From the Nightclub to the LivingRoom: Gender, Ethnicity, andUpward Mobility in the 1950s PartyRecords of Three Jewish WomenComicsg i o v a n n a p. d e l n e g r oThis essayexplores the bawdy humour of Belle Barth, Pearl Williams, andPatsy Abbott, three working-class, Jewish, stand-up comics who were hugelypopular in the United States in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Largely forgottenor dismissed today, they released best-selling LPs known at the time as ‘partyrecords’, which, though intended for respectable, middle-class consumers, wereoften sold under the counter and banned from airplay. The records were thereforetypically enjoyed in the privacy of one’s home, and, by most accounts, the primaryconsumer was likely to be Jewish. The period in which these comics flourishedwas one in which many working-class Jews experienced upward mobility andsuburbanization, the beginnings of the redefinition of Jews as racial whites, andsubstantial pressures to assimilate into mainstream American culture. Jewishidentity was central to the routines of these comics, as was a highly sexual subjectmatter. Here I explore how this group of entertainers positioned themselves atthe intersection of gender, Jewish ethnicity, class, and whiteness in the 1950s, aswell as the significance that their humour had for both Jewish and non-Jewishaudiences. With their earthy,shtetlsensibility and their smatterings of Yiddish,these performers, who attained their greatest popularity in their middle years,railed against societal mores that told them to be quiet, well-behaved, and sexuallypassive.Both in the means by which it was disseminated (LP records) and in its con-tent, the trio’s comedy illustrated the importance of the home in negotiating Jew-ish identity in 1950s America. Their party records pierced the boundaries ofethnic privacy by bringing the decidedly public setting of stand-up comedy per-formance into the living room. As these records were often played during cocktailparties or more intimate gatherings in suburban Jewish homes, they created asemi-public context of performance in the heart of the domestic sphere. Cheaplys i xLITJCS206p188-214:LITJCS02p058-084 18/2/10 16:44 Page 188
made and affordable, the party record fitted in perfectly with the more geographi-cally dispersed suburban lifestyle of 1950s America that increasingly relied onmediated forms of leisure such as television. Unlike that more mainstream form,though, the party record was marked as transgressive. Often labelled ‘for adultsonly’ or ‘not for radio broadcast’, these ribald performances were as far from thetelevision routines of Jewish but ethnically unmarked comics like Milton Berle orJack Benny as they were from the ethnically marked but non-threatening per-formance of Jewishness found in the suburb-era version ofThe Goldbergs, a popu-lar sitcom about a Jewish American family.