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Betty Sim0noff (1897-1987): "I Remember When" (1980)    
     

CHAPTER ONE

One hundred years of Yiddish theatre in the United States is now being celebrated (1876-1976). Alas it now no longer exists, despite some sporadic resurgence.  It had a glorious past and now in 1980 many still remember and cherish those memories when as children they accompanied their parents to the fascinating and glamorous theatre of laughter, music and pathos so deliciously nostalgic of the shtetl, folklore and tradition of old.

The Yiddish theatre was the only source of entertainment for the hordes of East European Jewish masses who swarmed to these shores escaping persecution, poverty and pogroms. They came through Ellis Island and Castle Garden to the land of opportunity where the streets were paved with gold.  They filled the slum tenements, and ditches.  Yet most of them achieved and made this a better life for their children and grandchildren.  Here, in the Daughters of Jacob, there are still many residents who lived and survived this period realizing their hopes and dreams.

Their one escape from this drab existence was the Yiddish theatre, and from 1900-1950, aptly named the “Golden Age," it thrived and was a viable asset that enriched the lives of these new Americans.

My father, Maurice [Morris] Simonoff, was an actor and true pioneer in his chosen profession.  He arrived in the United States, circa 1885, and by 1900 the theatre was flourishing and booming by virtue of the great need it filled in the sordid lives of the struggling immigrant in a foreign land and not yet assimilated, where they could hear their native tongue and songs and be entranced by the bright lights and glitter with handsome men and women who acted in the grand manner on and off the stage.  They saw in all their glory the Thomashefskys, the Adlers, David Kessler, the Chaplinesque Sigmund Mogulesko, Bertha Kalich, Keni Lipzin, emulating Sarah Bernhardt (maybe even better) the great singer, Regina Prager -- and many many more, all talented and gifted.

 


The two leading theatres early in the century were the Windsor and Thalia Theatres on the Bowery.  At that time, it was an elegant street inhabited by the wealthy of the “Gay Nineties."  Some of these buildings still stand as a landmark, and the residence of Diamond Jim Brady is there, as is the Astor Library and residence of John Jacob Astor and later the HIAS, and today the Public Theatre of the Joseph Papp Enterprises.  

I was born in 1897 at 39 Christie Street, adjoining the back-stage entrance of the Windsor Theatre where Papa was playing.  Every season where Papa played, we moved next door, for his convenience of course.  He spent most of his time in the theatre, either rehearsing or acting, and his children lived and breathed in that atmosphere.  At the age of five, I introduced myself like so -- “My name is Bettie Paulie Simonoff, my father’s an actor, and we have a piano."  

At the age of five, I already was a performer.  Being among the elite, we were rich (alas it did not last too long.)  We not only had a piano, but we lived in a six-room apartment with a maid and emulated the Thomashefskys and the Adlers who lived in the grand manner of the Drews and Barrymores of the American Stage.

It was fortunate that we had such a roomy apartment.  My parents were very much involved in housing the “landslayt” as they came off the boat.  I remember very vividly stepping over bodies of adults and children on the parlor floor when I, the youngest, went from my bedroom to the master bedroom to awaken Mama in the morning.  We not only fed and housed them, my dad obtained employment for them soliciting jobs for them from the patrons of the theatre who were manufacturers of shirt waists, skirts, pants, vests, etc.

During the financial panic of 1907, many lost their jobs, banks failed, their meager savings were gone, and bread lines and lines for coal in the bitter cold filled the streets.  Soup kitchens were set up in vacant stores where one could obtain a bowl of hot soup and a chunk of bread for one penny.  I can still smell the aroma of that soup.  Mama did the cooking and I, being the youngest, was always by her side.     

I remember, on the wall of our parlor, hung a portrait of Papa as “Julius Caesar” and beside it a picture of a baby on a bear rug with a naked derriere; with the biggest ears and no hair.  I was the homeliest baby, but I must admit that by five I had blossomed into a beauty with big bright eyes and a mop of black curls.

Papa also organized concerts to raise funds for the victims of the pogroms, and I made my debut at age seven at Clinton Hall singing “Shainkt A Niduve."  I invariably broke down in tears in the middle of it and was pelted with coins by the emotionally stirred audiences.  

That did it.  This was the life for me.  Where else could I make a fast buck so easily, and a star(??) was born.
 

CHAPTER TWO

As early as 1895 as the steady flow to these shores of East European Jewish immigrants swelled, so grew the Yiddish Theatre.  

There were the Thalia and Windsor Theatres on the Bowery, directly opposite each other, between Bayard and Canal Streets.  The Bowery, at that time, was still residential having housed the affluent -- elite of the Gay Nineties.  Such notables as Diamond Jim Brady, Lillian Russell, John Jacob Astor and the Belmonts maintained residences there.

Gradually, Boris Thomashefsky opened his People’s Theatre on the Bowery, a few streets uptown toward Grand Street, which was an enterprising and commercial thoroughfare.  Lord and Taylor, Bonwit Teller, Hearn’s, established themselves there.  Jacob P. Adler built his Grand Theatre on Grand and Forsyth Streets, east of the Bowery toward the East River.  There were clothing stores, fashionable millinery shops, bridal gowns for hire, furniture stores, fashionable millinery shops, bridal gowns for hire, furniture stores and household furnishings, whatever was needed for better living...and then there were the photographers' studios.  Not only were the actors and actresses photographed, but they did a thriving business photographing the immigrants who delighted themselves in their finest, even hiring outfits and many a landsman borrowed Papa’s elegant gold watch and chain with dangling locket prominently displayed to impress the folks in the old country with their new found prosperity.

