When George and Lynn Pezold attended a party at a late 1880s Victorian home in Halesite, they had no idea of its famous pedigree.
"Funny Girl" Fanny Brice had lived in and left her mark on the property. The legendary comedian and Ziegfeld girl, whose life was chronicled in the 1964 Broadway musical and later movie of the same name, owned the house from 1919 to 1946.
At the time, the Pezolds weren't even that familiar with the woman who made the character "Baby Snooks" famous or who sang such songs as "Second Hand Rose." Brice purchased the house with then-husband Jules "Nicky" Arnstein, using the names Jules and Fannie Arnold.
"He was a charming, lovely crook," says Lynn Pezold, 68, of the man she says eventually tried to sell the house out from under Brice and their two children after the couple divorced.
The Pezolds, who bought the house in 1982, have worked to retain its original charm. This includes the parquet floors, the odd, tiny bathroom under the stairs and the dining room still lit by candles because the space is too expensive to rewire. Alongside the back porch is a towering wisteria that was planted when Brice lived there. And, like Brice, it isn't afraid to push for what it wants.
"We battle it every year," says George Pezold, 75, who adds that, left untrimmed, it crawls its way across to the middle of the porch. "When we moved here, the wisteria had eaten away the northerly end of the porch."
Built in 1883, the house has had five owners before Brice and three after, including the Pezolds.
The men of her life
While they don't have any of Brice's furniture, they do have a love for the performer who was much happier onstage than off. As thrice-married Brice is quoted as saying, "I never liked the men I loved and never loved the men I liked."
Brice's tumultuous life was the subject of "Funny Girl," the musical with Barbra Streisand that opened on Broadway 50 years ago come March. Many know the comedian from the two films also starring Streisand, "Funny Girl" and "Funny Lady." Next year, Manhattan performer Kimberly Faye Greenberg will tour the tri-state area in her one-woman show "Fabulous Fanny: The Songs & Stories of Fanny Brice."
Many of those stories at the Huntington house involved parties, which Brice liked, says John Brice, 63, youngest grandchild of Brice and Arnstein, who knew his grandmother only through the stories of his father, William Brice.
"My dad would tell me stories of her getting home from the theater at 2 or 3 a.m. and calling Barrymore or other people, and at 3 a.m., there would be 10 people in her bedroom laughing and drinking, making up Shakespeare and telling jokes."
John Brice says that, although Fanny Brice died when he was a year old, his father and grandmother had a close relationship and his father shared many stories of life with the comedian.
John Brice, who lives in Los Angeles and is president of the Brice Charitable Foundation and trustee of the family estate, tells of an instance when Brice balked at paying another of Arnstein's bills for the Huntington house.
A big spender
After getting a number of sizable bills, he says, she called to check what was going on. She learned that Arnstein wanted to build a horse barn and line it with cedar (a big expense no matter what century you're in).
"Fanny says, 'I'm not paying to smell horse and cedar together,' " John Brice quotes her as saying. "Nicky's reply: 'If you can't have it good, you shouldn't have it.' "
It seems that Arnstein prevailed. The interior of the barn has cedar wainscoting.
While Brice may not have had a flair for picking men, she did have a sense of personal style that lives on in the Huntington home. In addition to the parquet floors, the home still boasts much of its original crown and other molding, an entry stairway fit for a film star and oversized glass doors that separate the sitting room from the hallway.
"She loved to entertain," says Lynn Pezold, who adds that there are many stories about Brice's time in Huntington, but not all can be substantiated. One that Lynn Pezold says is traceable is a fire in the then-newly erected upstairs during a party. Pezold says the Halesite Fire Department has records showing it came and put the fire out. Fun-loving Brice invited the firefighters to stay around for the rest of the party.
"When we bought it, it was a handyman special," says George Pezold, an attorney. "We had to replace the plumbing and the electrical. But, we wanted to retain the character of a Victorian house."
The couple has filled the house with period family heirlooms, many of which have their own stories. For example, the basket-weave leather chair in the den is from a former neighbor, a countess.
The Pezolds are known to host parties with 100 or more guests. They say they like to think of themselves as holding up Brice's tradition. And, the house was featured on the recent Huntington Historical Society's holiday tour. The Pezolds also have a busy social schedule during the holidays hosting parties, dinners and other get-togethers.
"If Fanny was living here, I think she'd have lots of parties and festivities," Lynn Pezold says with a laugh.