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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 33: March 23. 1953

Lucy Levin. -- How quickly she becomes a star. -- We believe that her rapid success shortened her years.
-- How to "break in" an operetta. -- The author does not recognize the play and is ashamed to say so.


Every parent sees in their child all the virtues and doesn't want to see their defects. When this child is indeed gifted, it is agreed. Then the parents see that the child is a genius. Theatre people, who are great exaggerators and have a strong fantasy when they have a successful child, it is somehow heaven itself. It returns worlds. They have in their child Sarah Bernhardts, Duses, Tetrazzinis and John Barrymores.

Entirely different is the case of Sam Levin, the choral singer who sang for years under my conductor's stick. He had once invited me, that I should hear his daughter, who plays piano and studied singing. I asked him: "What do you think? Does she have talent?" -- I expected to hear from him a listing of her virtues, amd what a genius she is. But his answer was that he thinks that she is not bad. His modest answer, "She is not bad," made me say to him that he should send his daughter to me at my house this coming Saturday.

That Saturday, when I had woken up around twelve noon (ordinarily I go to sleep late), my wife told me that a young girl was already waiting for me for an hour, so I should hear her. I asked my wife if I should ask her to come back another time. My wife said that it was not [a good idea], because she is Sam Levin's daughter.

As soon as I saw her, I immediately decided that she belonged in the theatre. With her figure, and with her dark, burning eyes ... I asked her how old she was, and she answered "seventeen," and we sighed with a small look and smile, that she is no more than that, although she appeared a year younger.

I then mentioned that she must have inherited her musicality, for besides her father who is a singer, her mother's side had Berl the Chazn (Cantor), who was the cantor for many years in the Vilna Gabranisher Synagogue. He was a great prayer leader.

I told her to sing something, so she sat at the piano and sang an aria from the opera, "Rigoletto," and accompanied herself.


I immediately decided that her father was not right to say about her that she is "not bad," but that she is a future prima donna of the Yiddish theatre.

She told me that she plays piano in a moving picture theatre (then this was still in the fashion of the silent moving pictures), and that she took piano lessons, and she taught herself how to sing with an Italian singing professor.

I asked her whether she wanted to be a prima donna in the Yiddish theatre. She answered that this is her only purpose.

I had her sing, [and I determined] that she was musical enough that she no longer needed to study the art of singing, but that she needed to become a Yiddish actress, and she needed to begin to learn Yiddish with a rabbi.

She said to me that she was able to [speak Yiddish] a little. I said to her that a little was not enough. From that day on she would speak, read and learn Yiddish, and almost every night she went to the theatre and saw everything that was being played -- a drama, an operetta, a comedy, all types of theatre.

She obeyed me. She learned Yiddish, and every night she sat behind the stage, and with her dark eyes soaked in everything that she had seen and heard.

The next season Samuel Goldinburg opened a theatre in Philadelphia and engaged the young woman for his theatre. He staged in Philadelphia "Der rebin's nigun (The Rabbi's Melody)" [opened at the Garden Theatre on December 15, 1924 -ed.] and "Di goldene kale (The Golden Bride)." So as the young Lucy Levin knew both the aforementioned musical plays from seeing them almost every night in New York's Second Avenue Theatre, she not only played the prima donna role, but she also helped in the offerings, because she knew them well and remembered everything, and Philadelphia rang with the new prima donna Lucy Levin.

A season later she was engaged for the New York Second Avenue Theatre as a prima donna.

Her first New York success was in my operetta, "Molly Dolly." She excelled greatly with her easy, elegant playing, and with her resounding, lyrical soprano voice, which was similar to a flute in an orchestra, with her tears and coloratura. Especially she excelled in a singing number "played klezmer-like on a violin." She swayed like an angel on the stage.

The joy of her father, the chorister, who for many years sang with other prima donnas, and now with the prima donna -- his only daughter Lucy, whose sweet tenor caught on with the public -- this joy for her father could not be bought.

Her name as a prima donna evolved every day. With every operetta she became more popular. And it could be that her quick success on the stage cut short her young life ...