Continuing on Grand Street at Ridge, stood #451, where we occupied our apartment and diagonally across the street stood the neighborhood playhouse where many budding actors and actresses of the American Theatre studied under the direction of Alice and Irene Lewisohn, two dedicated ladies who devoted their efforts to cultivating the drama and all allied arts, as did the Educational Alliance on East Broadway.  

This truly was the land of opportunity.  All that was required was the urge to learn and achieve and, presto, it was there.  The free night-long schools were filled with the ambitious working masses who labored long hours daily yet found the energy and time to study English, trades, skills and professions, yet even at the cost of going hungry they saved their pennies to satisfy another hunger which appeased them -- in the Yiddish Theatre.  They weathered privation all over again, but with this difference.  Here in America, there was hope and the promise of achieving a better existence for their children and their children's children.

Education was of paramount importance, then came “culture”, ah culture!  As you walked through the halls of the tenements you heard tinny pianos and scratchy violins going at a great rate from the various cramped apartments.  Many reluctant kids who would rather have been playing in the streets were obediently practicing and poring over their homework and were grateful in their latter years that they had heeded their parents.  Painstakingly these early immigrants saw the fruits of their labor and struggle come to pass, and their children and grandchildren became educators, scientists, doctors, musicians of note, novelists, playwrights, actors and lawyers… and there was always a need for the Yiddish Theatre, their chief and perhaps only luxury.  No matter how assimilated they became, they could not obliterate the tender memories of their beginnings in the “old country," the shtetl, their childhood carefree joys and their yearning to eventually return to “Eretz Yisroel,” the land of Israel.

In a few short years, there were already sufficient theatrical companies of talented and versatile men and women -- beautiful to behold -- and possessed with a burning desire to express themselves, plus that most essential ingredient, inborn native talent no school could provide.  They had charisma!  They were glorious and glamorous and strutted about in the most grandiose manner of the period to the delight of their adoring audiences.  This was indeed the golden age of the Yiddish Theatre.  They carried this aura on and off stage into the street and the coffee houses (Shulem’s Stark’s and eventually the Cafe Royale) beautifully clothed and bejeweled… so they impressed me, young as I was.

There were the Duses, Bertha Kalich and Keni Lipzin; the matinee idols, Boris Thomashefsky and Joe Kessler, Regina Prager of the phenomenal voice of four octaves, every tone pure and true; the dramatic stars, Jacob P. Adler, David Kessler, Maurice Moskovitch and the Chaplinesque Sigmund Mogulesko.  I can still hear the peals of laughter as he stepped on stage even before he uttered a word.  

The Yiddish Theatre was composed of repertory companies.  This meant it was seasonal work of about nine months and three months of idleness during the hot weather.  The actors had few other skills and they had a problem.  Papa tried his hand at operating a small hotel in the Catskill Mountains, but since most of his guests were his fellow actors, he was not too successful to say the least, but we youngsters loved it.  The countryside was a woodland, the hotel had a  charming converted farmhouse, and Mama picked up great recipes from the chef, who made her a celebrated cook and baker.  We came back to the city penniless but healthy, and there was always the following season to start anew.  

The time was, therefore, ripe for the formation of a protective union, and as early as 1899 it came to pass… The Yiddish Actors Protective Union was formed.  I remember many organizational meetings at our home (the infant union probably had no permanent headquarters at that stage).  There attended several distinguished men such as Joseph Barondess, labor organizer, who sat me on his ample knee and Meyer London, labor lawyer, and Messrs.  Nathanson, Fishkin and Simonoff (Papa) who were President, Treasurer and Secretary in that order.  On the wall in the offices of the union to this day, there is prominently displayed a composite picture of the original members (about one hundred).

The Union was Papa’s passion and closest to his heart, and he remained steadfast to it to his dying day.  He was most steadfast out loud in protecting the rights of the members, many times to his own detriment when he opposed the “Boss” who had already hired him.  Many years later, when Aaron Lebedeff, the popular song and dance man, applied for citizenship and was asked “Who makes the laws of the union?" (meaning the United States.) His answer was “Simonoff --who else?”

Papa was born about 1860 in Russia.  He was the eldest of a prosperous wheat merchant and he hoped Papa would succeed him in this business.  That was not for Papa.  Although Kamenetz was a fairly large city, he felt stifled and confined there.  He was handsome and dashing and carried himself well.  Impulsively he left his young bride with child and set sail to find what the Promised Land had to offer.  He had no trade and he took a menial job in a pants factory.  Possessed of a rich baritone voice and bored with his work, he sang out loudly to the despair and fury of the foreman who sacked him.  A co-worker suggested, he try out for the chorus at the Thalia Theatre.  Undaunted, Papa applied and was accepted.  Having a limitless education in Yiddish, he made himself useful.  He began by writing scripts, acted as a prompter and stage manager.  Gradually, he was entrusted with small roles and quickly thereafter established himself as a character actor of stature, both physically and histrionically.  He had found his métier.  A year later, he sent for wife and infant “Faigale” (little bird), my older sister. 

Mama was a homemaker with a theatrical flair.  She was devoted to Papa and her three children.  She adjusted quickly to emulating the royal style of the Thomashefskys and the Adlers.  Her hospitality was boundless. 



Betty, five-year-old child, circa 1905
Courtesy of the New York Public Library.

Maurice, Frances, Alex, Betty and
Clara Simonoff, circa 1900

Courtesy of the New York Public Library.

