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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 32: March 19, 1953

Menasha Skulnik. -- As he makes his audition for the union.
-- Nobody knows him. -- He excels in the art plays.
-- As he becomes a star. -- The difficulties of advertising stars.

MENASHA SKULNIK

This happened twenty-five years ago, on a certain Monday, at a certain probe [where actors auditioned for entry into the Hebrew Actors' Union] for new candidates who want to become members in the Yiddish [Hebrew] Actors' Union.

On that Monday they took in five new members, among them there was one who had played theatre and was a sure thing. He was everything to the theatre, they knew that he was called a handyman of the theatre. He was a scenario director (the person who sends out the actors onto the stage on time), a stage manager, a publicity manager, had often followed a necessary course, writing roles and secondly he played an unimportant role, so as he then was engaged to Philadelphia's Yiddish theatre, he received permission, that he could be the first of the five new candidates [to make his probes].

When the chairman announced that the first one who will make a probe is the actor from Philadelphia and called out his name, many asked: "Who? What is his name? The answer was, indeed a role writer, a scenario director ...

When the unknown actor showed himself in the role of "Akiva" in the classic play, "Uriel Acosta," his makeup, his mask of the old patriarch, made a big impression. There was a deathly silence. No one found it difficult to breathe. And when the unknown role-writer finished, as one expresses oneself in theatrical language, there fell a thunder of applause. And one of them immediately made a suggestion that they might forgive him the two probes. Everyone protested, because they simply did not have enough of his good, natural acting.

The second probe was made in "Motye shtreybl" from Jacob Gordin's "The Orphan." Here the hall was already full of hearty laughter that the unknown actor had evoked from the actors. The applause were even greater than earlier, and again there a motion was made, that they should forgive him the third probe. There was heard shouted out: "Why should he be tortured? He is nevertheless with us." Again there was heard loud protests:
"No! No! We still want to hear from him!"

The third probe was [in the role of Reb] "Eli" from Sholem Asch's "God of Vengeance."

 

After the third probe the hall of the Yiddish Actors' Union rang with the name of Menasha Skulnik, who became stamped as a literary actor, who belonged in the Yiddish Art Theatre.

Indeed he immediately became engaged for the nearest season in Schnitzer's Art Theatre, where Rudolph Schildkraut, Ben-Ami, and others were playing. So from that Menasha Skulnik became more known as a literary actor, and in this area he created important roles in important plays, such as in "The Blacksmith's Daughters," Nomberg's "Family," and even in several Hebrew art productions.

But with the literary actors, Menasha Skulnik did what had happened to Professor Bernardi, who had become the highest-paid vaudeville actor.

Professor Bernardi was a classical pianist. He used to play, indeed in vaudeville houses, classical and semi-classical works of Chopin, Rubinstein, Mozart, Beethoven. Usually he did not have any great success in the vaudeville houses with the classical compositions.

With Professor Bernardi, there happened such a case:

Going up once onto the stage, he stumbled and fell, and this evoked a great deal of laughter from the audience. When he sat down to play the piano with his desperate appearance, with his clothes not in order, this evoked even more laughter, mainly when he began to play classical music, and for the offering strongly clapped on the piano, and he took to falling every time he was standing at the piano. The public did not cease to storm from laughter.

When he finished playing the piano and descended from the stage in a deadly, desperate state, the public did not stop shouting and storming for this classical pianist.

The manager immediately came to him and raised his salary three times as much, to let him repeat the same thing over and over again at future performances.

From that performance on he played in an eccentric way, with all sorts of craziness and tricks. It used to be that the piano fell apart into small pieces. When he used to remain at the last piano, he began to pull small, piano bones [?] from his pocket and ears, and played classical musical compositions on them, but in his particular, comical manner.

When they used to ask Professor Bernardi if will ever give a purely classical concert, he used to answer: "Yes, when I cease making a lot of money and will not have any success."

Similarly this happened to Menasha Skulnik as a character-actor. In the drama he never ever made a living, and additionally he had trouble with the stars because when he used to speak out a word on the stage, or make a movement, the theatre roared with laughter, and they could not go on further with the performance. All side roles, therefore, did not satisfy him, and he was jealous of those who had been stamped "stars." Israel Rosenberg put together a comedy, "Getzl Becomes a Bridegroom," and in that play Menasha Skulnik played, and he drew the attention of the entire New York theatre public, although they played the comedy in Brooklyn's Hopkinson Theatre.

Since then his name had risen. He played as a featured actor, that he was an up-and-coming star, but he had not yet had earned the explicit name of a full-fledged star.

