Barbra’s Beginnings (part two)

(Part One >>)

By Matt Howe /


Dreams of Acting...

Cherry Lane Theater

Even before Barbra Streisand graduated from High School in 1958, she was sneaking off to New York City to study acting. “I was fifteen when I met Anita and Alan Miller—the two people who changed my life,” Barbra said. “I had a job at the Cherry Lane Theater in Greenwich Village moving sets and painting scenery. Anita was featured in the play; her husband, Alan, was an acting teacher.”

Streisand worked out an exchange with the couple. “I baby-sat for the Millers. In return, Alan gave me a scholarship to his school. Thus I spent even more time with them. I'd browse through their library, discovering that the world of literature is larger than Charles Dickens and Edgar Allen Poe — the authors assigned at high school.”

Streisand was young, but determined. “I went to two acting classes but I didn't want one to know about the other, so I had a pseudonym in one of them: 'Angelina Scarangella',” Barbra confessed. “I remember doing relaxation exercises a lot. I remember observing a lot; observing other actors. On the train ride home to Brooklyn I would write letters to Lee Strasberg.”

Lee Strasberg was the head of the venerable Actors Studio.

“The procedure was you had to write a letter and wait about six months to get an interview with [Strasberg],” Streisand explained to Brian Linehan in 1983. “But I was always impatient, I could never wait six months, ya know? So I was reading a book of Tennessee Williams' plays, called up his secretary, put on a Tennessean accent, and started making up this incredible story about my parents were sending me back to Tennessee if I didn't get into Mr. Strasberg's classes, and so forth and so on. And the next day I get an appointment. The secretary fell for my story, and I went to see him. When I got in there, I told him the truth. He said, ‘So you want to study in my classes?’ And I said, ‘Well, that's one thing. I really don't have the money to study in your classes, I have a scholarship at another acting school—a teacher that teaches your method—but I really wanted to meet you, I wanted to talk to you about history, about life, about music, about art.’ And he looked at me like I was nuts. But I really meant it!”

Streisand eventually auditioned for Strasberg with a friend as a partner in a scene. Barbra received a letter from the Actors Studio telling her they liked her work and would she audition on her own. Barbra performed a scene from The Young and Fair*. “I cried all through it. I was only fifteen so they said come back another time. But I never did.”

* The Young and Fair by N. Richard Nash, opened on Broadway in November, 1948. Directed by Harold Clurman and starring a young Julie Harris, it was set in a New England boarding school for girls. The play was about compromising one's principles and featured a subplot of a Jewish girl, who had kept her religion secret, being forced to reveal it.

Sixteen Going on Seventeen...

early headshots

After Barbra graduated from High School, she moved to Manhattan to pursue her dream of becoming an actress.

"I graduated from Erasmus Hall High School in 1958 when I was sixteen," Barbra said. "As soon as I did, I moved into Manhattan to live by myself. I was all set to be an actress. I got a job as a clerk in a business firm and I took dramatics lessons at night so I was often late to work. I used to hum and my boss would say, 'Stop humming around here, what do you think you're in, a show?' Now when I see him, he asks me if I remember when he used to bawl me out for humming."

Streisand also auditioned. "I went up to Rodgers and Hammerstein once to audition for the office manager," she said. "He got a big kick out of me. Whenever I'd come back they'd get someone at the piano, and I'd sing."

Barbra, studying the craft of acting, attended workshops in Manhattan at Herbert Berghof, Eli Rill, and Curt Conway ("acting is reacting").

“I did Medea when I was fifteen in acting class in New York," Streisand said, "and I still think it is my best work. I'll always remember one of her lines: 'I have this hole in the middle of myself.' "

Cis Corman, who remains a close friend of Streisand's today, recalled when she first met Barbra: "I didn't know she could sing for two years. I met her when she was fifteen or sixteen at our acting class at the Curt Conway Studio. She was my maid-in-waiting in a play we did at the studio, Christopher Fry's The Lady's Not for Burning."

Streisand remembered “doing a scene from Christopher Fry’s A Phoenix Too Frequent. I was supposed to be yearning for the leading man but I wasn’t even attracted to him, so I put a piece of chocolate cake off-stage. This is God's honest truth. So, I could look over his shoulder and see the cake and at least I could be attracted to that, you know!”

1960, Age 18 ...

"When I was eighteen I worked as a clerk at the Michael Press printing company," Barbra stated. "I used to rehearse The Rose Tattoo for acting class in between answering the telephone. Every week I took my paycheck home to the apartment I shared with my girlfriend Susan Dwaorkowitz, and I put it in my little set of envelopes. I'd set aside $5 for the phone and $10 for laundry and $20 for food and $25 for rent, and I still had $5 left over for Miscellaneous. Sometimes Miscellaneous went for a taxi, which was a big thrill."

But Barbra was fired from that job, and started collecting unemployment. "To get the money, you had to look for a job," she explained. "I was looking for a job, but as an actress, not a switchboard operator. They checked up and cut off my checks. So there I was, out of money and out of work. And then I entered this talent contest in a bar in Greenwich Village. Not as an actress though. As a singer—even though I'd never had a lesson."

Streisand met Dustin Hoffman around 1960 at Theatre Studios (10th Avenue) in New York, where they both studied.

Photo by Craig Simpson

Bob Schulenberg, a young artist and illustrator, met Streisand in 1960, too. "I turned around," he wrote, "and there was this very exotic looking creature wearing a kind of lurex-y jacket of red and silver metallic threads and huge Elizabethan sleeves that puffed out, and underneath she had on a mulberry velvet short skirt about an inch and a half above the knee (minis didn’t come in to fashion for about another five years). She was carrying shopping bags stuffed with clothing – feathers, a beautiful lavender feather coat."

Streisand resume

Half-way through 1960, Streisand found herself singing on the stage of The Lion. The rest, as they say, is history.

Streisand trying on vintage clothes in New York apartment