Review: From the Bowery to Broadway
Donald Trump and Yiddish Theater? An unlikely duo. But, in 1970, as a wannabe Broadway producer, Trump did back “Paris Is Out!,” a comedy featuring American-born Molly Picon, the iconic actress of the Yiddish stage whose slim, agile physique often resulted in gender-bending, with her playing young boys, though, she always was revealed as a woman and got her man.
While Trump’s Broadway backing was a flop, one of many failed ventures, Picon was very much a star, beloved by Yiddish speaking audiences who first crowded the theaters in the Bowery and later, after moving uptown, theaters in the Jewish Rialto, the Second Avenue Entertainment Center, to see plays that were written here about there. A new exhibit up at the Museum of the City of New York, New York’s Yiddish Theater: From the Bowery to Broadway, guest curated by Edna Nahshon, an author and Professor of Jewish Theatre and Drama at The Jewish Theological Seminary, tells this story in an engaging way, relying on both a chronological and thematic design.
“Yiddish theater is an immigrant theater, where playwrights construct a conversation with their memories,” Nahshon explained as she walked through the show. Beginning in Rumania in 1876 when Abraham Goldfaden wrote a little story to accompany two singers who were performing in a wine garden, the genre became immediately popular. Goldfaden soon started his own successful traveling theater company.
Six years later, the new entertainment form arrived in New York, settling in the Bowery, accompanied by an avalanche of immigrants, many of them talented actors. Both the audience and the actors of Goldfaden’s The Witch, the first Yiddish production in New York (and in America) were recent arrivals from the czarist empire. It was a moment when peoples’ lives were difficult and they craved amusement. There was no radio, or movies until the early 1900’s and certainly no TV. The earliest Yiddish stage productions were designed to play upon people’s emotions; poignant melodramas that tugged at the heart strings.
The appeal was enormous. For 75 cents to $2.00, significant sums in those days, immigrants escaped their work-a-day world in elaborate theaters. Prominent in the exhibit is a photo blowup of the Grand Theater, located at Grand and Chrystie Streets, the first theater built for the Yiddish stage in 1903. “Theater was one of the luxuries of the Lower East Side,” Nahshon said. In the photo the audience is clearly well dressed and, quipped Nahshon, “well fed” but if you scrutinize the side street, it looks more like Jacob Riis’s New York, with garbage strewn everywhere. The building was demolished in 1930. A less “legitimate” companion to the theater and disparaged by the intellectual elite, was Yiddish vaudeville which featured comedy routines, music, skits and dance.
Like Manhattan’s population, the Yiddish Theater followed their audience slightly north. Before WWI, the economic decline of the Bowery and substantial movement of Jews out of the Lower East Side, resulted in the creation of a new Yiddish Theater District on Second Avenue, where four imposing theaters accommodating thousands and costing about $1 million each opened. There was the Second Avenue Theatre which opened in 1911 and lives on today as The Second Avenue Cinema; the National Theatre which opened in 1912; the Yiddish Art Theatre, which opened in 1925, a Star of David above its gold-leaf chandelier; and the Public Theatre in 1927. The Yiddish Art Theatre was home to the highly controversial Oh Calcutta in 1969. During the 1910s and 1920s, a vibrant entertainment district evolved around these theaters with lively cafes and restaurants. The area became known as the “Yiddish Rialto.”
Determined not to be a two-dimensional show, Nahshon and her doctoral graduate assistant Stefanie Halpern canvassed everywhere for the exhibit. “We started the search looking for three dimensional objects which were hard to find,” she said. “We got so excited when we found a pin and a feather from Mae Simon. Simon’s souvenir pin, make-up kit, feathered headpiece, and bright red rhinestone heeled made their way into the show.
This lively and thoughtfully designed exhibit features photos, archival documents, posters, clothing and other memorabilia from the Yiddish Theater’s star actors, with sound and films (both silent and talkies) added in to the mix. Early performers included Jacob P. Adler (founder of the Adler dynasty), matinee idol Boris Thomashefsky (who arrived in America at the age of 15 and who helped launch Goldfaden’s The Witch), comic Zigmund Mogulesco, and Bertha Kalich whose many credits included Hamlet at the Thalia Theatre in 1904 and the Kreutzer Sonata in 1906. The scene was controlled “ferociously,” according to Nahshon, by the Hebrew Actor’s Union, organized in 1900, some 20 years before Actor’s Equity. Their original banner hangs prominently in the show.