The door was always open to neighbors and friends.  Mama’s cookies were irresistible.  The precious highly burnished samovar that she had brought to America on one arm and her infant daughter on the other, reposed on the sideboard in the dining room, flanked by her grandmother’s ornate silver candlesticks, was never used.  She was merry and lavish in her generosity with a delicious sense of humor and sang all the popular tunes of the Yiddish Theatre.

There was always music in our house and the Simonoff ménage was a cynosure in the midst of the masses struggling to extricate themselves from their squalid surroundings.  We owned the big attraction, the status symbol of the period -- the piano -- at which my sister, Frances, vigorously to their delight and to the despair of the family below who knocked up with a broomstick, complaining of a shaking chandelier, who quieted them somewhat and who were mollified by Mama’s cookies. 

My brother Alex, eight years my senior, was colorful, mischievous and adventurous.  At one time, he was missing for three days.  He had run away to become a jockey.  Accustomed as he was to mom’s sumptuous meals, he could not endure the starvation diet (so he said); besides it was “trafe” (non-Kosher).  Mama weeping with joy pressed him to her ample bosom, then dashed to Isaac Gellis' delicatessen (the best) to get him a corn beef sandwich, dripping with mustard, hitherto verboten.  To Mama, highly spiced food was not proper food for youngsters, but she threw caution to the winds this time.  

In children’s roles, Alex and I excelled.  That is, he did.  I was a hit in silent roles.  All I had to do was to mimic him.  In the Dreyfus case, the cause of celebre of that decade, Mme. Bertha Kalich, the first lady of the Yiddish theatre, played the wife of Dreyfus (David Kessler.)  We played their children and I remember that touching scene, as she led us on stage to bid farewell forever to our father before his exile to Devil’s Island.  We knelt up front on either side of the prompter’s box looking up angelically and praying for our father’s safety.  As I heard the sobbing audience, copious tears rolled down my cheeks, and I knew I was a smash...I thought my performance had brought them to tears.

CHAPTER THREE

Busy, busy, hustle, bustle -- the streets of the lower East Side were alive with vigor and activity.  Except for a short period during the winter, the winter, freedom and abandon unknown to the new Americans, and the air was, as yet, freed from their squalid and dismal tenements spilled into the street and made it their picnic and playgrounds.

The clickity-clack of horses' hooves, the harsh noises of hawkers, factory whistles, fire engine sirens, intermingled with hurdy-gurdys and the laughter and glee of children at play.  Hopscotch, rope jumping, roller skating and tag were great sports.  I shared my skates with my best friend, Stella, as we rolled and hopped merrily along.  I shared not so much out of generosity as a feeling of safety with one foot on the ground.  A great athlete I was not.  At a very early age, I manifested my deep interest in music by following the organ grinder, especially if he had a monkey attached.  Often I was lost for hours until Mama found me usually in the police station.  I enjoyed getting lost because the policemen fed me bananas instead of the monkey.  Mama soon put a stop to my wanderlust by putting a string around my neck bearing a disc with my name and address.

At the open windows, buxom women, arms akimbo, viewed the scene below, while at other windows were aired the pillows brought from “home” and sheets floating in the breeze.  Mama would also set our parrot, Laura, on the fire escape and she would screech with gusto, singing and imitating the noises below.  The backyards were reserved for the penny practice.  The horse and carriages were replaced by horse-drawn street cars, open air trolleys in summer and eventually the auto at snail’s pace.  We never failed running alongside them, yelling “get a horse.” 

Just taking a walk could be turned into an adventure or a picnic.  Hester Street offered dress goods from mere cottons to velvets ad satins; for jewelry; Orchard Street for a simple cotton house dress to a fabulous leather bag or fur piece; Stanton Street for every variety of wheat and grits from far-away-places, and Rivington Street for tempting spiced sour pickles, sauerkraut, watermelon, red peppers and green tomatoes, all swimming in brine in large vats, as well as herrings of every variety.  Then there were the vendors with small carts selling hot dogs with mustard and heaped with hot sauerkraut; also baked sweet potatoes, hot chestnuts, and “nahit” similar to garbanzos, or hot chucharellis as we called them...and so many more delicacies, too numerous to recall.  Often I would wangle a nickel out of Papa and steal across the street with three companions.  We were not permitted to cross the street, but we could not resist Mr. O’Reilly’s ice cream parlor.  Mr. O’Reilly loved children.  I guess that’s why he had twelve of his own, and he welcomed us.  For five cents we ordered a dish of three flavors and four spoons, which we gobbled up in a flash.  Ah, those were the days.  Crime on the streets was minimal.  There was a sense of freedom, camaraderie and gaiety in the air that was irrepressible.

Ever present in the midst of all this activity and progress loomed the Yiddish Theatre, expanding as did the population, to the various boroughs.  But always the Lower East Side remained the Mecca and source from which it emanated.  Steadily, from the Bowery uptown to Second Avenue, at Houston Street, were erected the National, Second Avenue, Public and Art Theatres, thence to the Madison Square Theatre -- to the Star Casino and Lenox Theatre in Harlem -- to the Prospect, McKinley Square and Art Amphion, Siegel Street, Liberty, Hopkinson and Parkway Theatres.  As many as fifteen or more operating and thriving in the City of New York at the same time.

