Marc’s journey took him down hard roads and confusing turns. With a mic in one hand and a prop in the other, he draws laughter and meaning from pain.
Marc likes to recount the events that led to his first “real” Shabbos—a comedy of errors and a life-changing discovery.
In his words:
“My mother told me to only marry a Jewish girl. So, I asked my mother, ‘How do I meet a Jewish girl?’
“She said, ‘Go to a shul. You’ll find Jewish girls there.’
“I told her, ‘There’s a shul near my apartment. It’s Orthodox.’
“She said, ‘Be careful.’
“‘I hear the Orthodox have strange customs.’
“I said, ‘What do you mean?’
“‘I don’t know. Just be careful.’”
On a Friday night in 1982, Marc walked into Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan.
“A man looked at me and started tapping the top of his head. I thought that’s how the Orthodox people greet each other, so I tapped the top of my head, too. He showed me a box with yarmulkas and doilies. I was so intimidated, I accidentally put on a doily. Inside the shul, I saw men and women on separate sides. I figured since I was there to meet a Jewish girl, and I was wearing the same head covering as them, I should sit with the women.
“I asked one of the women, ‘Do you come here often?’
“She was in the middle of davening, so she made some kind of sound to shush me away. I’d never seen anyone daven before and had no idea why she didn’t answer me. The other women also made those funny sounds when I talked to them. I thought: No wonder none of the guys are sitting with them. These women have an attitude problem!”
Marc was directed to the beginners’ minyan run by Rabbi Ephraim (Effie) Buchwald. It was in a small classroom upstairs. Rabbi Buchwald was away for the summer; Richard and Gloria Kestenbaum were in charge. They welcomed him warmly, showed him the davening and encouraged him to ask questions at any time. The beginner’s minyan davened very slowly, a lot was in English, and he was able to follow without too much difficulty. Marc says, “On that first Shabbos in the beginners’ minyan, it hit me. This! This is what I’ve been missing. I felt my neshamah.”
After davening, a guy came up to Marc and asked him, “Do you have a place to eat?”
Marc was confused. “Do I look homeless?
“But,” he says, “the man insisted so I agreed. As we walked out into the rain, I opened my umbrella. He yelled, ‘Muktzah, muktzah,’ and I’m thinking, ‘Mugger? Mugger?’”
Marc got his start as a comedian when he was a child growing up in Putnam County, New York. In 1961, his teacher, Mr. Miles, wrote in the comment section of his third grade report card, “Marc gets laughs in the short run by playing up his failures as though he were celebrating…”
Behind the clowning around was a young boy struggling to get by. Marc was short and thin—one of the smallest kids in his public school. When he was a second grader, he was diagnosed with Legg-Calve-Perthes disease, a childhood condition that occurs when blood supply to the ball part of the hip joint is temporarily interrupted and the bone begins to die. This weakened bone gradually breaks apart and can lose its round shape. The body eventually restores blood supply to the ball, and the ball heals. But if the ball is no longer round after it heals, it can cause pain and stiffness. The complete process of bone death, fracture, and renewal can take several years. Marc was on crutches for a year to allow the bone and cartilage to grow back, and he missed many days of school because of his frequent doctor appointments.
And, school was hard. He had difficulty memorizing and keeping up with the lessons. It wasn’t until a few years later, when he was diagnosed with dyslexia and other learning disabilities, that he understood why he’d felt so lost in the classroom. Marc says, “I made jokes in class because I wanted the kids to like me.”
Marc’s parents belonged to a Conservative temple. He says, “Shabbos? Kashrus? I knew nothing about any of that. For us, Judaism was going to shul because our friends went. Then we’d go home and try to be like everyone else.”
His parents sent him to Hebrew school for a few years, where, “I spent more time in the rabbi’s office than he did.”
