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Mickey Katz, Jewish Funny Man, Dies

May 01, 1985|BURT A. FOLKART | Times Staff Writer

Mickey Katz, whose Yiddish parodies of popular songs once made him a fashionable recording artist, died Tuesday at his Los Angeles home. He was 75 and died of kidney failure.

Katz, the son of Russian immigrant parents, was an alumni of the zany Spike Jones band who began recording on his own in 1948 with "Haim Afen Range," a musical misrepresentation of "Home on the Range" that became a national snicker.

He followed it with "Herring Boats Are Coming," modeled loosely on the then-popular "Shrimp Boats Are Coming" (it sold 350,000 records nationwide and 80,000 just in Louisiana, where Katz said he had never even appeared). Then there was "Duvid Crockett," a yarmulke -clad version of the coonskin-capped frontiersman.

In what may prove to be the last of the years when ethnic humor was not only possible but customary, Katz's blend of English and Yiddish made him an ongoing fixture across the land. Booked into Los Angeles' Wilshire Ebell Theatre in 1948 for a one-night stand, he ended up staying six months.

His "Borscht Capades" played in rooms ranging from small clubs in Chicago and Miami to the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium (where he spoofed television in "The Man From Yankel") and the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. He drew crowds at Disneyland and was a perennial favorite among young Israelis.

His arrival at such palatial places of entertainment was a marked divergence from his early career when the 5-foot, 4-inch, 140-pound Katz began as a saxophonist-clarinetist in the Paul Whiteman and Phil Spitalny orchestras.

He achieved his virtuosity after a sympathetic school bandmaster offered the impoverished 11-year-old Katz a used clarinet. He mastered the instrument and began competing in amateur nights in his native Cleveland. He joined a band that was often broadcast on local radio and, to break up the musical numbers, began to write the parodies that were to later make him famous. Among the early ones were "Little Red Rosenberg" and "Hanzel and Ganzel," variations on "Little Red Riding Hood" and "Hansel and Gretel" that the Brothers Grimm could never have envisioned.

Grew Tired of Touring

During World War II, Katz joined another raucous entertainer, Betty Hutton, on the USO circuit and after the war met Spike Jones, who invited him to join his "School of Musical Depreciation." Katz fit right in.

In addition to singing and playing the clarinet, Katz was the man who did the "glugs" on Jones' infamous "Cocktails for Two" and "Hawaiian War Chant."

But Katz tired of the long tours and approached a friend at RCA Victor who signed him to record some of his parodies. The first was "Haime Afen Range," followed by "The Yiddish Square Dance." The records began selling 5,000 copies a day within two weeks of their release.

He branched further out, forming a group he called the Kosher Jammers, and began appearing with such famous Jewish comics as Myron Cohen, George Jessel, Henny Youngman and other prominent entertainers, including his son, Joel Grey.

Shows Featured Serious Music

When he wasn't poking a funny but tasteful finger at his own heritage on stages in New York and Las Vegas, he was working as a coordinator and conductor for other actors at the Friars Club in Los Angeles.

And although his shows were ethnically oriented, he also featured some serious jazz and popular musicians with his group, among them the late Johnny Guarnieri on piano.

Katz was married at 20 and is survived by his wife, Grace, another son, Ron, four grandchildren and two sisters.

He told The Times in 1977, the year his autobiography "Papa Play for Me" was published, that he had decided at age 30 to get out of the music business because there did not seem to be any future. "But now (when he was 68) I don't want to go anywhere else."

A funeral service will be held today at 3 p.m. at Hillside Memorial Park in Los Angeles.

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