1922 to 1944, New York City's thriving Second Avenue Yiddish theatre had
its counterpart on a Newark Third Ward street in the heart of the city's
vibrant and thickly populated Jewish community.
It was Elving's Metropolitan
Theatre at 117 Montgomery Street, corner of Charlton Street, just a block
up from the Prince Street Jewish shopping mecca. It was the street on
which I grew up.
The theatre was built and
operated by the Elving Brothers, Bernard and Israel, both
Polish-born, and both veterans of the New York City Yiddish theatre.
Bernard was the lead actor in
a majority of the plays, frequently playing opposite his wife, Rose,
who not only acted, but also co-wrote many of the plays with her
Israel was the theatre
manager and operator. It was he who ensured that all the facets of
a successful theatre operation, which Elving's was, were
meticulously attended to.
opened in 1922 when Newark's Jewish community was already large and
growing. It boasted a large and expanding population of
Eastern-European Yiddish-speaking immigrants, for whom Yiddish was
the "mamaloshen" (mother-tongue) and the language spoken in the
For Newark's immigrant community,
the theatre served a critical role and was their favorite place to go for
Yiddish plays and operettas.
For the immigrants, just short
years from their Eastern European roots, the plays reflected the problems
faced by their audience -- adapting to life in America ... broken romances
... ungrateful and rebellious children ... intermarriage ... and bringing
the whole family to America from the shtetl (European home village).
Elving's performances featured many
'greats' of the Yiddish stage, such as Menashe Skolnik, Moishe Oysher,
Aaron Lebedof, and even such "name" actors as Paul Muni and Molly Picon,
who went on to fame on the American stage and in Hollywood.
Theatre Building Details
The theatre building was a brick
structure with accommodations for 1,200 - 1,400. As you entered the lobby
from Montgomery Street, there were two sets of double doors that led into
the theatre. To the left of the doors was an alcove with a candy stand.
The lobby candy stand was run by
Louis and Rosie Zlotin. They did a good business during intermissions.
They also employed a candy butcher, a pre-teen from the neighborhood to
hawk candy up and down the aisles between acts.
Recollections of a Candy Butcher
Seymour Pierce, 83, a retired
Newark Post Office employee, recalls working at Elving's as a candy
butcher "when I was 11 or 12 in the 1930s, I sold candy through the
aisles. I was able to watch the performances from the back of the
"Some shows that I especially
remember at Elving's were Greene Cousine ... Yankele ... Yiddishe Mamme
... and a Brevele der Mamme."
Bernard Elving -- the Lead Actor
Aaron Elving, son of theatre manage
Israel Elving, recalled to me that Bernard Elving was a powerful stage
presence in drama and tragedy, equaled only on the American stage by John
Before a performance, he told me,
the actor would talk into a full-length mirror for 15 to 25 minutes to
work himself into the mood of the play before going on stage.
Bernard Elving's daughter, Eleanor,
used to watch her father perform from the box adjacent to the stage.
Sometimes, I was told, her father's performance was so powerful that his
daughter would dash out of the theatre in tears during the performance.
Show Schedule and Ticket Pricing
Shows at Elving's took place on
Saturday nights, and matinees and evenings on Sunday. Israel Elving's son
recalled for me that when he was a young teenager, orchestra seats went
for four or five dollars and balcony seats were a dollar to a dollar and a
Even in the worst of the Depression
years, Saturday night performances were always sell-outs.
The orchestra patrons, he recalled
came 'dressed to kill' -- the men in business suits, shirts and ties, and
all wearing a hat. There were wire hat-holders under the fold-up seats.
The ladies with them were also in
their best dresses and many wore furs and fur wraps.
Continuing, Aaron Elving said "I
remember hearing President Roosevelt on the radio telling the radio
audience how bad the economy was, and its so surprising to me to see such
luxury displayed during a depression time."
Zwillman's Act of Generosity
One of Aaron Elving's further
recollections involved the Third Ward crime boss (and leading
Prohibition-era rum runner), Longy Zwillman.
He recalled that periodically,
Zwillman would drop by the theatre to see my father (Israel Elving) and
give him money for an entire row of choice orchestra seats. He would then
tell "my father" to take the tickets up to the balcony where the poor
patrons sat and to distribute them so that people in the balcony who
appeared to be needy could enjoy the show from up-front orchestra seats,
usually in the second or third row.
