Papa Play for Me by Mickey Katz

Autobiographies can be a tricky business. There is the ever present danger, which may be unavoidable, of over-inflating or misrepresenting your deeds. Once this happens it, of course, falls on the shoulders of future biographies to rectify your inflation while providing an explanation for the puff of hot air to begin with. Over all, just one mistake can make an uninformed reader weary of your whole life’s work. Can be a frightening affair. So obviously anyone who holds the precious title of one of America’s most beloved (original) Jewish comedic musicians, the terror is up close and personal.

Interestingly enough, Mickey Katz shows no fear. In fact, he steps on and belittles fear in his high- comically exaggerated- voice; it’s no bagel, of a problem (as he would say). This might have something to do with the oral heritage of the book: the book itself is the written transcript of Katz verbally telling his life story to Hannibal Coons. The reader will be surprised to learn that each and every word on the page, no matter how charming or pre-planned it appears, is actually ad vertibam; no parts have been tampered with from the moment the words left Katz’s mouth to the time they were birthed in ink.

For someone as interesting and lively as Katz this is a tab bewildering. Most of us have trouble recounting our morning breakfast without lasping into “uhh”, “hmm” and “I dunnos.” Yet Mickey, who had endured growing up during the great depression, had sold gum next to mob hideouts, painstakingly learnt how to play the clarinet, and supported the war-effort in World War two, all the while building his musical career against the backdrop of financial struggle and racial baggage, is a stunning ability.

Yet most telling of all is the lack of hugely apparent over exaggerations. To be sure there are moments where he idealizes the situation, leaving himself in a position which, in reality, probably wasn’t exactly like he recounts. But the unique thing about hos this is handled that as opposed to other autobiographies where the inflation leads to a whole new viewpoint of the protagonist/ author, in Papa Play for Me, Mickey Katz speaks of the situation from his own perspective yet is able to refrain from inserting the huge lies which distort the situation beyond recognition. His viewpoint, the reader can tell, is framed within the condition un-besmirched by arrogance: the other viewpoint in the narrative, remains a valid vantage; Katz’s remarks only smooth’s over his own mistakes as opposed to destroying the honesty of everyone else. Considering the frequency this negative tendency rears its ugly head in these memoirs, it is admirable that Katz protects the purity.

So if you are in the market for an autobiography of a great Yiddish-American comedian which explores how ethnic and cultural groups intermingle within early American society, then look no further; your evening has found you. With it being sold cheaply on Amazon there is little reason not to try it out if peoples’ life stories float your boat. While I would not have been likely to read it had it not been assigned in class, I can safely say that there are FAR more boring reads out there then this entertaining gem.


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