The Museum of
FAMILY HISTORY

       the yiddish world

EXHIBITION

 

 

Boris Thomashefsky, as Hamlet, People's Theatre
New York City, 1901
Photo courtesy of the NYPL Digital Gallery.

Lives in the Yiddish Theatre

From an article in the Sun,
a New York newspaper, dated Jan. 4, 1903.


Yiddish Actors in Clover.


THEY ARE THRIFTY AND HAVE
A UNION TO PROTECT THEM.


Yiddish Drama So Well Established Here That They Don't Have to Do Any Barnstorming-- Versatility Demanded on Them, Though--
Their Life Off the Stage.

 

The Hebrew actor is a careful person. He has no social ambitions, lives thriftily and next to his art loves his home. His family ties are strong; he dotes on the opera and music, and he has a union to uphold the standard of pay for his services.

He has become an important element in the life and business of the East Side. A new theatre in Grand street, to be devoted exclusively to plays in Yiddish, is about to be built at a cost of nearly half a million dollars. This shows the progress made by the Hebrew actor in this country in the last twenty years.

There are at present three Hebrew theatres in New York, all on the Bowery. They are the Thalia, the Windsor and the People's. In addition, there are a half dozen music halls, and all of them are making money.

The first Hebrew theatre of note here was the Oriental on the Bowery, between Hester and Grand streets. A company, headed by Boris Thomashefsky, gave performances there in 1882. The theatre had a brief career and soon closed for want of patronage.

About 1884 a few performances were given at Turn Hall in East Forty-first street. Thomashefsky was the manager and leading actor of the company, but the venture was soon abandoned.


Front of the Thalia Theatre.

 

It was not until about ten years ago that the Hebrew actor became a permanent institution on the East Side. Up to four years ago the Windsor and the Thalia had the field alone. Then the People's came into line with them. The latter playhouse is considered the swellest Yiddish theatre in the city. The privileges of the patrons are more restricted. The sale of candy, soda water, fruit and other edibles is prohibited in the building.

To Boris Thomashefsky is given the credit practically of introducing the Yiddish drama in this country. He and Jacob Adler, Sigmund Mogulesko, David Kessler, Sigmund Feinman, Bernard Bernstein and M. Moskovitz are considered the foremost Hebrew actors now in America.

photo: Front of the Thalia Theatre, Bowery, New York City, 1904.
Courtesy of the NYPL Digital Gallery.

Versatility must be one of the Hebrew actor's qualities if he is to succeed. He must be able to sing as well as act, as the repertoire at the theatres consists of light comedy, comedy melodrama, tragedy, farce, operetta and comic opera. One night he appears in comedy and the next he may be called upon to enact a melodramatic role.

Thomashefsky's Hamlet and Moskovitz's King Lear are classics on the East Side. Kessler is a matinee idol and also a clever tenor singer and has often been compared by his admirers with Jean de Rezake.

Among the noted Yiddish actresses is Mrs. Kalish, who speaks French, German and English, besides her mother tongue, Yiddish, fluently. She has appeared as Hamlet, Camille, Magda, the Yiddish Zara and the Yiddish Sapho.
A famous playwright once thought seriously of taking her under his management and starring in an English play written by himself.

The Actors' Union does not affect the stars. Very few of them are members, as they are, as a rule, the lessees or managers of the theatres in which they appear. The average salary of the less prominent Hebrew actors is $22 a week, while the chorus girls, who also have a union, receive between $12 and $14 a week. The stars have been making during the past three years an average of form $5,000 to $10,000 a year.

On Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights the theatre is leased to various East Side societies. These societies pay the management from $225 to $250 for one performance, according to the strength of the play and company.

Friday night, Saturday matinee and Saturday night belong to the management. Plays which are hits are produced and the stars have their inning. On Sunday afternoon and evening sacred concerts are given.

A successful play usually has a run of three months. It must be extraordinarily popular to run longer than this.  On society nights only old plays are put on, unless there is a special agreement with the management.

Jacob Gordin is the popular playwright of the East Side. He was born in Russia about 59 years ago and has been writing plays about twelve years. It is currently reported that he will not part with a play unless he receives $1,000 to $1,500 in advance. He sells his products outright and does not receive any royalty.

The managers of the theatres do not spare any expense in producing plays, as the competition is very keen. Two seasons ago one play cost nearly $10,000 to produce. But the risk was worth the while, for the manager realized nearly $20,000 out of the show.

The plays most liked are those on a Biblical subject. Nevertheless, the theatres are kept severely up to date and plays of present interest are given, the dramatization of the Dreyfus case and the Gieldsenauppe murder being two instances.

Nowadays the Hebrew actor does not travel around the country as in former years. He does not have to; as all his time is taken up in town. There was a period, however, when he was compelled to accept engagements outside the city, but this is all changed now.

Once in a while a whole company takes a flying trip to Philadelphia and Boston. But they must have a guarantee of a goodly sum before it will go. Chicago is the only other city outside of New York that supports a Hebrew theatre.

The Yiddish season is longer than in the American theatres. It lasts from the later part of August until the middle of June. During the intervening time the actors either go to the county or spend their vacation in town attending to business ventures in which they are interested, such as cigar stores and jewelry shops. One Hebrew actor owns a wholesale fancy goods store in partnership with his brother and has an income of about $5,000 a year.

The majority of the actors are married and live with their families in the neighborhood of the theatres where they are employed. They are frugal and law-abiding and seldom get mixed up in scandals. They marry young and by the time they make their reputation have growing families.

Some of them marry out of the profession, but the wives of most of them are actresses who appear with them in the same companies. For a leading man to kiss his real wife on the stage or take her in his arms in loving embrace is considered the proper thing on the East Side, although the same procedure may be frowned upon on the American stage.



 


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