Born in Cleveland, Ohio, on June 15, 1909, to Menachem and Johanna Katz, Meyer Myron “Mickey” Katz would go on to become a popular musician / comedian. He heard a clarinet soloist, and wanted to learn. The sympathetic school bandmaster found him a clarinet dating from the Spanish American War and, working for his uncle to pay for lessons, Mickey excelled. He soon joined a band that was broadcast on local radio, and began writing the parodies to insert interest in their sets, such as “Little Red Rosenberg” and “Hanzel and Ganzel.”
He played clarinet and sax with both Paul Whiteman’s and Maurice Spitalny’s orchestras (and others), having toured just out of high school with Phil Spitalny’s band (he met his future wife waiting for a train - he was 17, she 14). Drafted but 4F, in 1945, he formed Mickey Katz and His Krazy Kittens and they played the USO circuit, after which (in 1946) he met Spike Jones and joined his “School of Musical Depreciation” band, which did popular musical parodies (we have Weird Al Yankovic today). Mickey notably did “glugs” in “Cocktails for Two.” Mickey went on to form his own band of renowned musicians, calling them the Kosher Jammers, and began recording in 1948 with “Haim Afen Range” taking off on “Home on the Range,” which sold 10,000 copies in its first three days. His Jewish humor was a hit with the general public. Subsequent recordings “Herring Boats Are Coming” and “Duvid Crockett” also sold well, with the former hitting 350,000 records nationwide, including 80,000 just in Louisiana where he noted he had never appeared.
Yes, your correspondent is a fan, especially of his recording of “Sixteen Tons.” His “Barber of Schlemiel” and “Borscht Riders in the Sky” are right up there, in our humble reckoning. The band would appear with comics such as Myron Cohen, George Jessel, and Henny Youngman. Then Mickey Katz decided to put together a variety show.
Calling the act “Borscht Capades,” they were booked for a one-night stand in Los Angeles in 1948, and ran for 35 weeks. (It played the Syria Mosque on November 26, 1949, returning in subsequent years including November 22, 1958, for instance - see the image). The show had a run on Broadway, produced by Hal Zeiger. By 1952, Mickey Katz’ son (Joel Grey) was appearing in the production.
Not everyone appreciated Mickey Katz’ in-your-face ethnicity at a time when Jews were trying hard to assimilate. There were those on radio who would not play his music, and those who would not hire him. In 1977 he published an autobiography, “Papa Play for Me.” He considered himself first a musician, playing what he called “Jewish Jazz.” Mickey Katz passed away on April 30, 1985.