Wherever there was a sizable Jewish community in a large city, up sprang a Yiddish repertory theatre with a company of legitimate Yiddish actors and a season of from seven to nine months, all emanating from New York City with the Yiddish Theatrical [Actors'] Union as its headquarters.  Thus, was established a “road” in Newark, Philadelphia, Boston, Montreal, Canada, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, Toronto, Canada.  One and two night stands prevailed in Bridgeport, New Haven, Buffalo, Ottawa, Canada, Pittsburgh, the provinces, after the season with their tried out and sure fire successes.  The tours were lucrative and a holiday for the actors, which we all looked forward to...few rehearsals and no first night jitters; stopping in fine hotels, being greeted by local admirers and fans; dining out in grand style and all expenses paid. 

The repertoire in those early years was serious and dedicated to the classics of Ibsen, Shakespeare, Chekov; also nostalgic folk tales of the “shtetl," the European village ghetto, full of pathos and humor and the lost holy temple of Jerusalem.  The following playwrights were most prolific and inspired by the talents of the actors and actresses to write such plays of enduring quality as “G-d, Man and Devil," [one] based on the "Yankl der shmid" and many more too numerous to mention.  These Dramatists to name a few, were Jacob Gordin, Peretz Hirshbein, Pinski, Latayner, Asch, et al.

There was never a dearth of talent.  In addition to the dramatists were the musicians and composers.  First came Avrum Goldfaden, considered the father and innovator of the Yiddish operetta.  He was dramatist, poet, and composer, all in one.  His books were in rhyme.  His themes based on the bible and his compositions were original for the most part.  When he improvised his music he borrowed from the best, such as Pergolesi, Mendelssohn and Verdi.  His best known operettas were “Shulamis," "Bar Kokhba” and “The Sacrifice of Isaac.”  Following Goldfaden came the prolific composers, namely Joseph Rumshinsky, Sholom Secunda, Alexander Olshanetsky and Abe Ellstein.  Their contribution enriched the repertoire with melodies that will endure in the annals of cantorial and secular music, all truly a prolific and rich heritage to be added to the annals of Jewish culture.  Later as the immigrants shed their garb and tastes became assimilated and Americanized, their new lifestyle was reflected in their more sophisticated repertoire, but they always retained in essence the tradition of their forefathers.

No Jewish home of the period was a home without a boarder.  No matter how overcrowded the home was, one had a single man or woman who received room and board, and more often as not became a member of the family.  Where there was no separate room there was always a folding bed in a corner.  This helped defray the rental overhead, which was always as now a major expense.

Our boarder was Sussman.  I never learned his first name, although he lived with us for many years.  He quickly adapted to our free and easy way of living, abandoned his trade and became an usher.

Sussman was also an opera lover and endeared himself to Mama, whose idol was none other than the great Caruso.  She persuaded him to take her to hear Caruso for the first time in “Rigoletto.”  In the Yiddish Theatre, the star never made his entrance at the beginning of the play, but always with great fanfare, and the audience sensed when he was about to appear.  When the aria, “Questa O Quello" was sung, she remarked to Sussman, “He’s good enough for me, who needs Caruso?”

A very exciting and memorable event was the annual masquerade ball of the members of the Yiddish Theatrical Union held at Madison Square Garden, where they vied for first prize, no easy achievement and a challenge to the actors.  I remember two occasions when Papa won first prize.  One, when he wore a long black scholarly robe, and Papa who was a master of make-up made up his face to look like Jacob Gordin, the leading playwright and very distinguished looking.  On the back of his head Papa wore a mask of Henryk Ibsen with imposing beard and as he strutted backward and forward majestically, he made the desired impression for ingenuity and originality.

At another time, he shared first prize with me.  He wore his traditional make-up and costume of the devil from the play, “G-d, Man and Devil," Jacob Gordin’s masterpiece, based on the Faust legend by Goethe.  I was about five-years old or less at the time, but I remember quite vividly not only seeing Papa backstage in his full Mephistophelean regalia. but we had a photograph of him at home that left its impression in my memory.  His was the traditional malevolent picture of Mephisto, with hooked nose, horns and menacing leer, dressed in red tights on his cherub in pink tights and wings.  There I was stealing the show again, as I remember the storm of applause and adulation I received at the time.  Once a ham, always a ham, but in my case, a Kosher one!
 

CHAPTER FOUR

Papa decided suddenly and impulsively that no child of his was to pursue a theatrical career.  He wanted us to pursue an education and develop a respectable art of profession.  This came as a crushing blow to my eldest sister, Faigale, now Frances, Francie and eventually Billie, who had "shmink” (grease paint) in her veins.  Papa insisted.  He had forgotten that he had practically run away from home to become an actor.  Showing an aptitude for the piano, she would become another Paderewsky, nothing less.  But she craved the stage although she had many other talents.  She was twenty then and adamant, and so she left home and went to live with relatives -- returning home only at intervals.

Alex was fifteen.  I was eight.  We acquiesced readily.  We both loved going to school and were avid for knowledge.  Alex was brilliant and sailed through high school and college.  I was proficient in history and literature but failed miserably in mathematics.  I was aiming at Teachers College but flunked geometry and took a secretarial course that stood me in good stead in later years when I needed a vocation to maintain myself.  

We three were all complex-- willful and non-conformists.  Papa was an absentee father.  He spent more time in the theatre than the home and did not understand our individual needs.  He loved us and thought that by providing us with a comfortable home, wholesome food and an education, he was being a good father.  He left the rest to Mama who lavished her affection and attention on us.  


Betty, Playing the Violin, circa 1904
Courtesy of the New York Public Library.

