As the curtain closed on 96-year-old Esther Lapiduss’ final act, Pittsburgh’s “queen of comedy” delivered a final punchline.
While in and out of consciousness on her southern Californian deathbed, Lapiduss was asked, “Are you comfortable?”
“I make a nice living,” Lapiduss replied.
After nearly a century of jokes, songs, tales and other tools for bringing laughter, Esther (née Schwartz) Lapiduss died on Nov. 22 in Encino, Calif.
It might have been the first time that the lights went out on the Donora native.
“She was a very big spirit,” Maxine Lapiduss said about her mother. “I think she was born with an enormous amount of light.”
Such radiance contrasted Esther’s early settings.
“She was a child of the Depression, and at that time there was not much to smile about. The family was struggling financially and lived in a series of small apartments and couldn’t pay the rent,” explained Maxine.
Esther’s father, Saul Schwartz, was a tailor who dreamed of becoming a rabbi, but the family “didn’t have the money, and he had to make a living,” said Maxine. So in the 1930s and 1940s, Schwartz worked for several local theaters making and mending their curtains and drapes.
Often, Schwartz brought Esther, the youngest of his and wife Gertrude’s four children, to the Nixon Theater on Sixth Avenue in downtown Pittsburgh.
There, within the French Beaux-Arts building built in 1903, Esther helped her father take the drapes up and down. This practice at the Nixon and other theaters allowed Esther to observe countless performances of vaudeville and burlesque, while gaining a more liberal education than the one received in her Orthodox Jewish home, said Maxine.
Though she attended the theater multiple nights a week between the ages of 10 and 13, it would take another decade for her turn in the spotlight.
After attending classes at the University of Pittsburgh and graduating from beauty school, Esther took a job at the cosmetics counter at Kaufmann’s Department Store. She started entertaining at local venues like the Pittsburgh Playhouse and Kramer’s Nightclub, but “the real turning point in her life came when she got a gig in her late 20s” to be the social director at the Concord Hotel in the Catskills. “All the performers would go there, it was a real social place,” said Maxine.
At the Concord, “she really got the bug to entertain and got the chance to meet all these great people who encouraged her,” said Maxine. And “my father kept coming up to chase after her.”
Eventually, Esther returned to Pittsburgh to marry Saul Lapiduss, and the pair opened Forbes Travel Service in Squirrel Hill.
In Pittsburgh, Esther managed “to make the best of both worlds” as a wife and mother and as an entertainer. Those worlds meshed most amusingly with “Saul Doll.”
In a recorded bit looking back on her life, Esther remarked that as a 5-foot, 10-inch girl she always hoped to “one day marry a tall handsome man. And I met Saul … but he wasn’t quite as tall as I am, but he wore heels, and sometimes he stood on a box, and it was lovely, our marriage, 61 years.”
“Saul Doll was the butt of Esther’s jokes and how he wasn’t romantic,” explained Maxine.
Such was evidenced by a song Esther sang about an aging couple, “Goodnight sweetheart, goodnight. Take some pills now, wait now they’re dissolving. Goodnight sweetheart, my estrogen’s revolving. Love is creeping. What the hell, he’s sleeping. Well with a little luck, next week, next year, goodnight sweetheart, goodnight!”
Over the years, Esther appeared at the Pittsburgh Playhouse, the Civic Light Opera and other venues. She opened for Phyllis Diller, Joan Rivers, Henny Youngman and Vic Damone. Together with Bob McCully and Joe Negri, Esther formed the Ecumenical Trio.
“It was an education being her daughter. … As Max said, there were always rehearsals that we tagged along to,” noted Sally Lapiduss.
In the 1970s, Esther became the entertainment reporter at WIIC-TV (what is now WPXI) where she interviewed incoming shows and acts.
Through her media exposure, as well as countless performances throughout the city, Esther became known by many as Pittsburgh’s “queen of comedy.”
“I couldn’t walk up a street” without someone recognizing her. “Even in Beverly Hills I was walking up Rodeo Drive” and someone from Squirrel Hill recognized her, said Maxine.
“She was all about Squirrel Hill and Pittsburgh,” added Sally. “It was very important to her … the feeling of the city and being a representative of the city.”
Of particular pride was her affiliation with Taylor Allderdice High School. Although Esther was voted a distinguished alumna in 2010, her best remarks about the school may have been in song: “I had a wonderful time at my high school reunion, a wonderful time I’ll admit. All of my friends have grown so much older, but me I haven’t changed a bit.”
Esther Lapiduss is survived by her two daughters, Sally Lapiduss (Francesca Bartoccini) and Maxine Lapiduss (Hillary Carlip). Donations can be made to the Saul H. and Esther Lapiduss Arts Education Fund at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, 5738 Forbes Ave., Pittsburgh, PA 15217.
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.