101 > THE YIDDISH
PLAYS > THE PLAY IN HISTORY > THE ROLLAND THEATRE
William Rolland and his Million-Dollar Theatre
(later called the Parkway Theatre)
1768 St. Johns Place, Brooklyn, New York
Sketch of the Rolland Theatre
WILLIAM ROLLAND'S EARLY YEARS
William Rolland was born on July 24, 1885 in Vitebsk, White Russia. His parents were merchants of clothing. He learned in cheders and later privately. At the age of fourteen he became an employee in a manufacturing business, where he worked for around five years. Being an active member of the "Bund," Rolland during the First of May was arrested and put under police supervision. And because of this, he fled to America, where he worked delivering newspapers to subscribers, and then he became a life-insurance agent.
Out of love for the stage, he joined Joel Entin's "Progressive Dramatic Club," where he used to perform as a declamator.
In 1906 he returned to Russia and was very active there, that Dr. Zhitlavsky chose him as a Duma deputy. In order to create a way to gain money for the elections, he arranged several productions, and he performed at that time as "Moshe Magid" in David Pinski's "Family Zvi," under Sholem Anski's direction. Soon thereafter, he returned to America, and there he married the actress Pauline Hoffman.
Through this he became excited about Yiddish theatre, but his first connection with professional Yiddish theatre began initially in 1916, when he became a cashier for Max Gabel in the New York City's Lipzin Theatre, where he worked until 1920. In 1921 he was lessee of the Liberty Theatre, where he engaged Clara Young to play. In 1922 he was manager in Gabel's [Mount] Morris Theatre. In 1923 he again returned to Russia and brought to America with his partner Boris Thomashefsky, the Vilna Troupe.
About this Alexander Asro, a member of the Vilna Troupe writes:
" ... Not in a barrel hat, nor with a great artistic volume as had his partner, he met the Vilna Troupe. Meeting the ship, there stood before us a young man with a very intelligent appearance, in elegant, non-screaming clothing, with a charming, wide laugh, a loving smile, and still with a tender voice, saying 'Welcome, friends, Vilner. I am happy to see you.'
This friendly reception of this noble man destroyed our nervousness and Mr. Rolland satisfied us at the Hotel Larage, which he had prepared for us on the same street, on Broadway, He also rented the 'Nora Bayes' Theatre for the Vilna Troupe. As a father cares for his children, thus, our dear Rolland was concerned about all the conveniences.
For us ... He has not been in his theatre for days, only for our rehearsals. He loved to look and follow with great interest our work preparation.
In our historic night, when the first production of our 'Vilna Troupe' in New York (Dybbuk), our brother Rolland was with us behind the stage, kept us, not let us anybody disturb us, God forbid, and after the final curtain, when the walls of the theatre were shaking from the loud applause, our friend Roland was a happy man, a touch of joy and success. Running into myself and (his wife) Alomis' wardrobe, grabbed our hands and pressed them hard, He wanted to say something, but could not ... So big, bursting tears stood in his radiant black-blue eyes."
Here you will find short articles about his theatre, interspersed with text from the unpublished autobiography (1969-70) of Yiddish composer Sholom Secunda (in italics), who composed for Rolland for a time.
From the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 19, 1927
PLANS FOR JEWISH THEATER FOR BROWNSVILLE SECTION
William Rolland , business manager of the Jewish Liberty Theater, Inc., and prominent in the advancement of Jewish dramatic enterprises, has purchased a large plot of ground in Eastern Pkwy., between St. John's Place and Howard Avenue, on which he has announce he will build a theater to be devoted to Jewish plays. He estimates it will cost $1,000,000, including the land. The new theater will be located in the heart of the Brownsville section. It will seat 1,800 persons and contain a stage equipped for large theatrical productions, as well as accommodation for vaudeville and moving pictures. Harrison G. Wiseman, architect, is preparing the plans for the building. The contracts for the purchase of the plot were signed today in the office of Kugel & Telsey, attorneys, and the structure will be built for Mr. Rolland by the Empire Construction Company.
While "My yiddishe meydl (My Jewish Girl)" was reigning at the Liberty Theatre in Brooklyn, William Rolland was building the first million-dollar Yiddish theatre, not on the Avenue in New York, but in Brooklyn on Eastern Parkway. The theatre was to be ready for the coming season., and William Rolland was going to produce the "extravaganza" operetta. I used to pass with my my car everyday, to and from the Hopkinson Theatre. I saw the theatre "grow" brick by brick. It was hard for me to believe that such a tremendous edifice would be ready in time, but newspapers began carrying advertisements:
"William Rolland is opening his box
office a few doors away from the new theatre till its
completion. He is already calling tickets to organizations and
theatre parties, and all performances. Next week we will
announce our star of the Million-Dollar Theatre."
THE EXCITED MASSES AT THIS SPECIAL OCCASION.
Thousands of participants at the laying of the cornerstone of
the new million-dollar Rolland Theatre.
