Marilyn Michaels is best known for being something — or make that somebody — she isn’t. As a singer and mimic, she’s known for spot-on impressions of Dinah Shore, Diana Ross, Judy Garland, Ethel Merman, Connie Francis, Eartha Kitt, and, perhaps most famously, Barbra Streisand.
But Michaels is also an award-winning entertainer whose own voice has a personality all its own. A quick check of YouTube turns up videos of her appearances alongside hosts as diverse as Ed Sullivan and Howard Stern, not to mention on TV shows like The Kopykats, The Love Boat, Regis and Kathie Lee, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, and Hollywood Squares.
But in the privacy of her apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, she considers herself a painter.
“Much of my work is influenced by impressionistic and expressionistic painting. I worship Monet and I worship the impressionists and post-impressionists, but I also worship the Dutch school and Rembrandt,” she told NJ Jewish News in an April 7 phone interview.
A portion of that work will be on display in “Marilyn Michaels: Paintings and Memories,” a multimedia exhibit at the Jewish Heritage Museum of Monmouth County.
The artist herself will mingle and meet with guests at a gala reception opening the exhibit on Saturday evening, May 7, at the museum in Freehold, where Michaels owns a home with her husband, lifelong town resident Steven Portnoff.
Among the works on exhibit will be some of Michaels’ celebrity portraits, including a debut.
“I was completely fascinated all of my life with Elizabeth Taylor,” Michaels said of the Hollywood icon who died March 23. “Her looks. The way those features were planted on that face. What was she fed that we weren’t fed? For the past week I have been doing an Elizabeth Taylor for this event. This is so major.”
Also on display will be other oil paintings, watercolors, pastels, and sketches, from still-life to abstract art, as well as memorabilia from her life in show biz and her highly musical Jewish family.
Her uncle was famed Cantor Moishe Oysher, who doubled as a leading actor in Yiddish theater.
Michaels grew up on the Lower East Side and began drawing at the age of eight. A year earlier she began singing on stage at the Yiddish theater at the side of her mother, Fraydele Oysher. In her 2004 obituary, The New York Times remembered her as “one of the first women to sing cantorial music onstage.”
“She didn’t officiate in a synagogue because she was a woman,” said Michaels. “They wouldn’t let her do it. But she was a pioneer because she did it on stage.”
Together, mother and daughter performed in Yiddish “on holidays, including Pesach, Easter, Christmas, and Hanukka. We would be let out of school, so my mother would take me to perform. They wanted me to have a normal childhood — but I’m still not normal.”
At 15 Michaels soloed in a choir led by her father, Harold Sternberg, who was also trained as a cantor. He sang bass and performed at the Metropolitan Opera and appeared in three Broadway shows composed by George Gershwin.
Despite the rich Jewish heritage on both sides of her family, Michaels said, “we weren’t religious. Here’s why: We were in show business, and in show business, when do you make your money? On Shabbos. That Saturday matinee is packed.
“But Mama kept a kosher house. She would argue with the butcher that the lamb chops were no good and he would say, ‘What can I do, lady? Creep into the meat?’”
Logically enough, Michaels attended the High School of Music and Art in New York, starting out in its music department. “But in my sophomore year we had to do math with musical theory,” she said. So she combined her lack of mathematical skills with a portfolio she had drawn of Disney cartoon characters and convinced her teachers to let her become an art major.
Ask her if there is a Jewish influence on her work, and Michaels has an unexpected answer. “Jazz. The blacks and the Jews have got to be cousins,” she said. “That is a strong influence on me. The whole jazz thing. Harold Arlen and George Gershwin and all the other Jewish guys wrote most of the stuff I perform.”
Apart from Frank Sinatra, the singers who have inspired her — Sarah Vaughn and Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday — are African-American.
Michaels has a jazz-inflected CD now in development called Let There Be Night. Her latest release, Wonderful at Last, includes four tunes she wrote with her son, pianist and composer Mark Wilk, who will perform at the opening reception at the museum.
Michaels insists there is no competition between her painting and her performing. “Art is something you do by yourself. It is something you do alone. It is you and the canvas. You go into a zone.
“But when you are a performer you can’t do it without your audience.”