Another Preferential Patron
Another Elving patron who always
got a seat for shows first row center was Rebecca Bedrock from Newark's
Clinton Hill section. she was an Elving regular. She owned a fleet of
about 15 Brown and White cabs, and her brother owned five more Brown and
On Elving show nights, her cabs
would line up at the Montgomery Street curb in a line stretching up to
Belmont Avenue, starting around 10:30 PM, and await the departing
theatergoers to take them to their home in Clinton Hill or the Weequahic
Cab fares in those days, Aaron
Elving recalled, usually ran 50 cents to a dollar.1
Elving Orchestra and Chorus
The Elving's orchestra consisted of
six or seven pieces, led by Sam Grossman, who was also the violinist. He
held that position during the entire lifetime of Elving's theatre.
The Grossman orchestra played not
only for the stage shows, but also provided light Yiddish music while the
incoming guests were being seated, and at the end of the show, while they
were departing, until the theatre was empty.
Elvings also had a chorus of six
girls who were available for those types of plays that called for their
services. Although they sang in Yiddish, only two of the six were
Elving Recollection of a Pre-Teen Patron
When I spoke with Bernice Kessler
of Union, a former journalist with the Elizabeth Daily Journal, and told
her of plans to write about Elvings, she recalled for me her early
childhood visits to Elvings in the early 1930s.
"Elvings was one of my favorite
places. On Sundays, when my brother and I were taken from our farm in
Mountainside for visits with my grandparents on Aldine Street in Newark,
we were given a choice of either going to a neighborhood movie with my
cousins, or to the Yiddish theatre with Buba and Zaida (Grandmother and
Grandfather). I always chose Elvings. I was about 8 or 9 at the time.
"And I vividly recall a number of
the shows. They were so melodramatic -- the soap operas of the day. One,
I believe, was a Yiddish version of Stella Dallas, about a mother who gave
up her baby and near the finale was standing outside the window tearfully
watching the marriage of this now adult child. I can still hear the
brokenhearted woman singing."
Another "Patron" Recollection
I also mentioned working on this
'Memory' to Arthur Herberg, 89, a retired Newark pharmacist. I asked him
if he had ever gone to Elving's.
"No," he told me, even though I
lived only a few blocks away at 74 Barclay Street. But my mother did.
"She told me one day, when I came
home from school, that she was going to Elvings because Molly Picon was
playing there and Molly was from her home town in Europe -- Warsaw."2
How Elving's Advertised
Israel Elving reached potential
audiences before each new show with advertisements in the Jewish
Chronicle, an English-language weekly published for Newark's Jewish
community, and in the Newark Edition of the Jewish Daily Forward, printed
But the most effective way he
targeted Elvings prime audience was with colorful window posters, printed
at the West Side Printing House, and placed in the windows of kosher
butcher shops in Newark, and in outlying communities in Passaic and Union
counties with sizeable Jewish populations.
Each shopkeeper received two free
passes for displaying the poster in his window.
Elving's Building Sold in Changed Neighborhood
The twenty-two year run of Elving's
Metropolitan Theatre at 117 Montgomery Street ended in 1944 when the
building was sold to Father Divine, founder and director of the Peace
By the time of the sale in 1944,
Newark's large Jewish population had already moved away from the once
heavily-Jewish Third Ward, where Elvings had a large walk-in attendance,
and their more prosperous orchestra patrons had moved to the outlying
suburbs and would no longer come into that Newark neighborhood4.
Israel Elving's Death
When Elving's general manager,
Israel Elving, died in 1947, funeral services were held in New York City
and his son, Aaron recalled for me that the mourners at the service were a
veritable "Who's Who" of the Yiddish theatre.
Many had played on Elvings stage in
its early years when road companies from New York's Yiddish Art Theatre
were booked for Newark performances.
A few of those in attendance, he
recalled, were Moishe Oysher, Aaron Lebedof, and Mickey Katz., father of
Israel Elving is buried in Elmont, Long
Molly Picon Remembers
In late 1963, Molly Picon, who
reigned as the Yiddish Theatre's "Sweetheart of Second Avenue," during the
1920s and 1930s, was starring in the stage production "Milk and Honey" at
the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn.
Aaron Elving, then 40, decided to
pay a courtesy call on Miss Picon, in appreciation for her earlier
appearances at Elvings. While attending a performance, he stopped by her
dressing room and after introducing himself, was warmly received.
He recalls her calling to her
husband, Jacob Kalich, and informing him of her visitor "It's an Elving!"
Then she turned to Israel Elving's
son and asked "Tell me -- Is the schvitz still across the street?"
By that time, Elvings Theatre was
no more, nor was the old Charlton Baths on Charlton Street.
The Elving Children
Bernard Elving's son, Philip,
attended Princeton, became a leading authority on analytical chemistry.
He had been a professor for decades at the University of Michigan.
Bernard's daughter, Eleanor, made a career in library science and retired
as a professor at Kean University in the early 1980s.
Israel Elving's son, Aaron,
graduated from South Side High School, and enjoyed a long career as a
sales representative in the electronics industry, from which he is retired
and living in Florida.