LAY CORNERSTONE OF THEATRE TODAY
Yiddish drama will be given new impetus today with the laying of the cornerstone of the new $1,000,000 Rolland Yiddish Theater, Eastern Parkway and St. John's Place. More than 3,000 persons, including leaders in all walks of life, will attend the ceremonies.
Named for William Rolland of 1245 Eastern Parkway, the playhouse will be dedicated to his ambition, the production of plays of Yiddish origin to depict the color and spirit of his race.
Today's ceremonies will be the realization of the dream of a boy whose first job, when he came to this country in 1903, brought him six dollars a week as cashier in Max Gabel's theater. In his playhouse, which will seat 1,652, Mr. Rolland intends to portray works of native authors in the native tongue.
On the cornerstone laying committee are John H. McCooey, Supreme Court Justice Lazansky, Hyman Shorenstein, Alderman Walter S. Hart, Fire Commissioner John J. Dorman, Judge Gustave Hartman, C0unty Judge Algeron Nova, former Alderman A.I. Shiplacoff and former Assemblyman Charles Solomon. B. Charney Vladeck, Yiddish journalist, will be master-of-ceremonies.
[more from the Eagle the following day] ...
Enclosed for preservation in the cornerstone are copies of the Eagle and
other Brooklyn newspapers, $100 in gold, and photographs of celebrities
of the Yiddish stage.
The architects, engineers, electricians, painters, all guaranteed that the theatre would be ready in time for the opening. The announcement came out in the newspapers. "The Million-Dollar Theatre Will Open its Golden Portals on the 25th of September 1928, with Michal Michalesko, in Sholom Secunda's new operetta, "The Song of Love.'"
The Rolland Theatre greatly publicized the "Million-Dollar Theatre," and it was so new that it wasn't even completely finished yet. The walks to the theatre and leading to the stage were covered, not with red carpets, but with boards and newspapers. But the occasion, nevertheless, was very festive. The entire theatre profession was invited. Those who could, came; the newspaper people, Yiddish and English, came. They were invited. All came, as no one wanted to remain on the outside, looking in. They wanted to be among the first to see the Million-Dollar Theatre, hear its star, Michal Michalesko, and listen to the music from "The Song of Love."
The theatre, inside and out, dripped with gold. The costumes,
the scenery, the lighting effects, even surmounted the biggest theatre
in New York, just when you thought that your possibly could not see
anything more outlandish in the Yiddish theatre. The curtain went up in
the second act, and in front of your eyes half the stage, the entire
chorus with the dancers disappeared before your eyes. How? Via electric
magic. A button was pushed, and an elevator took them all down into a
cellar. What they did in the cellar, we did not see. The stage was in
complete darkness, not longer than two seconds. When the lights went on,
just as before, the blackout, the continuity of the play (such as it
was), went on. Did it add anything to the success of the play, you ask?
Well, I wish I could say that it did. It didn't!!! So for the first few
weeks, people paid good money to se their idol, Michalesko, and a
"disappearing cast." It was the talk of, well, of Brooklyn. But once the
secret was no longer a secret, the audience stayed away in droves. Had
the overhead been less, it would have weathered the storm. Under the
top-heavy circumstances, we tried to rescue ourselves with a new play.
Louis Freiman was readying another operetta called "Senorita."
From the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, September 25, 1928
ROLLAND YIDDISH THEATER ON EASTERN PARKWAY OPENS
The new theater is architecturally very attractive.
Twenty-five years ago, William Rolland, in whose honor the theater has been named, then a penniless youth of eighteen, arrived here. Today he is recognized as one of the leading figures of the Yiddish stage in America. His first job here was as cashier for a Yiddish theater in the Ghetto. Here he first dreamed of building his own theater, and last night his dream was fulfilled.
Rolland had also engaged a young comedian named Jack Rechtzeit, who had make his mark at the New York National Theatre with Aaron Lebedeff. As a whole, the entire company was well-balanced. Most of the performers sang and danced, and that was what is needed for an operetta.
Rolland and Michalesko had great faith in the writer, Louis Freiman. He had written several plays for Michalesko before, and it suited his taste and his talent. Before the 1927-28 season ended, I was handed the play. I was writing the music. They liked the play. I reserved my opinion. "What shall we call our first play? Let's give it a romantic name that will entice the ladies. The gentlemen will follow," said Michalesko. Our first-born was named "The Song of Love" (Dos lied fun libe.)
from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, September 15, 1929.
GEHRMANS FOR ROLLAND
Misha and Lucy Gehrman, Yiddish stage pair and
favorites with Brooklyn theatre-goers, who last season appeared in "The
Eternal Mother," a drama in which they broke all records for both runs
and attendance, have been placed under contract by William Rolland,
owner and builder of the million-dollar Yiddish playhouse that bears his
from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, September 25, 1931.
RUSSIAN ACTOR'S DEBUT
Menachem Rubin, Russian actor-director of the Soviet government theater, brought here by William Rolland, will be introduced at a reception concert at the Rolland Theater on Sept. 28. He will offer a program of international folk songs and dramatic interpretations.