Marc’s father ran a plumbing supply store. Marc describes him as, “Funny, but more serious than my mother. My father would come home from work exhausted, wanting quiet time, and I’d be goofing around. He’d say, ‘There’s a time to clown around and a time not to clown around.’ But, as he talked, my mother was behind him making funny faces.”
When Marc was in fourth grade, his family took a train trip across the country, to Disneyland. At one of the sideshows, a magician was performing for about 20 people, and he asked for an assistant. Marc was called up. He says, “I knew from that moment that I wanted to perform. I was nine years old. I don’t remember the trick that I helped the magician do, but I will never forget how I felt, up on that stage.”
When Marc was in college, he opened a coffee shop on campus and invited speakers and entertainers to perform in the back room. After two years, he left college and volunteered on a boat, a 106-foot sloop called the Clearwater, which was owned by an environmental activist group. As Clearwater traveled up and down the Hudson River, its staff provided passengers with lectures on ecology and the harmful effects of industry on the river.
Marc started as a weekend cook’s mate, cooking for the 14 crew members who lived on the Clearwater. He says, “When I started, I knew very little about cooking. I opened a can of pineapple, dumped it over chicken, and put it in their wood-burning stove. They liked it and hired me to be their full-time cook.” He spent three years on the boat. He earned his captain’s license, and often entertained the children who came aboard—by juggling their food.
In the winter, the Clearwater docked in Kingston, New York, near an old riverboat that had a theater and a magician. Marc was drawn back to the magic—and the stage. He interned for the magician. He says, “I knew I was born to do this.”
Marc followed his dream to Maine. He took a course at Celebration Mime Theatre, in a barn where students learned juggling. unicycling, mime, and improvisation. What he loved most about clown school was that it was exactly the opposite of a typical school. “Here, the only way you can graduate is if you get kicked out of class for clowning around.”
When he came back to Boston, he paired up with a fellow student from clown school, Sunshine Sean. Marc became Marco the Clown. The two of them developed an act and performed it on the street every weekend in Boston Common. They’d start off standing still, pretending to be statues, wearing black pants, striped shirts, and vests. When people passed, they broke out and followed them, mimicking their movements. They also juggled balls and narrated the politics of the day—in the inflation juggle, they threw the balls extra high; in the stock market juggle, they dropped the balls on the ground; and in the IRS juggle, instead of opening their hands, they grabbed the balls and held onto them. If there was a child on a bike, they’d take the bike, and Marc would sit on the back and pretend to pedal and say, “We’re being followed by the police,” and as the light went off he’d say, “No, we’re not” and as the light went on, he’d say, “Yes, we are,” and they’d keep that up for 20 seconds. Then, they’d pass around the hat. They gathered large crowds every time.
His parents didn’t understand what a street performer did. “They thought I was going around panhandling,” Marc says. In 1978, Marc moved back to New York and performed in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. His act included juggling with a rubber band, a peanut M&M, and a plunger. He also did a shtick piece in imitation of a famous comedian. One day, the famous comedian showed up among the crowd. During the show, he came forward and performed along with Marc. The two of them got thunderous applause. Afterwards, they shared a cab across town and agreed to meet again the next week. When Marc’s parents heard who’d joined him for his routine, they no longer worried about his work as a street performer.
By 1980, Marc’s career was thriving.
Marc is a visual performer. His specialty is puppetry. The learning disabilities that had made school so unpleasant for him turned out to be the catalyst for his unique art. He says, “It’s hard for me to memorize a standup comedy routine. But with props, all I have to remember is what goes with each prop. I can do standup for hours. And the prop always gets a laugh.”
Unlike traditional puppets, where a hand moves the mouth, Marc’s puppets have human heads—usually his. He uses his hands as the hands and feet of the puppets. At some points during his act, he turns away from the audience and talks to the puppet, then turns back to address the audience directly.
Marc and his unusual puppets were an instant hit, and his career took off. He was headlining at comedy clubs and flying all over the country to perform. It was everything he’d dreamed of.
And it wasn’t enough.
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