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The Eulogizer: Nixon impersonator David Frye, Snapfish founder-philanthropist

JERUSALEM (JTA) — The Eulogizer is a new column (soon-to-be blog) that highlights the life accomplishments of famous and not-so-famous Jews who have passed away recently. Learn about their achievements, honor their memories and celebrate Jewish lives well lived with The Eulogizer. Write to the Eulogizer at eulogizer@jta.org. Read previous columns here.

David Frye, comedic impersonator

David Frye, a rubber-faced comedian who made political impersonations — particularly of Richard Nixon — the cornerstone of his career, died Jan. 24 at 77 in Las Vegas, where he lived.

Frye began his comedic career in New York City clubs, but hit on political impressions as his path to stardom when a talent scout saw him doing an impression of Robert F. Kennedy in 1965. That led to a television appearance and the addition of numerous political and media figures of the day into his act, including then-President Lyndon B. Johnson, Vice President Hubert Humphrey and others.

Frye hit his stride with Nixon, whose exaggerated mannerisms and publicly expressed anxiety were perfect fodder for the comedian.

“Shoulders hunched, his deep-set eyes glowering, Mr. Frye captured the insecure, neurotic Nixon to perfection,” The New York Times wrote. Frye’s appropriation of Nixon’s infamous line “I am the president,” said the review, “seemed to get at the essence of a powerful politician in desperate need of validation.”

Frye told an interviewer once that he captured Nixon “not by copying his real actions but by feeling his attitude, which is that he cannot believe that he really is president.” Frye’s first album featuring his Nixon impersonation, “I Am The President,” reached No. 19 on the Billboard charts in 1970.

Frye’s list of impressions encompassed the traditional roster of actors with distinctive voices and styles, such as James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart, but what distinguished him were his impersonations of the many political and media figures of the last-third of the 20th century, including every president from Nixon through Reagan, as well as Bill Clinton, and presidential wannabes including George Wallace, Bob Dole, Al Gore, Ted Kennedy, George McGovern, Ross Perot and Nelson Rockefeller.

Media figures skewered by Frye included Howard Cosell, Walter Cronkite, Peter Jennings, David Brinkley, Tom Brokaw, William F. Buckley Jr., Dan Rather and Brooklyn landesman Larry King. Less well known is that Frye seemed to have a sidelight in satirizing public religious figures, including Pat Robertson, Jimmy Swaggart, Billy Graham and Jesse Jackson.

Frye, born David Shapiro, graduated from Brooklyn’s Madison High School, which counts a Nobel Prize winner, U.S. senators and a Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, among its alumni. His father ran an office-cleaning business.

Frye’s career faltered after Nixon left office, but he continued performing and recording through the 1990s. A collection of Frye’s performances can be found on his YouTube channel.

Melvin S. Cohen, Snapfish founder and philanthropist

Melvin S. Cohen of Chevy Chase, Md., a successful businessman and active philanthropist in the Washington, D.C., area who kept many of his charitable activities quiet, died Jan. 19 at 87.

Cohen was the founder of District Photo, the world’s largest photo mail-order business, and parlayed that into the online photo processing site Snapfish. He also was a friend and sometimes business partner of the legendary D.C.-area entrepreneur Abe Pollin, and the two worked together in philanthropy even more than in business.

Their best-known project began in 1988, when Cohen and Pollin went to Seat Pleasant Elementary School in suburban Maryland and told the entire fifth grade that they would pay for their college educations if they stayed in school. Of the 59 students in the class, 49 graduated, 39 went to trade school or college and, by 2007, 17 had received at least one college degree, according to the Washington City Paper.

On his own, Cohen also supported a group home for disabled Jewish adults, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and other organizations. In 1980, Cohen and his wife, Ryna, established a scholarship fund at the University of Maryland to provide assistance to students enrolled in the university’s Jewish studies program to help them pay for travel and study in Israel.

Ted Leonsis, a one-time senior executive at AOL and an investor in Washington-area sports teams, described Cohen as “a stalwart leader in the business and Jewish communities.”

 

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