Born Marilyn Sternberg in Manhattan, she attended the High School of Music and Art as a music major, but in her sophomore year she switched to art. At the age of 15 she was a soloist in her father’s choir, the late Metropolitan Opera basso Harold Sternberg. The cantor was her uncle, Moishe Oysher. She began singing in Catskills Resorts and clubs, starring at the world famous Copa, and made her first television appearances on such shows as “The Hollywood Palace,” “The Ed Sullivan Show,” and “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.”
She won an Outer Critic Circle Award and a Drama League Award for her debut in “Catskills on Broadway.” A woman of many talents, she is also an accomplished painter.
I recently spoke with Marilyn about her long and varied career.
JV: When did you realize you had a gift for doing voices?
MM: I was doing impressions very young…listening to Patti Page and Teresa Brewer, and I could do that. I was like 12…then I auditioned for The Roxy Theatre at the age of 14, and the producer happened to ask me if I did impressions so I went into them… Sarah Vaughan was one…still a favorite of mine. He wanted to hire me, but my parents insisted I go to school…have a normal childhood… Why? I was never normal…and an abysmal student!
JV: Tell us about your upbringing and start in show business.
MM: I was performing from the time I was a tiny girl…maybe 3 or something…always backstage while my mother, the great Cantoress Fraydele Oysher [performed]… I would watch her on stage… I was usually at the theatre when I was not at school. Then one afternoon at a matinee she called me up from the audience and we did a duet… I was 7… From then on I was in the act with her and we travelled…but only when school was out…on holidays and such. Also then I wasn’t with my mom, I was at the Metropolitan Opera because my dad sang with the Met and I used to hang out there… I saw Joan Sutherland’s watershed dress rehearsal of Lucia… sitting in the audience with the press, eating a Snickers bar. It was a great thrill…Joan, not the Snickers…
JV: “Catskills on Broadway” was a big hit. Tell me what that experience was like and how the show came to be?
MM: Freddie Roman got the idea…called me up one day… I was pressing my son’s pants at the moment…asked me if I wanted to do a Broadway show.
JV: What is your favorite moment in show business?
MM: Now, c’mon…there have been so many moments, too numerous to mention. I dunno… everything I did with Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin…but so many great performances of “Funny Girl”…the national Company and getting the part, singing for Jule Styne…so much…
JV: Is there any celebrity you wanted to impersonate that gave you a hard time trying to get their voice down?
MM: There is always someone I can’t do…no one can do everyone… Rich Little was always frustrated because he couldn’t do Bob Hope. For me, it’s Celine Dion, some of the newer people. Actually, I am really immersed in iconic people…you know, the ones who get the Kennedy Center Honors.
JV: Who are some of the comics who you admire, past and present?
MM: Robin Williams, Jonathan Winters, Sid Caesar, Lucy, Carol Burnett in the early days… Jackie Mason is a brilliant stand-up… Richard Pryor was a genius.
JV: What are you working on these days?
MM: I have been writing a musical comedy with my son, Mark Wilk, who is a talented lyricist and comedy writer. I did the music…we are excited about that. I am completely immersed in the creative process.
Be sure to catch Marilyn at the Dix Hills Performing Arts Center on Long Island on Sept. 21 at 7:30 p.m. You can also visit her online at www.marilynmichaels.com.