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Joseph Rumshinsky Tells About
Fifty Years of 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 6: December 18, 1952

The principle explanation for the Actors' Union. -- Max Gabel.
The music halls. -- William Shakespeare and Joseph Lateiner are played in one day.
--M. Katz and Leon Kobrin have written plays.

The Actors' Union had for its four-year anniversary issued a principled declaration, which reads as follows:

1) The main principle of the union is to improve the situation of the Yiddish actors. In this it succeeded: In the last four years the condition of the Yiddish actors has improved a lot.

2) Once upon a time a good actor earned from eight to ten dollars a week; today the lesser actor earns not less than twenty-five dollars a week.

3) Once upon a time there were actors who were punished by the managers -- and often without a reason why -- today the Actors' Union has the right to punish managers if they have a complaint, should a complaint about the union be brought to them.

4) A manager must not offend an actor.

5) The Actors' Union has supported various unions and strikes to the amount of $3,441 dollars.

6) The Actors' Union plays three benefits for the Yiddish workshops, and this had brought in $15,000 dollars.

7) A fund was founded for old and infirmed actors.

Not everyone was excited about the founding of the Actors' Union. One of those who was excited for the Actors' Union was Abraham Goldfaden, who wrote a ballad dedicated to the Yiddish Actors' Union. The ballad was called "Etz ores (The Tree of Evil?)," and called on all the Yiddish actors of the world to unite.

However, there were voices that were heard that were against the Actors' Union. In the radical press there were opinions that were expressed that the founding of the Actors' Union would be a obstacle for the Yiddish theatre. And they were not incorrect. The union then created an iron wall, not to admit new members. Upon entering the Union, one arrived at the Green Hall. It took a long time until he was allowed to try -- and then he failed.



Today it is easy to be admitted; today even the probes [auditions for membership] have been abolished, but this comes too late.

In those difficult days the union took in Maurice Schwartz, Ludwig Satz, Paul Muni, Molly Picon and Menasha Skulnik, Aaron Lebedeff and Michal Michalesko. But those actors were too big to be kept out of the union for too long. And also many of them did not easily become a union member.


In 1903 and in 1904, after the Kishinev pogrom, when immigration was strongest there appeared new talent [destined] for the Yiddish stage. But as such the theatres were difficult to enter due to the large number of actors, and due to the hardships from the Yiddish Actors' Union the "music halls" were founded. The "music halls" were desired and were the easiest path for the newly arrived singers and players.

With time the music halls developed important talents who were strong candidates for the legitimate theatres. The public ran to see Max Gabel, Sigmund Weintraub, Samuel Schneier and David Baratz. Previously they already had such powers as Michalesko, who was a second George M. Cohan, and also a great balladist such as Ida Fein.

The "music hall" actors at that time were greater in numbers than the Yiddish Actors' Union. They founded a union that was called "Yiddish Variety Union Local 5." And it began a sharp competition between the theatres and music halls.

In the music halls, besides small operettas, they also had begun to play entire three-act plays, and then there began a great struggle between the theatres and the music halls. And they forbade the music halls to play three-act sketches. But the music halls did not stop and staged plays almost entirely , which they later would play in the large Yiddish theatres.

Max Gabel performed in Agid's Clinton Vaudeville the "Kenig un rebbe (King and the Rabbi)," "Der yeytser ho're (The Passion?)," and "Farkoyfte neshomes (Sold Souls?)," which Gabel later sold to the Jewish-German actor Rudolph Schildkraut.

The music halls became great competition for the legitimate Yiddish theatres: Firstly, because almost  every actor from the music halls were very young men, almost all of them in their twenties; secondly, they could be seen in an operetta production, a drama, or a comedy, as coupletists, and over and over that had to do with amusement.