I always have had a weakness for attracting new tchotchkes to the Yiddish theatre. New sensations. I became partners with Menasha Skulnik in the "Folks Theatre," which they had built for Maurice Schwartz. With our first offering, "Fishl der gerotener," both the Yiddish and the English press greeted us with open arms. There was felt a freshness from the new star, Menasha Skulnik. From the glorified text of Louis Freiman, and also from the music, which was brought over from my women's orchestra.

Menasha Skulnik's name was spreading everywhere, to Jewish audiences, and also with the non-Jewish audiences.

And what confirmed Menasha Skulnik's success?

The answer is that he is a natural comic. Menasha doesn't need to have any jokes that the public should strongly laugh at. For example: What kind of a joke is saying, "I love soup!"? An entirely ordinary set of words, "I love soup!." But when Menasha says it, they laugh a lot. Or when Menasha says: He is not a great man, but a man" ... it is not what he says, but how he says it that brings a great laugh from the entire public. He is also blessed with such physiognomy, that although he plays the not-handsome [man], nevertheless a woman loves him.

He plays someone who is unsuccessful, simply an eternal fool, nevertheless he is wise, that he twists and turns in the entire situation of the play from his role.

Everything he does on the stage has its charm. It fits him. He is wise enough and enough of an actor, that he should not do things on the stage that would not fit.

Menasha Skulnik became the comic who, when they mention only his name, they are already laughing.


THE ADVERTISING ITSELF

The greatest enemy of theatre, both for Jews and non-Jews, is advertising. The Yiddish theatre suffers from this to a very large extent.

The advertisement, that is, in what place the name of the actor should be positioned, and also with what letters it should be printed, that is, the "type" -- larger, smaller, thicker or thinner print -- this is what is most important to the actor. This advertisement already had caught on with a lot of theatres of that time, and also often times was not permitted, that it should mainly be about the opening.

For a private person, it is a foolishness: dead letters ... A difference, where do they stand, and how do they stand? But not one actor or actress has been prevented from advertising for the sake of the exacerbation of an internal, serious illness, from a sleepless night, from not causing trouble, and indeed many times for not having anything to eat -- due to advertising.

The advertisement is the true reason why they are often not able to assemble a company of first-class actors, because customs, laws and regulations developed from them. For example: whose name should be erected in the top spot? This is where the company's progress remains, as there is only one outlet. But how is it that a theatre wants to allow itself to have two, three, and indeed four artists, who are entitled to have the top position and be the first?

This is really only one of the reasons why often times a theatre company becomes incomplete, and indeed due to this reason it remains important, and indeed great actors often are not engaged. But they would rather walk around empty-handed, than be advertised in a way does not suit them.

There is only one important, big obstacle, which gives a lot of trouble to the theatre, and that is -- the roles. But you can already help yourself with that. This is written down, from which one can work with. 

But what concerns advertisements -- for this there is no medicine available ...

With every craft, with every profession, the first question is: How much? That is, how much do they cost? How much do they receive? For a week, for a day, or only for a piece? May it be a craftsman, a doctor, a lawyer -- the first question is: How much? At the theatre the "how much" is the last question. The first question that actors ask when they are engaged  is "Where? In which place will they find their scene? And the second question is: "What? That is, what roles will he play? And that the two difficult points have been omitted, the "how much?" That is the first and most important question in every job and profession. And for the actor -- the last. And whoever says that the actor is happy with the place that his image and name will be positioned, he will already look at the cost. The difficulty is not only with the main stars, but also with the up-and-comers, that is, the "featured extras," whose images are only a little lower from the company's scenes and characters.

Today begins with an order, that is, who is before, and who is after. There has also been found a means: one or the other, who have pretensions to be a star, get the "and," that is, one counts out everyone, and the up-and-coming star gets the "and."

And there is also such a thing as, who should be announced before the play or after the play. For example: With eks in "Shulamis" -- that is for the play, or "Shulamis" without an eks -- this is after the play. And there is also a right and a left (I don't mean political.)

In Yiddish there is the respectable place for the right side; in English -- the left side. And that we have two stars who are not able to participate with honor, they give one name in Yiddish, and the second name in English. That is, each has a respectable side.

However, trouble arose in the Yiddish theatre, and this is because of the names with electric lights across the theatre. That a manager used to want an important actor. He used to say to him that he will "burn" him, meaning that his name will up in electric letters on the sign -- and it starts with a series of yes burns, no burns, and many times it burns a good play and a good theatre.

Rudolph Schildkraut once asked the actors: Why do you keep yourself in one place and argue about image, type, lower, higher? Why is Yiddish theatre not conducted in America as it is in Germany? In Germany, we have no difficulty in announcing our actions to our actors."

The actors ask: "Well, Herr Schildkraut," he said, "how do you do it in Germany?"

Schildkraut answered: "Quite simply! To us in Germany they advertise with large letters: 'Rudolph Schildkraut in Shylock' and no more."

Understandably, the actors were not very happy with this German practice.





 

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