Barbra Streisand: The Early Years

Most biographies of Barbra Streisand start with her childhood in Brooklyn. But, truth be told, Barbra (that’s the lady without the extra ‘a’ in her first name) was born in 1960. That was the night she stepped into the spotlight at The Lion in Greenwich Village and showed the world – probably about 40 people – what an actress in song really means.

The New York crowd, wise to the ways of nightclub acts, had never seen or heard anything like Barbra with the missing “a.” And from that moment on, from that very first time she dipped her toes into the stream and set ripples off in all directions, Barbra Streisand has continued to bewitch, bother and beguile the universe.

Truth be told, the girl always knew she could sing. She had sung as a kid, in school functions and at parties for family and friends. There was the occasional chance to show off her voice at a bar mitzvah or when her mother took her to a hotel in the Catskills and there was a talent show. Little Barbara may have butted heads with her mother about many things, but they shared one great love – singing.

The first time Barbara heard “One Kiss,” it wasn’t in anticipation of doing it for Color Me Barbra. More likely it was in the apartment on Nostrand and Newkirk while Mama was taking a shower! So music was nothing unknown or untried.

Acting, on the other hand, that was different. That was something the child only saw mainly on the tiny TV screen done by black and white performers who were hard to discern because of the iffy quality of the TV’s rabbit ear antennae. But on Saturday, at the Loew’s King on Flatbush Avenue, reception was never in doubt.

The screen was huge. The colors were vibrant. The Mello-Rolls were sweet. Little Barbara Joan was in Heaven and the siren song of the stars enraptured her eyes and ears as much as the popcorn-scented air filled her lungs. And while the hunger in her belly could be sated with candy and soda, the hunger in her soul yearned to be on that screen herself.

She could see herself as Scarlett. She knew how it felt when Mickey Rooney chose the other girl and not Judy Garland in all those Andy Hardy movies. And when Jean Simmons got to kiss Marlon Brando in Guys and Dolls, well, Brooklyn’s own was certain her lips would fit Brando’s far better than that other lady!

There was only one problem for the Williamsburg teenager with the good grades and gawky looks – she had to find a way to get out of Brooklyn and onto the big screen, and she had to do it fast. Patience, you see, was not one of her virtues. Going to Columbia or Julliard or Yale Drama would take too long. There had to be another venue.

So while today, it’s vogue to think that she simply realized that night at The Lion that the key to her success was in her throat, it wasn’t a revelation. Streisand learned over time that her voice was a key that opened doors that were locked for the little actress yearning for the silver screen. That night in The Lion was a start. It was her “collect $200 and pass go.” And go she did.

If you have read any of Barbra’s biographies – or checked out the one on her website, which is comprehensive and accurate – her rise from The Lion wasn’t just like a plane lifting off and reaching the upper altitudes moments later. No, for Streisand, the ascent was more like a rocket leaving the launching pad and breaking out of earth’s atmosphere for the Milky Way.

The Lion lead to Bon Soir, which lead to P.M. East and notoriety and I Can Get It For You Wholesale. Song was her magic carpet, giving her a way to fly past the cynics who wouldn’t give her the time of day as an actress. And in every song, she was an actress, delving into the depths of Truman Capote’s poetry as she soared on Harold Arlen’s rich melody. In her performance, there really was a sleepin’ bee in the palm of her hands.

The young actress in song feasted on the greatest, often the most unappreciated songs from the great songwriters gone by. She liked Richard Rodgers’ music, but wouldn’t sing a standard like “This Nearly Was Mine” or “The Sound of Music.”

Instead, she’d cull the subtle passion of a little known gem called “I’ll Tell The Man in the Street.” When she was urged to sing a known, popular hit, she chose “Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad Wolf.” Hey, it was from a Disney movie – that was mainstream, right? Of course, in her manic manner, Disney animation would have been superfluous.

While Columbia Records tried to decide whether they wanted Streisand, the makers of Wholesale had the girl signed for the show, but they were at odds about how to use a teenager with more talent than discipline. Ultimately, talent trumped discipline and she found a way to steal the show even though she had very little to work with. Meanwhile, Columbia finally agreed to sign her up, but they were puzzled about how to use her.

Columbia first asked her to record a few singles, but nothing clicked. So for an album, they tried to capture on vinyl the way she enthralled crowds at the Bon Soir. But it was only when she exercised creative control in the studio – something she received by taking less money upfront – that Streisand was able to blossom. She envisioned the album as a set of songs, songs of her choice, songs that expressed her desire. When the world heard that voice on The Barbra Streisand Album, a love affair began; and it continues today.

