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September 6: The Jewish Barnum

September 6, 2013
1101470602_400Showman Billy Rose, a nightclub owner who created the Aquacade at the 1939 World’s Fair and may well have been a secret sponsor of gun-running that helped arm the fledgling state of Israel, was born in New York on this date in 1899. Rose had a wild career, first becoming famous as America’s fastest stenographer, then as a songwriter-lyricist (his songs included “Me and My Shadow”, “It’s Only a Paper Moon”, and “It Happened in Monterey”). In 1934, he opened the Billy Rose Music Hall at 52nd and Broadway in New York with the first Benny Goodman Orchestra; in 1938, he created, Billy Rose’s Diamond Horseshoe in Times Square; in 1949 he took over the Ziegfeld Theater. He married Fanny Brice in 1929, swimming star Esther Holm in 1938, and two other women in the 1950s and ’60s. Rose was the producer of Carmen Jones, an adaptation of Bizet’s opera that broke ground on Broadway by featuring an all-black cast and, in film version. He was active with Peter Bergson’s Committee for a Jewish Army of Stateless and Palestinian Jews in attempts to rescue Jews from Nazism, and was producer of the Committee’s pageant, “We Will Never Die,” at Madison Square Garden in 1943. Rose also founded the Billy Rose Sculpture Garden in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem in 1960. To see a minute of footage from the Aquacade, look below. “Billy knew New York mobsters from his Prohibition days and as his customers at the Diamond Horseshoe. . . . More important, Billy had the money to pay . . . with the Italian Mafia’s help, [for] . . . guns and boats with which the Irgun could smuggle weapons and Jews from Europe to Palestine.”—Isidore Century