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Joseph Rumshinsky Tells About
Fifty Years of the Yiddish Theatre
 A series of thirty-six articles written by Rumshinsky, over a four-month period, for the Jewish Forward newspaper,
from December 1, 1952, until April 2, 1953. Articles appeared in the Jewish Forward every Monday and Thursday.

Episode 3: December 8, 1952

The competition between the Yiddish theatres. -- Joseph Lateiner and Professor Hurwitz write plays, taken from German.
-- In the plays the heroes speak deytshmerish. -- Actors who do not know any German carry German newspapers in their pockets.

In New York there were three Yiddish theatres:  The "Oriental," the "Roumanian Opera House," and the "Poole's Theatre." Business was not good, but they had three theatres due to the competition from the newly arrived actors. Entire troupes sometimes came: from Romania, Russia, and England, and due to this, they needed to have theatres.

At that time the manager Heine managed to obtain the "Thalia Theatre" on the Bowery. In that theatre they played well-known German plays with the best actors. But when the German theatre moved to 14th Street, Heine succeeded in obtaining the well-known Thalia Theatre. He had as a partner the well-known actor, Sigmund Mogulesco.

The Thalia Theatre was not only a highly modern theatre with many seats, but it also was in the heart of the Jewish quarter. The other theatres were in discarded, far-flung areas.

The new managers of the Thalia Theatre brought up new talent from the province, such as Silverman and Sophia Karp. It looked like Heine would do a golden business. But the company from Poole's Theatre outdid the Thalia Theatre.

At the same time, Shomer (N.M. Shaykevitsh) arrived in New York. His already had a good name in the theatre world for his plays, and also for his novels. His new play, which he had written in America, was "A funk fun idishkayt (A Spark of Jewishness)." The play was strongly accepted.

The Thalia Theatre then put on a play by the editor of the "Idisher tageblat," Johan Paley, about a flood, called "The Johnstown Flood."

Later Mr. Seifert emerged with several historical plays: "Titus," "Shomer yisroel," and "Ger tsedek (True Convert)." They all had success.

The competition from the theatres was great. Several theatre writers, such as Joseph Lateiner, Professor Horowitz, and Shomer, were unable to deliver as many plays, and new playwrights emerged, such as David Apoteker, the actor Shenkman, Jacob Terr, the prompter Reuben Weissman, J. Bilder, and the actor Rudolph Marks, who came over from London and was not only a successful  actor, but also a playwright. He later became a very successful lawyer and indeed, as a lawyer, he made a lot of money.

 

Jacob P. Adler then went off into the province. On the way he happened upon Boris Thomashefsky, who at that time had become a full-time actor. For the entire time, he had played in the province, mostly in Chicago. At that time Chicago was the city of refugees, where there were the actors who had become crowded out of New York. They traveled to Chicago, but their hearts were in New York. At the first opportunity they grabbed their bags and bundles, and they came running to New York.

When Adler met with Boris Thomashefsky in Chicago, they created a business and played on Passover in Poole's Theatre.

The racing, the capturing of the actors one by one, the jumping from one theatre to another, and the frequent changing of the plays -- this had a bad effect on the audience. People simply did not trust them, because the actor, who was announced in one theatre, suddenly saw his image in another theatre, that he was playing there. Every month, immigration became greater and greater. The earnings of the actors became much better. The number of theatre attendees increased, and the previously small theatres were already too small. There was a demand for larger theatres, because New York already then had possessed a great number of Yiddish theatregoers.

The manager Heine then turned back to the large Thalia Theatre. He paid ten thousand dollars per year more for rent. Heine signed a contract for twenty-two thousand dollars a year -- this was such a sum that until then was unheard of among Yiddish actors.

A quiet revolution occurred among the Yiddish actors: the actors, who were popular in the first years,  used all their strength to hold on tight. Other actors with less talent and ambition were silent to the question, but the public was the judge. The screams of "Bravo!" indicated who was who. And there did indeed appear to be "new stars," who initially occupied an unimportant place on the stage but later swam up from above.

