Actress brings down-home humor to Santa Monica Playhouse benefit

By Bridgette M. Redman

Shelley Fisher’s “The Hebrew Hillbilly – Fifty Shades of Oy Vey!” is a musical one-woman play that chronicles her Hollywood odyssey that begins in her hometown of Memphis, TN.
Photo by Richard Cassel

Shelley Fisher was able to take a childhood insult and turn it into a long-running show that has been delighting audiences in Santa Monica since 2013. This December, she livestreamed it as part of a benefit series for the Santa Monica Playhouse.

“The Hebrew Hillbilly – Fifty Shades of Oy Vey!” will livestream online at 6 p.m. on December 17 with a ticket price of $30 per family viewing. It will remain on the website until January 30. The benefit series features actors who donate their time to participate in shows where all the benefits go to the Santa Monica Playhouse.

When Fisher was in the first grade in Memphis, TN, her teacher called her a “Hebrew Hillbilly,” a moniker she now uses for her one-woman show that tells her life story in a way that captures both the ups and downs of her autobiography while delivering them with humor and 17 original songs.

“I announce (in the show) that I’m a Jew who grew up in Memphis,” Fisher says. “Growing up Jewish in Memphis, you are about as welcome as a third boob in an already too-tight bra.”

She stresses that her story is one of diversity, dreams and determination. It addresses difficult issues such as racism, anti-Semitism and sexism, and finding humor in all those things.

“We’re all much more alike than we are different,” Fisher says. “I never stay down. That’s my secret in this show. I conduct my father’s funeral right there on stage. It’s sad—it’s supposed to be sad—but I move on to something more cheerful. I try to make jokes whenever possible.”

Fisher’s mother was an entertainer who moved down South to marry her father, a Jewish immigrant who became a lawyer and a concert violinist. Her mother, who was cousin to the late jazz singer Al Jolson, had her own radio program in Pittsburgh when she was 15. Fisher says she moved down South in part because of the promise of luxury.

“She heard she’d have a front yacht and a back yacht if she went down South,” Fisher jokes. “We did have a lot of good help. That’s the way it was down South. It was a much easier life if you were white and had any kind of money at all. To this very day this haunts me.”

Fisher was cared for by a Black woman named Ora Mae Jackson, whom she says was a valuable part of her life. She viewed her as a member of the family. When Fisher was five or six, Jackson took her on the bus to go see her father. They got on the bus and Jackson put Fisher in the front seat and told her to stay there while she continued to the back. Fisher didn’t understand at her age what segregation was.

“I thought, she doesn’t love me anymore,” Fisher says. “I ran to the back of the bus. There was nobody (in the front half of the bus) but me and the whole Black section of the bus is full. People didn’t speak to me because they were scared, but I didn’t know that. I pushed my way next to her and she said, ‘You can’t sit here.’”

The bus driver, Fisher recalls, stopped the bus in the middle of the road, and dragged her up front while she was crying the whole time. She had a similar experience in a store where they went to a counter to get something to eat.

“That was a terrible era,” Fisher says. “I never saw anything terrible, but you get to know things as you live and then Martin Luther King’s death was horrible. The cause that he died for…it was so stupid that people resisted going to school with Black people.”

Show lights final candle of Hanukkah

The show will livestream on the final day of Hanukkah. Fisher plans to do a short video at the start of the show at approximately 6 p.m. to light the candles and wish special blessings and miracles to her viewers.

She does point out that while she shares her experiences as a Jew, the show is for everyone and not just other Jews. The show is the Hanukkah version, but it isn’t about Hanukkah.

“It’s about me and my life,” Fisher says. “Many of our Jewish occasions are part of my life and in Memphis, like in many places still today, Hanukkah is not acknowledged. I came into life when it was 100% Christian culture.”

Fisher turns poison into medicine

Fisher first performed the show for the Santa Monica Playhouse in 2013 and has been performing it ever since, taking it around the country. They’ve sold out almost every show, and she’s performed live and on national television on a variety of stations such as Playboy TV and the Jewish Broadcasting System.

This year, of course, has changed things. The shows are no longer live, and in September they recorded a livestream benefit, which they are now redoing for Hanukkah.

“Obviously there’s no audience, however, using my imagination I picture a full house,” Fisher says. “I can go and be anything I want to be in the land of imagination. I feel artists are fortunate. I can turn anything into joy. The Buddhists call it turning poison into medicine.”

It’s what she has done with her childhood. While there were some challenging times in Memphis, the show also recounts her love for it. It was a city of music and it is where she became a singer-songwriter.

“Rehearsing still moves me and brings back my childhood memories, the joys and sorrows,” Fisher says. “I had the opportunity to walk up and down Beale Street, the home of the Blues, as a little girl. Some of the Blues men even invited me to sing with them as they had set up their bands on the street.”

She even had a chance to meet Elvis and sit with him on a plane trip. Those influences are with her today and Blues remain her favorite kind of music.

Entertainment and encouragement goals of the show

“My major goal is to entertain and encourage,” Fisher says. “Encouraging others encourages me as well. These are challenging and difficult times for most people.”

When the show was live, Fisher was able to witness the effect she had on audiences and her success at entertaining and encouraging.

“The beautiful thing about my show is that when people come to see it, they seem to go through a conversion,” Fisher adds. “They leave with a big smile on their face. They’re glowing. They feel encouraged. I have accomplished my goal if I’ve entertained and encouraged you.”

These are also challenging and difficult times for the theater Fisher loves and lives down the street from. She praises the co-artistic directors, Evelyn Rudie and Chris DeCarlo, who have led the Santa Monica Playhouse since 1973, creating more than 600 productions.

“Evelyn and Chris are pretty incredible people who have run the theater by themselves for 50 years,” Fisher says. “It’s an iconic theater that has an old Victorian feeling. Thousands of people have performed there. They’re very sincere. They’re excellent actors and writers. They rent out the theater to make ends meet. They’ve called upon me to do this livestreaming. It helps them put some money in their pockets and gives me an opportunity to keep my craft alive. I know it is easy to lose your discipline and to become distracted. Now I know I have to rehearse.”

Fisher is now directed by her daughter, Melissa Pekin, who majored in theater and has created a children’s show that her mother is also a part of.

“I truly appreciate Evelyn Rudie and Chris DeCarlo and think they’re the best folks in the business,” Fisher says. “They have given me an opportunity to develop and perform my show for the past eight years. I welcome the opportunity to give back!”