Barbra Streisand’s breakout year as a singer came in 1963, when she released her first two albums, won her first two Grammys and began appearing live in some of the most prominent nightclubs in the country. By the following year, she was a showbiz phenomenon, earning further nominations from the Grammys and Tonys after wowing Broadway critics and audiences in her first leading role, as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl. Yet even then, in a Time magazine cover article in 1964, it was noted that “Many people still say Who when they hear her name.” That probably changed once and for all on April 28, 1965, when millions of American television viewers tuned in to a solid primetime hour of the 22-year-old Streisand in her first-ever TV special, the triumphant My Name Is Barbra.
My Name is Barbra was the first special to be shot and aired under a $5 million, 10-year contract signed between Streisand and CBS in June 1964. Quite apart from the money, what made the deal so extraordinary was the creative control it gave to Streisand. She chose to exercise that control by eschewing many of the conventions of the then-popular musical variety show genre. Rather than shooting only in a studio, Streisand and her crew filmed one of their major sequences on location in the fur department of Bergdorf Goodman, where Streisand vamped in exotic fur coats and specially designed hats by Halston to a medley of poverty songs, including “Give Me the Simple Life” and “Brother Can You Spare a Dime.” And rather than filling out the bill with big-name guest stars—a safe strategy for a young and still-rising star—Streisand performed every number alone. “You can imagine how nervous that made the network,” Streisand later remarked, “when they learned that there would be major guest stars, not even any minor ones—just me and a bunch of great songs and some wonderful musicians.”
However nervous they might have been, CBS executives were thrilled with the results. My Name is Barbra was a huge critical and ratings hit on this night in 1965. It won two Emmys and a Peabody Award and helped make Barbra Streisand truly a household name, further ensuring the success of later Streisand CBS specials like Color Me Barbra (1966) and The Belle of 14th Street (1967).