I was Papa’s favorite.  Being the youngest I was more pliable and spent a good deal of time with him backstage.  I became very familiar with the musicians and stagehands.  I was fascinated as I watched Papa and Maurice Schwartz, who often shared his dressing room, making up their faces.  Being character actors, their make-up was quite a process and took hours of preparation.  Their costumes were often elaborate and showy.  Papa was stately and majestic and was cast as a king whenever a play called for such a role.  He, therefore, gained the sobriquet of “King of the Yiddish actors.”  I remember him in a dashing hunting outfit of dove brown, complete with doublet, high boots, large hat and plume.  I remember roaming freely in the women’s dressing rooms where Bertha Kalich and Sarah Adler welcomed me.  Many times, I watched the wardrobe mistress drape and pin a few yards of cloth on these shapely ladies, transforming them into goddesses.

I suspect one of the chief motives that decided Papa to bar us from a theatrical career was -- me. I, his favorite child, augured no great histrionic promise.  If I had any such ambitions, it was still latent in me.  He had sent me to Prof. Balaban’s Dance Studio, but I was no threat to Pavlova.  Next came the violin, which was a half-size and looked like a toy, and I did manage to advance to third position and even performed solo in the school auditorium.

Every Saturday morning Mama and I would trek up Grand Street to the Bowery and take Third Avenue “El” to 116th Street where Prof. Glockenspiel had his studio.  He was a very dignified gentleman and able to intimidate me sufficiently to practice about one-and-one-half hours daily.  No minor feat, as I was a pampered and recalcitrant child.  Mama even had to bribe me to make the trip to Harlem with three Charlotte Russes for a nickel.  They were delectable, wrapped in a cardboard cup devoured on the “El” en route and was fortified for my lesson with the austere professor.

I loved going to school.  My imagination ran riot.  As I studied geography and American and European history, I developed a craving for travel all over the universe.  I wanted to mingle with the people of all nations, learn their characters and customs, their language, music, dance, visit their museums and acquaint myself with their culture and tradition.  Quite an order, and I did realize some of my dream, if only a part of it. 

Our home was always filled with gaiety and music.  We brought our friends to our home and Mama welcomed them.  She adored young people but did not ignore her cronies.  For them, the tea kettle always steamed and the cookie jar was always open and plentiful.  Everybody sang and danced, even Laura, our parrot who screamed and fluttered in her cage, many times stealing the show.

I must have begun singing in my cradle.  I loved folk songs of all nations.   They kindled my imagination and transported me to those magic places.  Possessing an aptitude for languages, I sang in as many tongues as I could master.  I studied French for several years; also Italian, even taking night courses in Russian and Hebrew.  Yiddish I learned from Mama, who was well-versed and immersed in that language.  She read the Forwards (backwards), every inch of it.  From folk songs, I progressed to art songs from Palgstrin, Debussy to Mozart, Schubert, Brahms, Rachmaninoff to name a few.  Then with the advent of the victrola came the operatic arias.  I was now ready for some vocal schooling and entered the Third Street Music School Settlement.  Papa paid for my lessons reluctantly, still fearing I might decide on a career.  He needn’t have status, just enjoying it all, still intent on teaching school.  Every subject I studied fascinated me --biology, physiography, anything but mathematics so deadly, dull and unromantic, so practical --ugh.

I always loved the theatre but only as a spectator and severe critic.  Music was my first love and still is.  I was first exposed to it by the Yiddish Theatre, and then with the advent of the phonograph and stereo my tastes were broadened, and I became addicted to chamber, orchestral and also enjoy a Viennese operetta, Gilbert and Sullivan or a smashing Broadway musical.  My tastes were boundless.  Even Shakespeare was music to me.  Without fully understanding the deep philosophy and significance of the spoken word, so lyrical with its cadence and nuance, I am emotionally stirred as if I were listening to a symphony.

In the company of several close friends for many years, all music devotees, we became constant concert goers and Carnegie and Town Hall, as well as the Lewisohn Stadium was home to us.  However, never did I neglect the Yiddish Theatre or the American Stage.  

I was still doing my homework and taking my vocal lessons when boom!  Disaster befell me -- I flunked geometry, which dashed my hopes of entering Teacher’s College.  Laura Elliott, my vocal teacher, had been urging me to try for a theatrical career.  Seeing no other recourse, I succumbed.  Little did she know Papa, but she did convince me that my voice was good enough, and I decided to beard the lion.

I was an old hand at wheedling anything out of Papa that I desired.  This was before modern-day amplifiers and microphones, and Papa believed that indeed neither did I.  Papa, of course, desisted and I insisted and guess who won?

I suggested he take me to an authority and have him decide.  He arranged a meeting with Joseph Rumshinsky, Dean of Yiddish Composers and Conductors, but he did not tell me that he had cautioned Rumshinsky to discourage me.  Mr. Rumshinsky and Jacob Kalich were then managers and producers of all of Molly Picon’s successes at the peak of their careers, and where Molly Picon reigned supreme as the uncontested super star of the Yiddish Theatre, as indeed she still is at the age of eighty-two, (bless her) the last of a glorious array of luminaries that preceded her.

Joseph Rumshinsky was not unknown to me.  He knew me from childhood.  The Yiddish actors were a tight little group and their family life closely knitted.  The families spent many summers in the country and seashore together, and all actors had a paternal and maternal interest in us.  I was quite familiar with Joseph Rumshinsky’s tunes, and from his style I gathered he favored high voices and florid music.  Instinctively, with astute judgment, I chose to sing for him from Donizetti’s “Lucia” with all the cadenzas and high “C’s,” all of which I had learned from Galli-Curci’s superb record. Rumshinsky was impressed and said, “Pay no attention to your father, continue your vocal studies, and at the first opening I will engage you for my theatre.

