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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 11: January 5, 1953

Professor Horowitz. -- His play, "Ben Hador," was the greater success.
-- He was one of the most successful playwrights, but he became ill and lost his memory with age and ended his life in poverty.
-- Broadway takes from the Yiddish theatre.

It was a time when Jacob Gordin dominated the Yiddish stage. His plays, "King Lear," "The Yiddish Sappho," and "God, Man and Devil," reigned.

Jacob Adler, Kessler, Blank, Keni Lipzin, Berta Kalich, Morris Moshkowitz, Tornberg, Katzman were famous through their acting in Gordin's plays. In Gordin's plays they became better. They had roles of flesh and blood. They were all thankful to Gordin for giving them the possibility to excel.

In that time Professor Horowitz came out with a historical operetta, "Ben Hador," which exceeded all of Gordin's successes. I don't mean morally, but financially.

The financial success of "Ben Hador" was such that it had then never seen before in the Yiddish theatre. They played "Ben Hador" for twenty-three weeks.

Gordin wanted to compete with Horowitz's success of "Ben Hador." He wrote a sensational piece, "America." They staged it with the hope of competing with "Ben Hador." He also wanted to write shund, and it was a terrible failure. But the failure of Jacob Gordin's "America" did him well, and he learned from this, that he should not write anything foolish, and indeed he immediately wrote "Kreutzer Sonata," which was a success. But no play or new performance could harm the immense success of "Ben Hador."

A society was founded that was called "Ben Hador"; cap makers made hats " la Ben Hador"; they carried walking sticks and umbrellas with the name "Ben Hador"; in the Romanian restaurants they ate steaks " la Ben Hador." It was: Heaven, Earth and "Ben Hador."

Kalmen Juvelier sang a song, "Dort in himel zeh ikh shaynendig (There in Heaven I Saw a Shining?)," and Madame Prager sang it in staccato -- the theatre used to shake from the applause. Peter Graf sang with a chorus, "Tel," this plea for rain. This all was in "Ben Hador."

 

"Ben Hador" was not Horowitz's first play. Professor Horowitz already had previously written a play that was called, "King Hezekiah," and it failed.

Most of those who visited the Windsor Theatre, where they played "Ben Hador," were Romanian Jews. It was in this year, when Jews were expelled from Romania, that a great number of them arrived in New York.

These itinerant wanderers met the whole company of "Ben Hador" at the performance of "Ben Hador," which had played previously in Romania. They played for the Romanian Jews in Iasi, Botosani, Brailia, Galati and Bucharest. But as the story may or may not be, with "Ben Hador," Jewish New York was cooking.

After a storm there came a wind. In the coming couple of seasons, after "Ben Hador," there blew a wind in the same Windsor Theatre: whatever they had staged failed.

Professor Horowitz then traveled to Germany and Austria and brought back a company of male and female singers and conductors, and they played German operettas, but better said, grand opera in German.

The great success of Jacob Gordin's dramas had attracted him, because previously Horowitz was the successful theatre composer. His historic and daily happenings, time pieces (tsayt-bilds), brought him a fortune -- the plays that filled the theatres were: "Dos poylishe yingl (The Polish Youth)," "Tisa eslar," "Shlomo HaMelekh (King Solomon)," "Der mabl fun jonston (The Johnstown Flood)," (tsayt-bild), "Kapitan dreyfus (Captain Dreyfus)" (tsayt-bild), "Yakov un esau (Jacob and Esau)," "Der kuzari (The Kuzari)," "Bat kohen," "Yefas toyer," "Di tsvey tnoim (The Two Conditions?)," "Yetsie fun mitsra'im (Exodus From Egypt)," "Khurbn keshenev (The Destruction of Kishinev)," (tsayt-bild), but his greatest success was "Ben Hador." What he wrote and performed after "Ben Hador" did not "flash," as it is said in theatrical language. He got caught up in the German opera -- and this was his ruin.

The enterprise with the opera was a failure. Thus he lost every cent that he had owned. As a writer and by himself a director and manager, he made great fortunes in the Yiddish theatre. He was, however, a sport, a great waster; He was the first in the Yiddish theatre who toured with his own carriage, driven by an excellent horse. His horse-and-carriage was the talk of New York. This carriage alone had all kinds of colors. His library had cost a fortune. He lived and loved his money. The failure of the German opera had broken him. A couple of months later he became ill and lost his mind. He fell into an amnesia; he forgot who he is and who he was. In the last months of his life he begged for bread from his fellow-actors. He retired for several years and died miserable and abandoned on March 4, 1910.

THE ENGLISH THEATRE TOOK FROM YIDDISH THEATRE

The English theatre then started at 13th Street and something. But in that time it was a great move to go from the East Side to Broadway, which was called, "The Great White Way." There are Jews in America from the East Side who have been ridiculed for decades, who have never been to Broadway. They already had been dissuaded from the English theatre.

The immigrants of long ago who used to be taken care of by their American relatives, were led for the first time to three places: to a Turkish bath, to see the Brooklyn Bridge, and to the Yiddish theatre.

Most of these immigrants remained for years, even as Americans.

Not only were less Jews going to the English theatre. Even theatre people used to rarely go to the English theatre. Also my first operettas, which were modern, were advertised as "Rumshinsky's operetta la Broadway."

The best American actors and directors, however, often used to come downtown to see Yiddish theatre. And indeed several large productions on Broadway had their origins from Yiddish theatre. For example, the Jewish-American character-comic David Warfield, who already then was a great star on Broadway, often used to be seen at the Yiddish theatre, mainly at the musical play, "Dovid's fidele (David's Violin)." David Warfield staged a play, "The Music Master," from which he became a millionaire. He used to see what Thomashefsky was doing, or [Max] Rosenthal, who played the main role of David on the Yiddish stage.

When Jacob Adler played Tolstoy's "Der lebediger mes (The Living Corpse)," they virtually used to come to every production to see the famous American actor John Barrymore, and indeed a short time later Barrymore performed the same play on the American stage, almost like in the Yiddish theatre. Chiefly he played entirely the main role of Jacob Adler.

Several American directors from "legitimate" theatre and vaudeville invited Yiddish actors to play English theatre. The first actor who left the Yiddish stage and went away to the English stage was Charles Cohan.





 

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