Tim Boxer: Neil Sedaka and Connie Francis at Friars Foundation Gala

“I was a little pisherkeh from Brighton Beach and Connie Francis gave me my start,” songwriter Neil Sedaka said.

He told how Connie recorded one of his early songs, “Stupid Cupid,” and turned it into a monster hit of the late ‘50s. “It was my ultimate kvell.”

Sedaka took to the piano and serenaded Connie with a medley of his signature songs, including “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do.”

That got hearty applause from young and old alike among the 700 guests at the Friars Foundation Applause Awards Gala on June 6 at the Waldorf. The foundation is the charitable arm of the Friars Club, aiding performing arts groups and assisting needy artists with a college education.

Jay Black, who fronted the popular Jay and the Americans, said he always enjoyed listening to Connie Francis. He said his favorite was a Jewish song, “Where the Goys Are.” (Cue laughs.)

Freddie Roman, the Friars Club president, presented Connie with an Applause Award. Everyone dutifully rose to applaud. Except for two actors — a senior Italian and an elderly Jew — who portrayed Mafia types in their career: Dominic Chianese, 80, who was Junior on “The Sopranos,” and Abe Vigoda, 90, who was Sal Tessio in “The Godfather.”

Vigoda looked like he died years ago and doesn’t know it. In fact Stewie Stone, the Friars vice president, asked, “Abe, was the ground cold when you got up this morning?”

Freddie, who marveled that “the biggest stars come for our events and nobody gets paid,” presented an Applause Award also to Leonard A. Wilf for his far-reaching philanthropy. In honor of his father Harry, Leonard built Wilf Park in Jerusalem as well as the Children’s Hospital at the Shaare Zedek Medical Center.

“Leonard owns the Minnesota Vikings football club,” Stewie said. “He doesn’t want a plaque — he wants a quarterback!”

At 72, Connie Francis proved she can still hold an audience in thrall. She sang “This Land Is Your land” as well as “Hava Negila.”

She has recorded many Jewish songs in her life, including such favorites as “Oh Mein Papa,” “Mein Shtetele Belz” and “My Yiddishe Momme.”

How did she learn Yiddish?

“I was brought up in Newark,” she told me. “If you weren’t Jewish you needed a password to get in. Also I read Leo Rosten’s book, ‘The Joys of Yiddish.’”

About the Author
Tim Boxer is a former New York Post columnist, and is longtime columnist for the New York Jewish Week. He is also editor of 15MinutesMagazine.com, is the author of Jewish Celebrity Hall of Fame, interviews of Hollywood stars about their Jewish roots.