And so it came about, less than three years later.  Papa was finally convinced I had a chance and my career was launched.

In my next chapter, I will recount how my career developed my personality and poise; was most rewarding and enriched my life immeasurably.
 

CHAPTER FIVE

Now that Papa had Joseph Rumshinsky’s assurance that I had histrionic possibilities and would not put the name of Simonoff to shame, Papa took me in hand.  

It was Summer 1925 in New York, between seasons, and only a few vaudeville houses were in operation.  Papa arranged a tryout for me at the Second Avenue Theatre.  He taught me how to walk on and walk off without appearing gauche or nervous.  This was very wise counsel, as I learned later when I walked into a piece of scenery that was the backdrop.  There were several such mishaps, and I was fortunate Papa was there to guide me.  

Liturgical music of the synagogue was most effective in the theatre and became a “tour de force,” especially when sung by a woman.  Papa coached me in a prayer by Cantor Roitman called, “Oshamnu Mikol Om," which was bringing tears to my eyes.  To my horror, and being a novice at stage make-up and using too much mascara, two black copious tears trickled down the full length of my cheeks.  I was mortified, but evidently the audience did not notice it, and it did not hamper the applause one whit.  

Papa invited all the theatrical folk who were in town for an opinion.  Aaron Lebedeff said I was too fat (I was); Regina Zuckerberg, the second wife of Boris Thomashefsky, a lovely woman with a voice to match but fearing competition nevertheless, said my nose was too big -- it was and still is, and I should bob it (I didn’t). Michal Michalesko, a matinee idol, versatile and gifted, with an inflated ego to match and very wary of competition, who sang cantorial music successfully, disapproved having a woman sing it.  However, Papa and I decided it was most fitting and suitable for me.  The two leading composers of the day, Joseph Rumshinsky and Sholom Secunda, were eager to write special compositions for me and these compositions became an important part of my repertoire.  One thing all critics, adverse or favorable, could not deny, I could sing and Papa was pleased and convinced.

Papa, thereupon, secured an engagement for the season for both of us in Detroit, Michigan, at the Woodward Theatre. and my apprenticeship was started.  Papa took me in hand and began by improving my Yiddish, which was a second language to me.  Acting in a repertory theatre was arduous work, with nine performances a week and rarely a night off, and daily long rehearsals.  But its saving grace was that it was a challenge and an opportunity to express oneself.  As a child, I was brash and bold, but in early adulthood I became shy and was not aggressive, not always an asset in the theatre.  You could not always depend on the director and needed a good deal of initiative to create the role given you.  If you had any talent of particular aptitude, you had every chance to express it.  Fortunately, my forte was my voice and my genre was prima donna, so I appeared mostly in operettas, only occasionally doing a dramatic role (oy vay!) I always wanted to be a comedienne, like the proverbial comedian who yearned to play Hamlet.  Papa cautioned me, “Mayn kind zolst keyn mul veizen dus vus du kenst nish.”  My child, never reveal what you cannot do well.  Papa was right, and I capitalized on my singing.

I shall never forget opening night and opening jitters.  How could I forget the jitters?  I still have them.  Even today after more than fifty years, I still have them every time I face an audience.  

Opening night, in my prettiest dress, I made my entrance on cue and burst into song, stretching out my arms and hands and noticed them shaking like an aspen leaf.  I quickly withdrew them.  Happily, my voice showed nary a quiver nor revealed my nervousness.  Papa’s suggestion that I rehearse in front of a long mirror was aptly put and good advice to a novice.  The season flew by most agreeably and my Detroit cousins filled embraces, satisfied that I had found a profession I was ready to continue.

The next season Papa secured an engagement for us in Philadelphia.  The great Boris Thomashefsky, now old and corpulent, still flashing his black, expressive eyes, still retaining that aura of the theatre, so much a part of him and unmistakable.  He rented the old Metropolitan Opera House fashioned on the grand style of the New York Metropolitan.  The Philadelphia Opera Company was now housed in the new Academy of Music.  This grand old house was the proper setting for Thomashefsky, both of a bygone era, and both holding up with dignity and style.  The classics and the new audiences were more assimilated and sophisticated; their tastes changed, and their need for lighter and gayer entertainment grew.  They were just recovering from the devastation of World War I and needed this stimulation to lift their spirits.  Comedy, song and laughter was the order of the day.  The new stars were Molly Picon, Aaron Lebedeff, Michal Michalesko, Ludwig Satz and Menasha Skulnik.  Operettas were supreme and successful.  Yet the art form under the aegis of Maurice Schwartz continued along with the lighter form of entertainment.  The theatre flourished, and there was an audience to suit everyone’s taste. 

Thomashefsky opened opened the “Old Met” of Philadelphia like the master of fanfare and flourish that he was, with an extravaganza, an augmented orchestra and chorus and fabulous costumes.  He engaged an unknown baritone for the title role.  He was a man of imposing stature, handsome of face and figure.  His voice resounded gloriously at rehearsal.  We were all impressed.  Even Papa, a severe critic admitted he was a find.  But, alas, on opening night, the unhappy man lost himself completely.  The play was a disaster and was withdrawn after one performance -- that’s show biz.  Thomashefsky quickly revived an old success called the “Bar Mitzvah Boy.”  There was no boy in the company and I was elected to play the role of a thirteen-year-old boy.  To me that spelled emergency.  Papa and I rushed downtown and bought a boy’s suit for me, chubby size of course, as I bulged in the wrong places.  I was very convincing, and after a few performances we went into a cycle of Goldfaden plays.  This was a fortunate circumstance for me.  Avrum Goldfaden was the founder of the Yiddish Theatre in the United States about 1876 or even earlier.  He was poet, dramatist and composer.  His plays were based on biblical themes and remained in the repertory of the theatre throughout its existence.  It was a bonanza for me, viz, “Shulamis” “Bar Kochba” and the “Sacrifice of Isaac.”  These old classics were a “tour de force” for any prima donna, and I was able to follow in the tradition of Regina Prager, the innovator of that classical form.

