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Martin Scorsese and Chuck Prentiss's Weird and Wonderful Attempts to Resuscicate the Past

12/11/2012 02:48 pm ET | Updated Feb 10, 2013

What artistic endeavors do Martin Scorsese and Chuck Prentiss seem to share?

Transforming the spirit of Eddie Cantor, a star of vaudeville, Broadway, film, radio and records from 1916 to 1960 into living, breathing, singing, hand-clapping, toe-tapping, eye-rolling 2012 flesh.

Scorsese features Stephen DeRosa as Eddie Cantor in a recurring role on his executive produced HBO hit series, Boardwalk Empire, Chuck Prentiss goes one better. As the producer/director/host of Jewish Broadway, a one-man show which extolls the glories of Jewish stars of blessed memory, Chuck shares anecdotes and plays recently unearthed film clips of Eddie's hit TV variety show, including one of an 18-year-old unknown making his show-stopping TV debut. The name of the kid? Joel Grey. Chuck's appreciation of Jewish stars of Broadway Past has transformed him from a retired insurance broker into that raconteur guy, the one standing center stage, enjoying the audience enjoying him both live on stage and his Jewish Broadway five-episodes-so-far series, televised on JLTV, an independent cable channel.

Chuck was a nice Jewish boy, who wanted to be a reporter but went to Yale Law School because his sister insisted he'd make a better living as an attorney than as a newspaperman. He practiced law for seven years, "five as a theatrical lawyer," for a firm that represented Robert Goulet, Victor Borge, Alan Jay Lerner, Richard Rogers, Moss Hart, Kitty Carlisle, until he finally admitted, "Legal gobbledygook just wasn't for me." Chuck drifted into life insurance "at which I was far more successful," and where his pension fund financed a pleasant retirement for him in a Lauderdale-by-the-Sea oceanfront condo in 2002 "where the main activities were beach, pool and golf -- which I didn't do -- and I thought that would be it for me."

One night he gave a talk at his condo -- told stories about and played film clips of the great Jewish performers of Second Avenue, Broadway and Hollywood. All the information he'd gleaned from watching and listening all those years in New York finally found an outlet. His presentation created a buzz, and he began receiving queries about speaking at clubs, condos and cruise ships -- the South Florida Big Three. Then Chabad, an international Hassidic Orthodox Hebrew Organization, invited him to appear at their Yiddish Festival in New York, where a producer liked Jewish Broadway enough to film and televise it on JLTV.

"I've done five of them so far, with more to come I hope. The first two are about the great Jewish performers who starred on Broadway. Part III focuses on great Jewish songwriters -- Berlin, Rogers, Kern, Gershwin, Arlen with a dispensation for Cole Porter "who wedded WASP lyrics to minor key Jewish melodies." As for Part IV, he admits with an impish grin, "It's an exercise in chutzpah. It's called The Ten Greatest Jewish Performers -- Me and Nine Others" -- Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Sophie Tucker, Fanny Brice, Danny Kaye, Mel Brooks, Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler and Menasha Skulnik.

In Part V, Yiddish Broadway, his latest, just filmed in Florida in November, "The challenge was to present a program focused on the Yiddish language, which would entertain that show's mostly Non-Yiddish speaking audience including a group of non-Jewish teenagers currently studying theater in high school. To me, reaching these kids was crucial and I think I did. When the filming ended, the audience was ecstatic. They've already invited me back to do a similar program for the JCC in February as part of the JCC's annual Yiddish Festival."

Chuck is currently enraptured by Menasha Skulnik, a Second Avenue comedy giant who towered over his contemporaries. Skulnik died in 1970 but is survived by recordings and films of his Yiddish comedy routines, which Chuck is translating into English. "I did one of his songs -- "I'm Not in a Hurry. I Got Plenty Time" -- in Yiddish Broadway. One of Menasha's biggest hits was a song called "Sam, You Made the Pants Too Long," actually written by Milton Berle, but Skulnik also wrote a rebuttal about the same events from Sam's point of view:

I'm Sam, the man who made the pants too long.

They murdered my whole business with that song.

Chuck says, "That song was dead and buried. I'm bringing it out of the tomb, translating it into English and performing as closely as I can to Menasha.

As a result of his shows, Chuck has met Al Jolson's daughter-in-law Victoria and Jolson's 28-year-old granddaughter, Kate ne Asa Katherine who were in the audience one night, stood up to be introduced and listened to the audience serenade them with the Jolson hit, You Made Me Love You. Chuck's also made friends with Jay Weintraub, whose father, Eddie White, a Jolson contemporary, was the MC at Steel Pier in Atlantic City who launched the careers of Abbot and Costello.

Chuck's performances have turned into a mission -- to bridge generations by bringing old-time Jewish Broadway to the grandchildren of the people who actually saw these stars in their glory days.

Contact info for Chuck Prentiss: cjprentiss@gmail.com Tel. 954-600-5701