It was 1931, the second year aster the disastrous crash of Wall Street.
Business all over America was still bad. The theatre business was not
better. The Rolland Theatre opened with Louis Freiman's "Step Sisters."
It did not draw the desired audience that Rolland had hoped for, and to
which Jennie was accustomed. Who was William Rolland's
"ace-in-the-hole"? Menachem Rubin. Rolland had not given up his dream,
his desire for the "cultural and commercial" hand-in-hand theatre. He
hoped to accomplish that with Menachem Rubin, who at that time was
playing in Warsaw, Poland in his own production of Sholem Aleichem's "Tsvey
mol hundert toysend" (200,000), which was also known as the "Big
Winner," one of Sholem Aleichem's very fine comedies. Maurice Schwartz
had played it in some years before Rubin had brought it to America.
Menachem Rubin added much of his own, and William Rolland was placing a
great deal of hope in his new star. Rubin was reputed as a good dramatic
star, as well as possessing a fine voice, a baritone, of fine operatic
quality. Before long, Rolland was notified of Menachem Rubin's arrival.
The three of us--William Rolland, Louis Freiman and myself, went to the
boat to greet Rubin. Our first impression of the new arrival... Well, a
competition for Michal Michalesko, he was not, all his attributes not
withstanding. We hoped that Mr. Rubin would make it up in "culture," if
that would be an attraction at the box office. We had some very fine
singers in the Yiddish theatre. Besides Michal Michalesko, there was
Irving Grossman, William Schwartz, Leon Gold. Singers for the operetta
are of the utmost importance. Now we were even more curious to hear
Rubin's voice. Does he really possess the voice of such great repute? "Chevra
(fellas), let's take Mr. Rubin to his hotel room so he can make himself
comfortable. After that we will then show off our 'Million-Dollar'
Theatre, where Mr. Rubin will appear. I am certain that Mr. Rubin has
not seen its equal in Europe, not even in the Soviet Union from where
Mr. Rubin had come prior to his coming to Warsaw."
From the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 21, 1939.
MICHALESKO RETURNS TO CELEBRATE HERE
... Long one of the leading romantic favorites of the Yiddish stage, Michalesko had the theater built for him by William Rolland, who opened it in 1929 as the Rolland Theatre. Following three successive seasons, the house changed hands a number of times -- and in the meantime was changed to the present name -- the Parkway Theater -- until Nathan Goldberg and Jacob Jaobs, actor-managers, leased it in 1935 and have since operated it as a legitimate Yiddish playhouse. Having just concluded their own successful season, Goldberg and Jacobs invited Michalesko to be a guest star at their theater this weekend, to make his return debut on the local Jewish stage this year in "His Last Hour" and be present at the tenth anniversary celebration of the very theater he opened a decade ago. Michalesko, who just returned here after a season in Chicago, appears at the head of his own company.
The saying, "Not all is gold that glitters," was never truer. The Rolland Theatre was a Million-Dollar "Pandora's Box." It opened problems that I found myself too weak to surmount. It plagued me through the years, and finally forced me to divorce myself from the profession that had given me all the economic comforts and popularity throughout the world of Yiddish theatre. That paved the way, at times, to even "luxury" for my family, and social position of some sort that many of my colleagues came to envy. The truth is that all this physical comfort was accompanied by mental anguish. My battle for "bread" was easier to conquer. My emotional struggle for aesthetic elements that I was hoping to attain, that was thwarted at every turn.
William Rolland, in whom I had recognized a cultural element at the outset of our encounter, had succumbed to the "Egel HaZahav" (the Golden Calf)--the Million-Dollar Theatre. The reasons why I found it difficult to accept the "tried and trite" formula was many-fold.
Chaim Ehrenreich characterizes Rolland this way:
"William Rolland died Friday morning in a hospital in Dallas, Texas, far from the Yiddish theatre world in New York, from the world that he surrendered to over the tens of years of his life, as one of the recognized and respected, beloved Yiddish theatre managers. ... Actors and colleagues, and also writers have loved him. ... He was a watchman, and an honorable man. His attitude possessed value, importance, not only to his fellow men, only to myself. His greatest virtue was his physical and moral cleanliness. ... from all the Jewish impresarios, William Rolland was the most festively dressed and the most celebratory ... They was devoted to him. ... He not only took from the theatre. He also carried on. He enriched the Jewish Brownsville with a new Yiddish theatre building that for years carried his name ("Rolland Theatre"). For that he, together with Thomashefsky, brought over the famous Vilna Troupe, which registered a colorful chapter in the history of the Yiddish theatre. When Clara Young was young and popular with the New York audience, Rolland with her opened the "Liberty" Theatre in Brownsville and made that dense Jewish area as a center for Yiddish theatre.
... William Rolland was a good and honest business leader."
"About the Play "The Song of Love" >>
William Rolland -- The Man of the Hour >>
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