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Rumshinsky and Louis Gilrod’s lighthearted satire on socialist fantasies and big-city corruption, Fifty-fifty, was sung in the 1917 four-act musical comedy Op-to’un un da’un-to’un (Uptown-Downtown). The libretto to Zishe Kornblith’s book was adapted by Boris Thomashefsky, in whose downtown National Theater the production was staged, who also starred in the show as Khayim Yosi Plotkin, a frequently unemployed and struggling cabinetmaker who becomes wealthy overnight in New York.
Plotkin invents some sort of “combination bed,” for which he gains a patent. His daughters Stella and Tillie believe in his expectation that the patent will make him rich, but his wife, Keyle Bela, dismisses his optimism as daydreaming. Tillie, the older daughter, is being courted by Bernard, a medical student, which pleases Plotkin. Khayim’s brother Abie [Avrohom], however, is a fruit peddler with no prospects of betterment.
By the second act, the Plotkin family is exceedingly wealthy, and Khayim Yosi Plotkin is now Gustav Plato, a banker and businessman. Tillie and Bernard are married, and the “Platos” have moved uptown to a mansion, where their pretentious household now includes a full-time maidservant, Mary, and Yukit, a supposedly Japanese male servant who functions as a butler—or “houseboy.” “Butlers” were English—so very very English! The “Oriental houseboy” cliché in fact was a borrowed image that continued for decades in both literary plays and Hollywood, as well as on television. Yukit’s character portrayal made for some moments of hilarious but, at the time, perfectly acceptable exaggerated ethnic mimicry and affectation. None of the stylized mimicry and manufactured stereotyping seemed to offend anyone in those days. Everybody made fun of everybody—including themselves—in skits, routines, sketches, and revues.
Meanwhile, Stella is engaged to marry a putative Baron Geoffrey West of London, who claims that his grandmother and Queen Victoria once looked through a maḥzor (prayerbook) together. When Abie, who is still a peddler, comes to visit, the family is uneasy at being reminded of its former downtown circumstances. He and his brother Khayim Yosi (a.k.a. Gustav) debate the ease with which any poor Jew can, through his wits and work alone, prosper in America. From Khayim Yosi the audience hears the familiar but tired and newly acquired arrogance of the “if I can make it on my own, so can you” mantra. But it turns out that Abie has come to think of himself as a bit of a Socialist, having been seduced by the rhetoric and labor-orientated aspirations in the air of that day, which he only half-seriously expresses in the rollicking couplet song Fifty-fifty. The song is a spoof on contemporaneous Socialist musings, even on Yiddish songs current among workers’ movements—some of which had also surrounded the 1905 revolution in Russia (“There’ll be no more bosses … an end to rich and poor”). It mocks some of the attendant naïveté of Socialist propaganda, without dismissing the injustices, conditions, and plights of struggling immigrants, with which many in Second Avenue audiences could still—and did—empathize.
Pleased with the prospect of an aristocratic son-in-law, Khayim Yosi is about to lend the “Baron” a substantial sum when Yukit recognizes him as an imposter—a poor Jewish waiter with whom he once had an encounter. Then comes an equally startling “revelation”: Yukit is not Yukit, but a disguised Jew, and a litvak (Lithuanian Jew) at that, which itself represented an internal stereotyping for comic purposes.
That night, in his anguish, Khayim Yosi has a nightmare, dreaming that one of his companies is threatened by labor unrest and an imminent strike. He awakens a transformed and enlightened man, vowing to move back downtown and become a philanthropist for the benefit of Jews in his former milieu. He will establish and fund a landsmen synagogue (for Jews from his hometown in Europe), and Yukit will be the shames (beadle).
In yet a further twist in the plot, Khayim Yosi learns that his dream was not totally fictitious: his brother Abie is in fact the leader of an actual labor strike at his business concern. True to his new attitude, Khayim Yosi gives in to the strikers’ demands, on condition that the Jewish workers commit themselves to joining and praying at the new synagogue he intends to found. He even accepts the fraudulent “Baron” as a son-in-law. It develops that Stella knew “Geoffrey’s” true identity all along but felt it necessary to impress her “uptown” family. In the end, the entire family realizes that it is more comfortable living “as themselves” without pretensions, in their old neighborhood.
As a comedy, Uptown-Downtown suggests a Jewish version of Horatio Alger in its familiar Second Avenue mold of a poor Lower East Side immigrant becoming rich in the “land of opportunity” and then aspiring to a life in high society. But the boilerplate this time actually bears a social message, consistent with historical Jewish values. For the ultimate happiness of this “happy ending” resides in finding one’s purpose in helping others, apart from the usual material jackpots and felicitous outcomes of romantic pursuits. Whether, as a review in the Morgn Journal questioned, that subject was beyond the reach of “all who had a hand in the piece,” is another matter.
Fifty-fifty lived on far past the life of the stage production. It became a frequently performed number by female as well as male entertainers in the context of vaudeville routines, music hall revues, and the like. It is in that guise that the song achieved its greatest popularity, and in which it has therefore been recorded for the Milken Archive.