Treasures fill every corner of the exhibition space, which Nahshon wishes was just a bit larger. There’s a photo from a Menasha Skulnik performance in 1935, with all of the women wearing masks and dressed in tuxes. Only their high-heels peeking out from beneath their trouser legs reveal the cast’s feminine identity. In the middle of the group portrait, stands the incomparable Skulnik, wearing a top hat. There are several dashing
Molly Picon costumes including one as a young boy with peos from the operetta Yankele, 1924 and a ruffled circus outfit from The Circus Girl, 1928. In its own case, there is an elaborate grey beaded jacket given to Picon by Bessie Thomashevsky who was not only a star but a beauty columnist for a Lower East Side newspaper.
Identified as the piece de resistance in the exhibit by Nahshon is Morris Strassberg’s vitrine with sculpted heads of the characters in Maurice Schwartz’s Yiddish Art Theatre’s production of Yoshe Kalb, 1933. A reproduction of the rabbinical Sanhedrin, each head is carefully delineated – we see their eyes, their noses, their hats and their beards. When Nahshon first saw the piece at YIVO, she thought that it “must be some tribe from Latin America.”
In a separate section dedicated to set designers, the exhibit highlights the work of Boris Aronson, a Russian-born and trained designer. On display is a drawing from his design for the set of The Tenth Commandment (Thou Shalt Not Covet) performed for the Yiddish Theater on 12th Street. The avant-garde production had a house that folded, opening and closing on the stage. Another prominent designer was Heinz A. Condell, a refugee from Nazi Germany, whose production Bronx Express was Nahshon said, “the first or one of the first productions about a subway.” The tale is a simple one: a button maker falls asleep on the train and all of the advertising characters come alive. When he wakes up, like many of the Jewish immigrants, he is in the Bronx.
The exhibit works its way forward in time to political theater of the 1930s with Jacob Ben Ami starring in a play on the Warsaw Ghetto Revolt, that was stunning in its accuracy, and to Artef, Communist- affiliated theater, noted for its artistic qualities which ended in 1939-40 with the Soviet Union’s signing of the non-aggression pact with Hitler.
There’s a section devoted to Yiddish Theater in the Catskills and the whole phenomenon of Yinglish. “It was a safe space—kosher and a mishmash of English and Yiddish, just right for the second and third generation of Jews in America,” Nahshon said. Borscht Belt comedians like Jerry Lewis, Red Buttons, Danny Kaye, Sid Caesar, and Jackie Mason played the big hotels like Grossinger’s, the Concord, and the Nevele and minor tummlers, with their repertoire of Yiddish and Jewish jokes, appeared at smaller hotels and bungalow colonies.
While the popularity of the Catskills began to fade in the 1960s along with the Yiddish theater, the year 1964 was a major one for Yiddish theater-based musicals on Broadway, with the opening of Funny Girl, followed a few months later by Fiddler on the Roof. Both are given prominent space in the show. There’s an Al Hirschfeld caricature of Fanny Brice, the Jewish vaudevillian and star of the Ziegfeld Follies with the woman who played her in Funny Girl, Barbara Streisand, both with prominent noses. There’s Zero Mostel’s original costume from Fiddler—twill trousers, a jacket with tallis tassels, and a cotton-striped shirt. Based on Sholem Aleichem’s “Teyve” stories which were published in the 1890s, the musical had a set designed by Aronson (with a model of the house in the show) and Jerome Robbins was its director and choreographer. Both shows broke records and ran for over three years. The current revival of Fiddler on Broadway coincides with the MCNY show.
Near the end of the exhibit, there’s a movie screen with rotating excerpts from films. On view, the classic Yiddish film “The Dybbuk,” (1937) one of hundreds of Yiddish silent and talking films. The exhibit highlights a long list of actors who made successful cross-overs to Broadway: Joseph Buloff, Sophie Tucker, Jules Garfield, and George Jessel who, alas, played the original jazz singer on Broadway but did not get the part in the film.
There are several references to the legacies left by the Yiddish theatre although they are not featured in the exhibit. The National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene is not included. Why? Because Nahshon said it was formed as an amateur theater although after the war it became a preserver of Yiddish culture. Missing, too, is footage from Tony Kushner’s A Dybbuk, or Between Two Worlds (1997) and Paula Vogel’s Indecent (2015), works that draw deeply on the tradition of Yiddish Theater.
The MCNY’s New York Yiddish Theater from the Bowery to Broadway is a fine exhibit (which, alas is not traveling), but to this critic, it stopped just a little too soon.
Companion to Exhibit: New York’s Yiddish Theater: From the Bowery to Broadway, edited by Edna Nahshon, Columbia University Press, 2016.
Roslyn Bernstein is a journalist and critic based in New York. Her arts journalism has appeared in Guernica, Huffington Post, and Tablet. She is the author of Boardwalk Stories and Illegal Living: 80 Wooster Street and the Evolution of SoHo. She is currently working on a new novel, set in Jerusalem in 1961 during the Adolf Eichmann trial.