People become drunk from various things: drunk from alcohol, drunk from wealth, but the greatest drunkenness is when we become drunk from a great deal of success. This is an incurable drunkenness.

When success comes slowly, with preparation, it is not so harmful. But when success comes quickly, without having prepared for it, it is dangerous.

In the case of Lucy Levin, everything came quickly. The applause, the compliments, and the favorable reviews. This made her drunk ...

She hoped and she strove, so that years later she would become a prima donna, and that she already was a first-class prima donna. And here began to unhappiness with her roles, advertisements, her name in electric lights -- and the happy, cheerful Lucy Levin, from time to time wandered aimlessly.

At that time I wrote for her a romantic song, "Farvos? (Why?)," the song was very sentimental. She used to sing it with a lot of heart and soul. Her resounding laughter used to remind us of spring and her light gait -- a butterfly, a summer bird.

When one saw Lucy Levin, she was serious, almost someone who was always on guard, and this been attributed to her being unhappy with a role or an advertisement. Nevertheless, from time to time, she used to shout with her laughter. But the impression had already been made, like she wanted to say: "Do you hear! I can still laugh like before!" It was a forced laughter ...

She often used to ask me what made me write for her a romance (romantic song), in which she poured out her young heart and did not only feel it when she was on the stage. Even when she sang it when she was by herself.

I used to say to her that I nevertheless miss the Lucy that had sang with such joy "playing klezmer-like on the violin," like a carefree bird, filled with love, freshness and hope.

When they told me that Lucy Levin had a serious stomach operation, I did not want to see her, because I was sure that she also did not want me to see her as the dangerously ill Lucy ...

And when the young, beautiful golden bride lay on her death chest, I almost heard myself ask: "Why? Rumshinsky, why?" And when they carried her away, I asked, "Why? Why?"


No matter what, it never happens that a carpenter should begin to make a table and it should come out a bench; or a shoemaker should begin to make a couple of shoes, and it should come out as a pair of pants. Every craftsman, when he begins a certain job, knows already what will come out of it. This, however, is spoken only about simple craftsmen. In the theatre, however, it happens quite often that a writer reads for us a strong drama, an enormous tragedy, which breaks hearts. The actors and actresses shed tears, the manager wipes his eyes, even the soubrette also leaves a tear due to the bitter luck of the poor heroine ... And to what end? When one performs the piece, it comes out completely like a happy, lively operetta, with "marches and dances" -- in short, an operetta with every clipper. In the theatre there is a happiness, and the actors together with the public amuse themselves. The only one who doesn't know what happens here, what they had created from his terrible drama, is sadly the poor author.

He shrugs and doesn't believe his own eyes. He could swear that this is not his play ...

He doesn't make a fuss, but just the opposite, he sits in the theatre and laughs with the public, but he laughs heartily at ..., but he comforts himself with the cash he has received for his play.

The young comic with the soubrette runs to the author and thanks him for his comic role and scenes, which he had written for them.

He clarifies to himself: What are you doing with my play? But he says to them: "I know entirely well that for a role, it needs to be written for you."

The young comic squeezes his hand, the soubrette is very grateful for her role, and the author stands awkwardly confused.

The operetta has certain musical numbers that are always a passable article. For example: A song for an orphan, or a duet for a grandmother with a grandchild, and very often religious and guest-finished numbers. There were, however, several numbers that will never been accepted by the public, even if it has beautiful music. For example: "I have the women." Or, "I hate my mother." It happens very often that the composer creates good music, and they pass on an entire scene due to the musical number. Under such circumstances, the natural course of a play falls away.

They once asked the German composer Johann Strauss: What is an operetta? He answered: A piece of nonsense put to music. Our Yiddish operettas are often a mish-mash, where they sing and they weep, they complain and they dance, people kill themselves and they laugh, they stab themselves, and they hesitate.

Jacob Gordin was the first who fought that the drama should be separated from the operetta.

Lastly, the Yiddish operetta has the easy swing, but it already a little too easy. Because the last few times the musical comedies have almost completely lost the content and the shape of a play. It is a very difficult task to write a play with music, that one or the other should not be the star.


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