After three weeks, the theatre closed and the actors were forced to return to New York and seek employment elsewhere.  It was sad.  Fortunately for us, Papa and I were able to join the Arch Street Theatre, a second company in Philadelphia for the duration of the season.  The Arch Street former New York successes of Molly Picon, Ludwig Satz and, of course, Goldfaden, the immortal.

About two months flew by and one evening during a performance of “Katinka”, one of Molly Picon’s popular vehicles in which I was playing the prima donna role originally portrayed by Lucy Levine, an attractive, sprightly young singer, there came a buzz-buzz back stage.  Yankel Kalich, Molly Picon’s husband, director and manager with Joseph Rumshinsky of the Molly Picon Enterprises at the leading theatre in New York had come from New York and was in the audience that could mean only one thing.  He was there to evaluate someone for the ensuing season, and everyone said it could be only me as there was an opening in my genre.  I did not believe that he would call on me when the opportunity arose, and thus it came to pass Mr. Kalich came backstage, complimented me on my performance and invited Papa and myself to come to New York and meet with Molly Picon and “Rummy” as he was fondly called.  It’s a lucky thing I was not informed in advance that Mr. Kalich was out front.  Had I known, I sure would have blown it.  We came to New York and met with the star, director and composer, and Papa and I were engaged for the season of '27-'28, and I was to make my debut in the leading Yiddish theatre with the “Colossus of Show Biz," the diminutive Molly Picon, to this day incomparable, revered by young and old and uncontested.  This was a significant step forward for a novice with only two years of apprenticeship and a great triumph for Papa.  His little girl had not let him down and upheld the good name of Simonoff.

We continued finishing the Philadelphia season, as I added considerably to my repertoire.  I familiarized myself with the many facets of the “trade”, with Papa’s expertise at my elbow.  I still had to learn and perfect my Yiddish, my second language.  Papa would not permit half- English, half-Yiddish.  He insisted I use as pure a Yiddish as I could master, and I liked it that way.  

The actors were a friendly lot and we enjoyed working together.  After the show, it was customary to relax and adjourn to a cafe for a snack or a cup of java or a glass of tea.  One actor, Medoff, was a jovial sort who owned a “jalopy."  Often six or seven of us would pile in, and off we went about fifty miles away to Trenton, New Jersey, presumably to mail a letter, thus releasing the tension of the day confined, as we were to hours of rehearsals and performances.  I enjoyed the camaraderie.  

I also made fast friends with a few Philadelphians, select outsiders who remained life-long friends.  Alex, my brother and I had a flair for making friends.  Perhaps because our immediate family was so small.  Mama was an only child and Papa the eldest of a large family, was the only one who immigrated to the Unites States, so Alex and I never knew the joy of knowing grandparents and aunts and uncles and we both attached ourselves to other families and [had] many steadfast and lasting friendships, a most precious investment of give and take that proved most rewarding.  The season finally came to an end,, and I came home to New York and Mama and her loving embrace.  She missed us and did not like these long separations but she accepted it as a way of life, as a real trouper, in her way.  I often marveled at Mama, born in a village, a “shtetl” populated mostly by Jews where there were few opportunities for growth.  Yet she manifested no provincial characteristics and adapted herself readily to the sophistication of the big city with grace and dignity.  She was educated, could read and write Yiddish but never learned English with any fluency.  Yet no one laughed more heartily than she at her malapropos.  She taught me the gift of being able to laugh at yourself.  She always was the lady, lovable, compassionate and merry and very popular among her cronies who sought her out for her wit, understanding and high spirit.

Every time I came home to New York from another city or another country, I realized how great New York was.  It was in my blood.  For me no other city possessed the same excitement or stimulation.  You had but to walk a short distance to find yourself in another world… “Little old New York,” modern development, various ethnic groups with their particular customs and habits, all so fascinating and colorful as your imagination cold fashion.  There was adventure in the air on every street; architecture of earlier periods conjuring up the Dutch settlers; landmarks aplenty or Revolutionary Days and people chattering in their native tongue.  It never ceased and there was always more to explore.  I was a willing captive never to relinquish despite my many jaunts thousands of miles away.  I looked forward with great expectation to the ensuing season.  Here I would be on home-ground on the Gay White Way of the East Side -- Second Avenue -- running from Houston Street to 14th Street -- with the theatre, peppered by movie houses in between, gay restaurants, aromatic delicatessen shops and bakeries ad infinitum, and the Cafe Royale at hours discussing every phase of show business.  The street of bright lights and light hearts and the theatre its core….   
 

CHAPTER SIX

The great debut was drawing closer.  It was 1928 and it was summer in New York -- vacation time for me after a hectic season of daily rehearsals and nine performances a week.  The hubbub of the big city was lulled by the exodus of the vacationers but invigorated by the influx of out-of-towners and foreigners who confined their pleasures to the theatres, hotels and restaurants of the Broadway sector, plus the museums, which left the remainder of the city to the natives.  

