On radio stations that carried Yiddish-language broadcasts in the 1930s and ’40s, an inordinate amount of airtime was devoted to advertising. At the height of its popularity WEVD landed accounts from brand-name sponsors like Manischewitz, Hebrew National, and Campbell’s Soup. But smaller stations like Brooklyn’s WLTH and WBBC were perpetually having to go into the community to rustle up business from mom-and-pop stores on the Lower East Side and along Pitkin Avenue in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn.
Much to their listeners’ dismay, these stations often filled as much as 50 percent of the broadcast day with pitches. Often inspired, occasionally insipid, commercials from neighborhood stores were the lifeblood of Yiddish radio.
To the ethnographer, these shards provide a vivid snapshot of what ordinary people wore, ate, drank, and cleaned their houses with. For the rest of us, they’re simply some of the most memorable ads ever created — from the Joe and Paul clothiers jingle to the language-murdering ad copy of Mitchell Levitsky, WEVD’s advertising king.
Chunky Chocolate, which was located on Ridge Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, was among Yiddish radio’s most loyal sponsors.
Mitchell Levitsky, WEVD’s advertising king, working the phones, c1940. His accounts included Chunky Chocolate, Portnoy’s Trusses, and Mrs. Weinberg’s Kosher Chopped Liver.
Mitchell Levitsky: The Advertising King
Few figures from the golden age of Yiddish radio are more widely if anonymously recalled than Mitchell Levitsky. He began his radio career in 1927, at age 18, as a Yiddish announcer for New York’s WFAB. But by the time he arrived at WEVD in 1943, he had discovered his true calling: selling radio ads.
As the patriarch of advertising sales reps, Levitsky proved an unstoppable force on the streets of the Lower East Side, tossing shop after shop into his game sack. Dick Sugar, the veteran WEVD announcer, recalls that shop owners along Second Avenue would push Levitsky out the front door only to turn around and see him coming through the back. Yet one way or another, Levitsky always got his man. Portnoy’s Trusses, Mrs. Weinberg’s Frozen Kosher Chopped Liver, Meyer Mehadrin Kosher Herring Products — one and all fell before Levitsky’s relentless onslaught.
Shopkeeper’s buying ads from Levitsky hired not just WEVD airtime but the on-air talents of the advertising king, whose delivery was legendary among Jewish New Yorkers. When Levitsky spoke English it sounded like Yiddish was his first language, and when he spoke Yiddish you would swear he was born here. He wended his way through ad copy as though navigating a minefield, stopping to rest on “ums” and “ahs” and regrouping during significant pauses that lapsed into dead air. Yet despite such caution, WEVD listeners heard pitches for bedroom “suits” and hotel rooms with “wall-to-wall telephones in every room.”
Levitsky wooed advertisers by impressing upon them that one little commercial would make them big-time theatrical producers. Each pint-size patron of the arts also got an annual cruise of the East River complete with an open bar and celebrity shipmates like Jewish boxing great Benny Leonard. By the by, Levitsky would corner his guests to discuss a renewal of their contract.
In addition to hawking ads, Levitsky hosted knockoff shows like the advice program Jewish Court of Human Relations and a Sunday morning children’s hour. He was the announcer for The Chunky Program, featuring the Joseph Rumshinsky Orchestra. And he was the host of the long-running Oddities in the News, on which he read offbeat items gleaned from the week’s papers. Listeners to these programs recall no dearth of commercial messages.
Mitchell Levitsky, 1933.
Levitsky organized an annual East River cruise for his customers. Celebrities like Jewish boxing great Benny Leonard (center) were featured guests.
Revelers aboard Levitsky’s East River cruise enjoy a semi-private moment.
Levitsky (right) occasionally read ad copy on Rabbi Rubin’s (left) on-air court.
Inspired by Rabbi Rubin’s example, Levitsky created his own mediation program, which he called The Jewish Court of Human Relations.
“Joe and Paul”
Paul Kofsky opened his first clothing store in Brooklyn in 1912. He called it Joe and Paul – inventing an imaginary cohort, Joe, because he thought people would trust him more if they thought he had a partner. By the early ’30s, Kofsky, a dapper man with a penchant for paper neckties, held sway over a successful chain, with new locations in Manhattan and the Bronx. Sartorial success aside, Kofsky had a greater ambition: to rub shoulders with the Yiddish stars of the day.
He made his dream come true in 1936 by walking into WLTH’s studio and hiring the station’s musical director, Yiddish theater composer Sholom Secunda, to write a song advertising his store. As for the singing, Kofsky would handle that himself.
For the next decade, Kofsky spent most of his days shuttling between stations to perform his jingle live on the air and to talk theater shop with his fellow performers. The ad became more than ubiquitous; to many listeners, “Joe and Paul” was Yiddish radio.
So it happened that a young comedian named Aaron Chwatt (who later became Red Buttons) used “Joe and Paul” as the basis for an extended Borscht Belt parody of Yiddish radio. His routine centered on the fictitious station WBVD, whose programming consisted of commercials interrupted by more commercials, each sillier than the last. For listeners of Yiddish radio, the send-up hit home.
Called to service in World War Two, Red Buttons left the hugely successful skit in the Catskills, where the Barton Brothers comedy team picked it up from hotel staff who had learned it by heart. The Bartons recorded the bit in 1947 for the fledgling Apollo label and soon found themselves proud progenitors of the biggest Yiddish party record ever. According to Eddie Barton, three-quarters of a million records were sold in a span of a few months. The song was so popular it spawned a Latin cover arranged by Tito Puente.
Ironically, most people who bought the Barton Brothers’ 78 rpm never heard the original “Joe and Paul” jingle, which had always been confined to the range of New York City radio waves. Kofsky, it can be assumed, did not mind the additional exposure.
Joe and Paul clothiers was famous for its radio jingle, which was composed by Sholom Secunda, of “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen” fame. The jingle was usually sung on-air by Joe Kofsky, the store’s owner, himself.
Joe and Paul’s Brooklyn store was located at 1586 Pitkin Avenue in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn.
Joe and Paul’s Manhattan store was located at the corner of Stanton and Delancey.
Red Buttons created a hit Borsht Belt parody of Yiddish radio based on the Joe and Paul jingle.
The Barton Brothers inherited Red Button’s “Joe and Paul” routine and turned into one of the best selling Jewish albums of all time.
“Joe and Paul” was such a hit that Tito Puente orchestrated a Latin style take-off of it for the Pupi Campo orchestra.
This photo of Eddie Barton was taken in Miami Beach, Florida, in April 2000. (The Yiddish Radio Project has since been unable to locate Eddie. If you know of his whereabouts, please e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org).
Miriam Kressyn, WEVD, circa 1950.
WEVD, circa 1950.
WEVD, circa 1940.
WLTH, circa 1942.
This documentary comes from Sound Portraits Productions, a mission-driven independent production company that was created by Dave Isay in 1994. Sound Portraits was the predecessor to StoryCorps and was dedicated to telling stories that brought neglected American voices to a national audience.