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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 14: January 15, 1953

Anna Held, Ziegfeld's wife, who Jacob P. Adler taught to play theatre.
-- The great comic, Sigmund Mogulesco, can't tell any jokes in life.
-- He used to laugh at Fishkind's jokes.

The productions that weren't played on Sundays became disgusting to the audience. The income became weaker with each passing day, and they began to play concerts.

The repertoire of the actors for concerts was limited. They used to rarely perform at private undertakings, and they therefore did not have any material for concerts. But they needed to bring iron. They began, little by little, to pull together material. For example: The chorus used to begin with [Cantor] Zaydl Rovner's "Emes Ve'emuna." David Kessler had one of his own declamations, "Der bel-egulah (The Coachman)"; Jacob P. Adler had a declamation, "Ver lakht [Who Laughs]"; Morris Moshkowitz used to perform in Jacob Gordin's "Berl dolfenzon" and "Arunter mit di piates (Down With the Piates[?]"; Mrs. Adler declaimed Scharkansky's "Der tsirkus (The Circus)." Almost every actor knew how to declaim David Edelstat's "Dr. Gran."

However the concerts soon changed. They were poor, and the box office was poorer yet. Until Tammany Hall it took even harder effort and money to first close one eye and then both eyes, and they played Sunday legitimately. To regulate Yiddish theatre.


"She bathes in milk" -- so they used to declaim, the wife of Florenz Ziegfeld, Anna Held. Florenz Ziegfeld had a reputation for being the greatest expert on women's beauty. He indeed used to announce in his extravaganza production, "Ziegfeld's 'Glorifying Follies Girl.'" The most beautiful girls of America played in his offerings. It used to take months for him to select a set of girls for his productions.

When the great selection of women brought a young French girl with whom he then married, people used to look at her in amazement. All kinds of advertisements were used for Anna Held. The most successful advertisement was that she bathed in milk. It didn't mean that she drank a lot of milk, but quite simply, that she took baths in milk.


She was born Anna Held in Paris. She used to sing chansonnet songs and speak English with a French dialect. It did not occur to anyone that the American-French Anna Held played Shulamis in London's Pavilion Theatre under Adler's management.

Anna Held came to London with her old mother, a pious Jewess, one can say -- a Jewess steeped in Tseno-Ureno (the Women's Bible). Her daughter, Anna Held, was of small growth, vivacious, with two large fiery eyes. In the streets of Paris she used to sell flowers and sing French street songs. She indeed was known as the singing flower-seller.

In London she sang and danced in a Yiddish theatre. Later the role of Shulamis was entrusted to her. As Adler used to tell it, she was a French Shulamis. But the Yiddish theatre gave her the opportunity to find stage success.

The entire company in London called her "Khanke glomp." But later she showed that Khanke Glomp was already no glomp at all. When she traveled back to Paris, she already had stage technique and stage courage, and she became a successful French vaudeville actress. She acted and sang in the greatest nightclubs in France.

When Ziegfeld saw her in Paris in one of the most famous nightclubs, he arranged for her to be brought to America for his production of "Ziegfeld Follies." ... She could already see that he had fallen in love with her, and she became not only the star of Ziegfeld Follies, but also the wife of Florenz Ziegfeld. Ziegfeld was already worried that the press would write a lot about it. All kinds of advertisements were used, but the most successful was that she took baths in milk.

On a Saturday night I went, as usual, to the Grand Theatre, and I wanted to enter Adler's dressing room. I saw that the street was black with people. They even called out the police, for fear of having this great crowd. I pushed myself as it were and went in as far as Adler's dressing room. When he saw me, he called out with a childlike joy: "Comrade Rumshinsky, she is here, she is coming to see me." And he said further: "She still did not forget the one who brought her up onto the stage. Now she's rich, now she's big, and all of America clings to her. Well, you understand who I mean: Anna Held, the wife of the great American director Florenz Ziegfeld."

It was already near the end of the production. Ziegfeld stood up with Anna Held on his arm, whose face was scarcely seen above her large hat with feathers. She shook Adler's hand strongly but with much dignity and respect, not allowing any further questions, and she soon disappeared.

Adler said: "Go figure, that from Khanke Glomp this may be the legendary figure Anna Held."