The operettas delivered, or the writer of the music halls did, Groper and Meyerowitz. Their operettas consisted of a chorus, solos, ballets, with content with a prince and princess, or a rabbi with a rebbetzin [rabbi's wife], and a pristav [Russian official], whom one could curse at, and also the Russian emperor, whom it was a mitzvah to curse. The opera lasted about half-an- hour, and then began a series of couplets and duets, and finally a large dramatic sketch, which then became a greatly successful play for the regular theatres.

Important variety singers and actors began to arrive from Europe. There arrived Mr. and Mrs. Kanner from Romania. They captured Yiddish New York with their couplets and duets; mainly Mrs. Kanner, when she used to sing her songs in a Hasidic custom. There also arrived Mrs. Gluck, who with her singing the song, "Fraytag oyf der nakht (Friday Night)," captured the audience. This song in New York became a hit -- they sung it in every house, and also in the shops.

There also arrived the vaudevillian Pepi Littman. About her the Jews used to say that she was a firefighter.

Most of the music halls were virtually saloons, where they used to drink and have a bite.

At first, it was rare to see better people in the music hall, but later, the music halls were cleaned up, both in the theatre [itself] and on the stage.

The music halls gradually merged with the regular theatre, mainly because the variety actors became a union, under the supervision of the Jewish workshops. They became more cautious in their couplets, and people began to look at them quite differently.

With time the legitimate theatre became cheaper and lighter; it moved closer to vaudeville, and the music hall actors took in better people and played better sketches.

It's worth mentioning a witty incident: In the time when they forbade the music-hall actors from playing three-act sketches, Boris Thomashefsky met Max Gabel, who then played and staged dramatic sketches in a music hall. Thomashefsky said to him: "Mr. Gabel, there is a complaint against your theatre, that it is playing 'vaudeville.' "

Both unions, which had a charter from the American Federation of Labor (i.e. A.F.L.), directed a long fight , until it united, and it became the Yiddish Actors' Union.


The requests from the actors to play classical plays, such as those from Shakespeare, Schiller, Sudermann, Hauptmann, increased with each passing day. The jealousy towards the actors who had played in Jacob Gordin's plays, and the request to play in better plays, caused a mish-mash in the repertoire of various plays. So as the classical dramas, and dramas in general, were not income-producing plays at that time -- it was then called a luxury play, that is, a play then that gave a lot of honor and little money -- it used to be like this: One or two of the better dramas were thrown in during the week. For example: Saturday afternoon Shakespeare's "Hamlet," and Saturday night Lateiner's "Joseph With His Brothers," or Saturday afternoon, "Shylock," and at night, "Khinke pinke." The better plays however, that is the dramas, gradually took an important place on the Yiddish stage. And there were, in fact, new faces, new playwrights. For example, M. Katz, a prominent radical speaker and journalist, adapted a play specially for Adler, "Di finstere nakht (The Dark Night?)." It was a failure, and the audience used to curse the actors outside the theatre: "A dark night upon them with such acting and such plays." But his remaining adapted plays had more luck, such as the "Yidisher don kikhot (The Jewish Don Quixote)," "Gedalya bel ago'le (Gedalia the Driver?)," Hauptmann's "Furman Henshel," "Tkhies hameysim (Resurrection)" by Tolstoy, "Der boymayster (The Master Builder)" by Henrik Ibsen, and more.

Then there appeared a new playwright, who later occupied an important place in the repertoire of Yiddish theatre -- Leon Kobrin.

Leon Kobrin's first play was "Mina." As there was still no confidence in any new playwright, "Mina" was announced as Jacob Gordin's, because the actors found out that Leon Kobrin read his play, "Mina," for Jacob Gordin, and he read two of his comments or pieces of advice -- Well, there then was indeed a plan that the author of Leon Kobrin's play should be Jacob Gordin.

Then Kobrin's play, "East Side Ghetto" became a very big success, and later his "Farloyrener gan-eydn (The Lost Paradise?)," was very successful. In each play Boris Thomashefsky excelled as a dramatic actor.


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