With a Tony nomination for Wholesale, TV appearances that garnered the attention of the masses (including the President of the United States himself), as well as Grammy awards for her first album, Barbra Streisand had accomplished in about two years what others spend a career trying to attain. It might have satisfied another performer.

For Streisand, it was less than an appetizer. Within months, she was feasting on the Great White Way. Broadway embraced Barbra as Fanny and would have kept her deep in the bosom of George M. Cohan’s statue in Times Square if they could. But, alas, Funny Girl was both a turning point and stepping stone for Barbra. Hell, it was a launching pad.

Barbra’s Broadway success — which was as enormous as can be, with critics inventing new words to describe her gifts as an actress, a comic, a singer and a star – made Streisand the new “it” girl. She was on magazine covers worldwide, feted by the hoi polloi, invited to every party, and generally welcomed near and far just for being her brilliant self.

But Hollywood, not Broadway, was Barbra’s ultimate destination, and even after her triumphant ascent in the theater world – in New York and London — there were still doubters about her appeal. She needed to prove that the camera – that one-eyed monster that could get closer than any theatergoer ever could – would love her face as much as the microphone adored her voice.

Streisand wisely eschewed doing any cameo or featured role in a movie – like an offer to appear in Casino Royale – in favor of a film in which she would be the “star.” The likely vehicle, naturally, was Funny Girl.

To convince producer Ray Stark, a Hollywood veteran, that she had a face that audience’s would love, television served as her unofficial screen test. And more than sell her face and form, Barbra realized that she could imprint her personality and artistry on a one-hour spectacular in much the same way she did her albums. All she needed was creative control, and that was precisely what she negotiated to get.

My Name Is Barbra succeeded in a myriad of ways. It was stylish, classy, artistic, personal and passionate, a true reflection of the woman who sang every song and expressed every emotion in three music-laden sequences.

It also showed that through the camera lens and graced by lighting that accentuated the positive (while virtually eliminating the negative), Barbra Streisand was lovely. Her eyes were hypnotic. Her smile was evocative. Her hands were graceful. Her entire package – including the famous, prominent profile – fit together beautifully. She was like a Modigliani portrait or Nefertiti’s statue – images that she herself underscored in Color Me Barbra, her follow-up TV special.

The television specials were significant not only in showing that Barbra could look wonderful, attractive and alluring on film. They also revealed something just as important as looks; on an emotional, visceral level, audiences related and responded to Streisand. They identified with her, felt empathy for her and wanted to watch her. In a medium as intimate and fickle as TV, where viewers have the ultimate power to welcome a performer into their living rooms to spend an hour or so, but also the power to change the dial, Barbra was accepted.

And she did it not by pandering to the audience with a traditional TV hour. She offered little witty repartee, no big name guest stars, a minimum of dancing and an abundance of songs, It was an audacious conceit, but inherently, Streisand must have known that the smartest thing she could do was not rely on others, but rely on herself. She bet the house that audiences would connect with her if she gave them the essentials – Barbra, music, a touch of biography and electrifying performance. You can only imagine that Ray Stark saw her TV special and realized that he had his movie Funny Girl.

Fame cascaded down on Barbra exponentially after her TV success. Now, millions had seen her and heard her sing. She was setting style with her Sassoon cut, Cleopatra eye makeup and idiosyncratic wardrobe. Fashion magazines beckoned and photographers like Richard Avedon lined her up for shoots. Barbra became known by just her first name alone.

Ironically, Barbra wasn’t thrilled with being a celebrity. Oh, yes, her dream was to be famous, but she quickly discovered that celebrity was a double-edged sword. As a truth-teller, honesty wasn’t always appreciated. Telling a New York society matron that she was late arriving because she “got screwed up,” was honest, but it lacked guile. Still, Streisand was 23; she needed time to smooth out the rough edges.

Fortunately, stardom and celebrity weren’t all that encompassed Barbra Streisand’s life in 1966. There was family and marriage – to actor Elliott Gould – and about nine month after she turned 24, a new man. Jason Emanuel Gould, born just two days before the New Year, was everything to the young star. Despite the glories of success and fame, Jason was and would remain her greatest accomplishment.

Still, work awaited her and Streisand was poised to take on the biggest challenge of her career – motion pictures. She had a single-minded determination to make the film version of Funny Girl better than the Broadway show, and, as such, she did not play the Hollywood game when she arrived.

Schmoozing with columnists and making nice to the press wasn’t Barbra’s thing. She was focused on the work and nothing mattered more. In retrospect, she was right. What was committed to film was more important than an interview with Rona Barrett, and fortunately for Barbra, her efforts were rewarded. Funny Girl cemented her celebrity, made her a movie star, won her an Oscar, and catapulted her into the second phase of her career. It would prove to be a legendary ride.

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