Born on October 29, 1891, in New York City, Fanny Brice sang in a talent contest when she was 13 at Keeney's Theatre, and won first prize. In 1910, Florenz Ziegfeld heard Brice singing in a burlesque house and made her a headliner in his Follies that year. Brice was a Follies perennial after 1910, and her comic routines and parodies were highly popular. She also appeared in a few motion pictures. Shortly after having a stroke, Brice died in 1951 at the age of 59.
Actress, comedian and singer Fanny Brice was born Fannie Borach on October 29, 1891, in New York City, to Charles Borach, a bartender, and Rose Stern, a factory worker. At 4 years old, Fanny moved with her parents and three siblings to Newark, New Jersey. Less than a decade later, her father's gambling problem led Fanny's parents to separate, with Rose taking the children and moving back to New York, this time settling in Brooklyn.
It was in Brooklyn, at Keeney's Theatre, that Fanny Brice made her stage debut as an entertainer: At the age of 13, she won the venue's amateur night competition and $5 after singing "When You Know You're Not Forgotten by the Girl You Can't Forget." Her victory on the small stage ignited Brice's passion for the spotlight, and she soon left school to pursue a career in the music industry. After several failed attempts at living out her dream, Brice began working at a burlesque house—one of the least competitive forms of entertainment at the time.
'The Ziegfeld Follies'
While working for the Transatlantic Burlesquers, Brice performed as part of the production The Girls from Happyland in 1908—marking the first time she used her stage name, "Fanny Brice," taken from a family friend. While working as a burlesque performer, Brice was discovered by producer Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. Seeing her comedic potential, Ziegfeld brought Brice aboard for his 1910 production, Follies.
Though she had comedic appeal, Brice didn't get many parts in the act because she wasn't seen as beautiful by Ziegfeld's standards. Thusly, the young Jewish girl who often resorted to self-deprecation and stereotypes for laughs failed to have her contract renewed in 1911. After struggling to find work yet again, Brice teamed up with Blanche Merrill, a songwriter who specialized in working with women. With Merrill's help, Brice became a comedic entertainer who took the Ziegfeld Follies of 1916 and 1917 by storm with songs like "The Yiddish Bride."
For a decade after her return to the Ziegfeld Follies, Fanny Brice remained a strong and sidesplitting presence on the stage. Hoping to be taken more seriously as an actress and comedian, Brice began performing "My Man" without any accent or over-the-top movements—unlike her other numbers—in 1921's Follies production. Two years later, she underwent plastic surgery to alter her nose, a characteristic that she felt most reflected her Jewish heritage and caricature acting. Following her cosmetic surgery, Brice appeared in the David Belasco production Fanny (1926), which unfortunately flopped.
Film Career and 'Baby Snooks'
Though Brice was forced to return to comedy following her valiant but failed effort to take on more serious roles, her comedic return was triumphant. Transitioning to film in 1928, Brice became the first woman to star in a film with sound; she played the landmark role of Fannie Brand in the film My Man that year, though her performance didn't garner much appreciation. Brice went on to star in several more films, including Be Yourself! (1930) and The Great Ziegfeld (1936), but she never gained the same stardom in front of the camera that many of her female counterparts managed to attain.
Unable to shake her connection to the Follies, Brice added to her repertoire of characters "Baby Snooks," a troubled toddler known for her tantrums. The character was a hit and became one of Brice's most well-known acts; in November 1938, she brought Baby Snooks to the airwaves, where the character became nationally known. Brice and her character remained on the radio until 1948, when Brice's contract ended. She returned to radio the following year, bringing Baby Snooks with her, and continued performing her act on the radio waves for two years thereafter.
Not long after considering retirement, Fanny Brice suffered a stroke on May 24, 1951. The legendary actress and comedian died less than a week later, on May 29, 1951, in Los Angeles, California. She was 59 years old.
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