Seeing Mogulesco play in the theatre, one used to ask the question: "With whom did he study? Where did he start? He did not copy or imitate anyone, because he saw little and learned even less in his life, except a little in kheder and as a choir boy with Cantor Israel Cooper. Nevertheless, he was compared to the greatest French character-comic Koklen. He was the most natural comic, though his first roles were in Goldfaden's operettas, and later in further shund plays. During the early days of Jacob Gordin's plays, he was the greatest opponent of Jacob Gordin. He used to ask: "What does the black Jew with the black beard want?" But later he became a great patriot [fan] of Jacob Gordin, and also the successful character-comic in Jacob Gordin's plays.

He didn't need any jokes that would make the theatre audience crack up with laughter. One tap with the foot was enough, that the audience would fall into laughter. He did not need hops and dances, to work hard, that the public may rise from their benches; only that the orchestra used to play a quick dance, and he used to fold one sleeve and then the second, he undressed, twisted his hat to one side and made one or two figures; he made the theatre storm with applause.

Mogulesco, who was the most interesting and amusing figure on the stage, was in private life a piece of "lemeshke." Telling a joke was discouraged -- not that he could, nor did he want to. He used to laugh heartily from every silly joke. He was the great follower of the comic Abraham Fishkind, who was the opposite of him. Fishkind was the greatest comic, but only in a coffee house and in the Actors' Club. Mogulesco used to break out in laughter from Fishkind's jokes and Fishkind's facial expressions.

Fishkind used to say to Mogulesco: "So, Zeligel, God forbid that I should sell my jokes to the public, as I sell them to you." Mogulesco used to answer: "But I cannot be a Fishkind."

In practical life, Mogulesco was naive, like most of the artists, and perhaps even more naive. It is worth mentioning this case: Some years back, when a company used to tour through the province and business was bad, the manager in each city used to leave an actor, so that their costs would be less, and they used to go even further. When they didn't have Sigmund Mogulesco, who was the star, the crown of the company entirely died of starvation.

Mogulesco used to walk around cautiously, frightened, and he used to say to each actor separately: "Oy, brother, I am afraid that I will be next, and in the next city they will leave me there."

Company actors already knew his weakness and always used to drop in such a saying, that he should hear it: "The next city is Mogulesco's -- he is already remaining here."

Is it worth knowing that in that time, entire English companies used to remain in the middle -- they used to remain "stranded," without a red cent.

The mayor then of New York, Gaynor, stopped it. He made it so that the management must bring the company of actors from whence they were taken.

Being musical helped Mogulesco a lot as an actor. He did not know much music; however he read notes a bit and also knew how to write nigunim (religious melodies) that he used to compose by himself.

His nigunim had the same appeal as his playing theatre; it was popular, rhythmic and mainly in Yiddish.

About his most popular songs that he excelled with: "Trog dos pekele, yidele," "Mn hmtsr krati ih," "Vi gefelt eykh aza border": His "Khosn-kale, mazl tov," although it was taken a bit from Tchaikovsky, but it bears the Mogulesco charm and grace.

In the operetta, "Blimele," he wrote the entire music by himself. It began with a very musical song for the chorus. Joseph Lateiner, the author of "Blimele," said to him:

"Mr. Mogulesco, for the very musical musical number of the first choir-song, I thank you."

Mogulesco answered: "You need to thank me, not only for this, but also for your kindness."

Being a weakling, a tiny one, a person who would never harm a fly on the wall, he loved the "fights" very much. That said, it was not about himself fighting, but he went to see professional prize-fighters. Mainly he loved the harsh, the strong, the "heavyweights." When he was outside, he used to carry around a sports page, and he used to speak with enthusiasm about the famous prizefighters at that time, such as Jeffries, Corbett, Sharkey and Fitzsimmons.

The greatest tragedy in Mogulesco's life came when he lost his voice, and almost his own tongue. This happened to him at the time when he was playing his successful role, "Feitel" in Shomer's "Emigrants."

His illness lasted one year. But he did not become completely healthy until the end of his life. After his illness he did not play the Shmendriks and Bobe Yakhne roles. Mostly he played in Jacob Gordin's plays, such as, "God, Man and Devil" (as the badkhan), "The Orphan," "Elisha ben Abuyah." Although he was not the original [person to play the roles] in Gordin's plays, no one later was able to emulate him.

Mogulesco spent his whole life playing and singing a couplet or a secondary joke, and when he said yes to a traif joke, he immediately sang it with the Mogulesco grace.


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