and stereotypical songs while at the same time providing an inside joke for his Yiddish-speaking audience. The cleverness of his work lies in his ability to make fun of both sides, Jewish and stereotypical American.[4] The obvious manner in which he enjoyed performing his songs seems to communicate a desire to appreciate differences and laugh at the blatant stereotypes we create about others and ourselves. Whatever his purpose, his parodies paved the way for artists like Allen Sherman and "Weird Al" Yankovic.

Random Katz Appearances

Katz and his group can be seen in the movie Thoroughly Modern Millie accompanying Julie Andrews as she sings a Yiddish song at a Jewish wedding.

A number of famous Jewish musicians, including those with their own bands have recorded with him including Manny Klein, Ziggy Elman and Si Zentner.

Jazz musician Don Byron recorded a tribute to Mickey Katz in 1993 entitled Don Byron Plays The Music of Mickey Katz.

The 2003 British movie Wondrous Oblivion featured Katz' "The Barber of Schlemiel" (a parody of The Barber of Seville) in a scene where the Jewish main character played the record for his Jamaican neighbor.

Katz supplied the voice of the character Hop-a-Long Catskill on the Beany and Cecil cartoon series on ABC-TV in 1962. Catskill was a frog, and the role was a parody of the role of Chester on the television series Gunsmoke. His primary function, in the few episodes in which he appeared, was to serve bad coffee and provide even worse Yiddish/English puns.


Katz is most well-known for his parodies, but he created more traditional klezmer music as well. His songs have been compiled onto CDs, including Mish Mosh, The Most Mishige, Mickey Katz Greatest Shticks, and Simcha Time: Music for Weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, and Brisses. Katz played with many musicians throughout the years, but he initially performed his parodies with Mannie Klein on trumpet, Sammy Weiss on drums, Benny Gill on violin, Si Zentner on trombone, and Wally Wechsler on piano. Al Sack, the man who created the music for Katz's first two parodies, assembled these players for Katz and then helped him get Nat Farber to arrange the music.[1]

The following are some of Mickey Katz's parodies and the original songs on which he based these parodies.

Mickey Katz Greatest Shticks

  1. Duvid Crockett - The Legend of Davy Crockett
  2. Knish Doctor - Witch Doctor
  3. I'm a Schlemiel of Fortune - Wheel of Fortune
  4. Borscht Riders in the Sky - Ghost Riders in the Sky
  5. Old Black Smidgick - Old Black Magic
  6. She'll Be Coming 'Round the Katzkills - She'll Be Coming 'Round the Mountain
  7. Barber of Schlemiel - Barber of Seville
  8. Yiddish Mule Train - Mule Train
  9. That Pickle in the Window (How Much Is) - (How Much Is) That Doggie in the Window?
  10. Sixteen Tons - Sixteen Tons
  11. It's a Michaye in Hawaiye - Hawaiian War Chant (Ta-Hu-Ha-Wai)
  12. Sound Off - Duckworth Chant
  13. Where Is My Pants? - Where is My Heart?
  14. Bagel Call Rag - Bugle Call Rag
  15. The Poiple Kishke Eater - The Purple People Eater
  16. Geshray of DeVilde Kotchke - Cry of the Wild Goose


Sixteen Tons
Oh, I went to woyk in a delicatessen
Far draysik toler [for $30] and plenty to fresn [gorge]
The balebast [head cook] promised me a real gedila [glory/honor]
Instead of gedila I catched me a kila [hernia]
Sixteen tons all kinds smooked fishes
Latkes, blintzes, un heyse [hot] knishes
O Lordy nem es shnell [take me quickly] to the promised land
A fayer afn bus zol er vein farbrent [a fire on the boss may he get burned up!]
You load sixteen tons of lekakh [cake] un tagl
Herring mislines [fish intestines] stuffed heldzl and beygl
Genig tsu shlepn [enough to shlep] just like a ferd [horse]
Hert zikh tsu tsu mir mentshn [Listen to me people]
Es teyg in dred [It's good for nothing!][5]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Katz, Mickey; Coons, Hannibal; Grey, Joel. Papa, play for me. The hilarious, heartwarming autobiography of comedian and bandleader Mickey Katz. As told to Hannibal Coons, Simon & Schuster 1977.
  2. ^ Case Western Reserve University, [1], The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, 11/28/10
  3. ^ Kun, Josh (1999). The Yiddish Are Coming: Mickey Katz, antic-Semitism, and the sound of Jewish difference. American Jewish History, 87, 343-374.
  4. ^ Weber, Donald. Haunted in the New World, Indiana University Press, 2005
  5. ^ Weber, Donald. Haunted in the New World, Indiana University Press, 2005
  • Larkin, Colin. The encyclopedia of popular music, third edition. Macmillan 1998.
  • Perry, Jeb H. Variety obits. An index to obituaries in Variety, 1905-1978, Scarecrow Press, 1980.
  • Whitburn, Joel. Joel Whitburn's Pop memories 1890-1954. The history of American popular music compiled form America's popular music charts 1890-1954, Record Research Inc. 1986.
  • Chabon, Michael. Manhood for Amateurs, Ch. X (Cue the Mickey Katz), HarperCollins 2009.

External links

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