Sali Neff, 96, of Philadelphia, a spirited actress, lifelong artist, comedian, gemologist, and tireless businesswoman, died Sunday, October 2, of heart failure at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital.
Witty, charming, talented, and hard-working throughout her life, Ms. Neff was a born artist and businesswoman. She appeared with actor Donald O’Connor in a USO show during World War II, she performed with actress Martha Raye in The solid gold Cadillac at Miami’s Coconut Grove Playhouse in 1964 and landed small supporting roles in several films, including 1967’s depraved worldalongside burlesque star Tempest Storm.
“She could captivate a room full of people,” her family said in a tribute. She “she was energetic, elegant and glamorous but also very practical. She was a woman who made herself and was ahead of her time.”
An engaging storyteller, people gravitated toward her, often turning routine events into memorable experiences. “She won fans everywhere she went,” her granddaughter Rachel Heller said.
An energetic businesswoman, Mrs. Neff operated a sandwich shop in Vineland, a shoe store in Levittown, a greeting card shop in Upper Darby, a thrift store in Ardmore, and an antique shop on City Avenue. She also taught dance at the Arthur Murray Studios, worked as a “mom bunny” at the Miami Playboy Club in the 1960s, and was certified by the Gemological Institute of America.
As an artist, he drew and sold cartoons on the Atlantic City boardwalk as a teenager, worked as an engineering draftsman during and after World War II, and painted constantly. His painting, “Door in Malta,” was featured in a 2016 calendar and exhibition at the watermark at the Logan Square retirement community.
Impressed with Mrs. Neff’s comedic abilities during their time together on stage in the 1960s, Raye, a popular comedienne from the 1940s to the 1980s, encouraged Mrs. Neff to pursue her own career as comedian. “I thought why not give it a try,” Mrs. Neff told the Trenton Times in a 1964 profile.
She then met Sol Weinstein, a Trenton comedian, novelist, radio host, and comedy writer, and he helped her develop routines that she perfected in the 1960s at nightclubs in New York and elsewhere. Her act featured a satirical take on life, love, families and other universal themes, and Weinstein told the Trenton Times, “There is no female comedian who works in this vein. She will be the first.
Born August 8, 1926, in Atlantic City, Selma Green graduated from Atlantic City High School and, with an interest in engineering, attended classes at Drexel and Rutgers universities. But a career in engineering was not going to be.
“I didn’t do engineering, but I did learn to play a good game of pool” at Drexel, he told the Trenton Times. He married Lennie Heller in the late 1940s, they lived in Levittown and had sons Steve, Michael and Andrew.
He refined his acting skills on stage in Lower Bucks County with the Levittown Players and other groups in the 1950s, telling the Trenton Times after he began doing comedy in the 1960s: “I feel like a little guilt when I have to go to New York. York for a couple of days and leave my family.”
After a divorce, she left the comedy circuit, met Philadelphia jeweler Louis Neff through his antique business, and they married in 1980. She became a gemologist, worked alongside her husband, and traveled the world on business and pleasure. Her husband and her ex-husband died before.
An avid reader, Ms. Neff taught herself French and became an expert on Asian antiques and vintage jewelry. She supported local artists, various causes in Israel, and shelters for victims of domestic violence. She especially liked to visit the casinos in Atlantic City.
In addition to Philadelphia, Miami, and Levittown, he lived in Vineland, Bala Cynwyd, and Elkins Park. He founded and led the Yiddish Club in Watermark and captivated others with his creativity, humor and energy.
“She was happiest in a crowd,” her family said. “The more, the better.”
Her son Andrew said: “She was a good mother.”
In addition to her children and granddaughter, Ms. Neff is survived by a grandson and other relatives. A sister and a brother died before.
The services were private.