The small theatres became too small for the large audiences.

Sigmund Mogulesco then took over the large Windsor Theatre (where one now finds the Manhattan Bridge). Already in New York there were two large Yiddish theatres: the Thalia and the Windsor.

THE DEYTSHMERISH EPOCH IN THE YIDDISH THEATRE

The concept of that time was that a simple, spoken Yiddish was spoken only by a tailor, a shoemaker, a seller, a craftsman, or a servant girl. A doctor, a teacher, an optician -- they already were accustomed to speaking German. Not only on the Yiddish stage, but also in the press, they used to write half-German: "Das medchen," instead of "this girl." One could hardly imagine on the Yiddish stage that someone who was wearing a clean suit and who was still talking with a nose handkerchief in his pocket would speak a simple Yiddish.

As the play deliverers, the writers, really knew German; like Joseph Lateiner, Professor Horowitz, they indeed took their subjects from German plays, even from German operas and operettas -- they wrote deytshmerish.

The Yiddish actors used to carry around a German newspaper in their pocket. Even those who did not know any German used to have a German newspaper with them in their pockets. They were very proud of their German.

Joseph Lateiner took his plays from German. He took "David's geige" and made from it "Dovid's fidele (David's Violin)," or the opera, "Di nakhtvandlerin (The Night Wanderer)" -- he made from it "Di farblonjete neshome (The Lost Soul)"; from the Roumanian comedy, "Vladutsye mame (Mother Vladusa?)," he created, "Shmuel Shmelkes"; later Abraham Goldfaden created "Shmendrik" from this.

Lateiner also wrote, "Di likht fun yerushalayim (The Light of Jerusalem)," and Abraham Goldfaden, with more talent and also more theatrical, created his immortal work, "Shulamis."

Professor Horowitz, who did not know German, also was a student (moreover, he also possessed a large library), and he wrote mostly historical plays, also tsayt-bilders. His historical plays were: "Jacob and Esau," "Yetzias mitzrayim (Exodus From Egypt)," "Tisa Eslar," "Shlomo hamelekh (King Solomon)," "Ben hador" (which ran for two years). Professor Horowitz's tsayt-bilders were: "Dreyfus," "Der ladzhen-president (The Lodge President)," "Khurbn keshenev (The Destruction of Kishinev)," "Dr. Herzl," and so on.

The Yiddish actors had no relationship to the playwrights because they knew that the greater part of their play was not original, and they knew that there was a great deal of competition going on between the playwrights.

When a new, unknown playwright turned to the actors and wanted to read a new play for them, they ridiculed the poor writer. All sorts of ugly methods were devised to ridicule the new playwright. They used to call the new playwright by the beautiful name, "Yold." When a reading of a new play was ordered, people were told that "tomorrow a new 'yold' will come to read a play." As was already said, all kinds of toys and tricks were invented how to make fun of this new writer, who had no other name among the actors than "Yold."

They used to put makeup on the poor writer, dress him with a beard and set away the writer on the stage all by himself. The actors sat in the orchestra and in the boxes. The actors used to shout out all at once: "Higher! Higher!" -- and the poor writer tore up his throat ... Sometimes it used to be dark on the stage, and the actors used to rub swabs. Some used to smear the writer with the swabs on his face until his face became filled with black spots ... They used to, as usual, laugh -- and many of the naive writers thought they were laughing at the comic scenes of their play ...

There is no need to blame the actors entirely, because the greater part of the composers were "kranks," and they could not be dismissed.

The Yiddish stage then stood entirely on Lateiner's and Horowitz's "literature." They wore leotards with naked thighs, long robes with Rococo costumes and with swords, and people talked deytshmerish.

This was the saddest situation and chaos of the Yiddish theatre. It was at this chaotic time that the reformer of the Yiddish stage arrived -- Jacob Gordin.





 

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