The time fled quickly and I was called to the first rehearsal.  I felt very composed.  The grand old theatre was familiar territory.  Papa had played there many seasons as well as I.  I met the company, most of whom I knew.  Molly Picon was a delight, ever gracious and cooperative, an astute trait most essential for the success of a play.  No airs or doing temperament.  She was “Molly” to all of us.  She had a happy disposition, doing what she loved most and an inspiration to us all.  She never upstaged you, a blessing to a beginner, discounting, of course, my speechless triumph as a child actress.  

 


Betty Simonoff in "Circus Girl," 1928
Courtesy of the New York Public Library

 

Our opening play was “The Circus Girl,” one of Molly’s top successes, tuneful and colorful, where Molly did not hesitate to climb a rope and hang suspended in the air by one ankle.  The audience gasped, as did we backstage.  This was typical of Molly, daredevil that she was.  Nothing phased her as she attempted and accomplished many daring feats during her long career.

“The Circus Girl” was a play about a group of strolling gypsies and clowns, often hungry and ragged.  However, this being a musical and not too realistic; we were resplendent in colorful and lavish costumes.  Molly introduced me to her personal costumer, Mme. Herthe, a French-Russian woman who charmed me with her broken English.  Equally, she transformed my plump figure with her magic touch into a sylph, swathed seductively in a beruffled Spanish gown with hat to match and bright flower tucked under hat on my ear.  For the second act, I wore a hand-painted colorful, bedazzled gypsy costume complete with sequins and gold coins.  Here I sang my special number masterfully written by maestro Rumshinsky, which was a show stopper and established me as a singer of note (pun absolutely intended).  Not until sometime later, “Rummy” as he was fondly called, confessed to me that he had written an adequate solo for me, but upon playing it for Molly before the opening, she urged him to embellish it to show off my voice to the fullest -- and so he did.  Not many stars are quite so generous and thoughtful.  There is much more to add of that memorable season. which will follow later in my next chapter.

As important as my career was, so were the attachments I formed in those early years, which still endure.  Among them Molly and her Yankel (Kalich), director and producer, a man of learning and dignity with a marvelous sense of humor and theatre “know-how."  Loveable Molly Picon who endeared herself to all actors; plus Molly’s devoted sister, Helen, husband, Bill, and son, George.  I have known Molly and Helen for more than fifty years.  Helen is a younger mother Picon, with the same warmth, constancy and hospitality, a true and valued friend.  As for Molly, I wrote her a short time ago --"Molly Picon, the star, is worth the price of a ticket at the box office, but Molly Picon the woman and friend is priceless.”  That is how I feel about her.

Beside playing nine performances a week with rarely a night off and daily rehearsals, we willingly found time to go the rounds and entertain for free at luncheons of the many organizations, such as ORT, Hadassah, Seventh Street Orphanage, Fifth Street Day Nursery, Histadrut, Jewish National Fund, Jewish Guild for the Blind; Veterans Hospitals and Paraplegics from the Waldorf Astoria to a remote little shul in Brownsville.  I even sang in Sing Sing Prison at Ossining, New York, where I was locked in for several hours.  I swear I was innocent, an expression all scoundrels use, but I hope my readers will believe me.  

Then there were the numerous nursing homes throughout Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx.  We would go in groups of four or five and stage a performance, which was so well received and appreciated we were always invited to come back and we did so as often as we could, no matter what inroads it made on our precious free time as we found it so rewarding.  

I am now eighty-f0ur years old, and I reside at the Home of the Daughters of Jacob.  Although I entertained in so many nursing homes throughout the City, I was most impressed by the approach to the Daughters of Jacob.  Its grandeur as we walked through the gate and puffed up the steep hill, set in that beautiful park and beheld the grand stairway leading to the entrance of colonial architecture.  So many of the old folks were lined up outside to welcome us, and I shall never forget that dear little shul with its aura of holiness and the aroma (glutton that I am) of the good old-fashioned luncheon prepared for us, so “geshmock” (tasty), just like Mama used to make.  

I didn’t dream that this would be my home eventually, but I am sure I made a wise choice and am enjoying the many benefits I have found here.
 

CHAPTER SEVEN

Now to return to that momentous season of 1928.  Show business was booming under the triumvirate of Molly Picon, Jacob Kalich and Joseph Rumshinsky at the Second Avenue Theatre, and we, the cast, were beaming.  In the theatrical world, nothing can transcend the sweet smell of success.  Both financial and artistic, we all luxuriated in it.  Everybody loved everybody.  There was no friction of disparity, and a good time was had by all.  

In the middle of the season when “The Circus Girl” had run its course to packed houses, we followed with yet another triumph, “Hello Molly."  In this play, “Molly,” the piquant Picon displayed her versatility disguised as a young man about town, dressed impeccably in white tails and tie, to entice from her errant father the seductive pseudo Princess Natasha, a nightclub singer, none other than “mousy me,” who by the magic of song and resplendent costume was transformed into that image.  This play, as in all of Molly’s successes, by her personal magnetism, was the vehicle which we carried on our road tour.  

The theatrical road tour was the great adventure of holiday.  Here one had the opportunity to see the leading cities of the United States in style.  We were a company of about forty in personnel.  We traveled by train in our private car, stopped at the best hotels, dined in the finest restaurants, all expenses paid.  It was a lark.  We were welcomed in all cities by eager multitudes who waited for our arrival, and we were wined and dined and feted wherever we appeared… Newark, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Cleveland, St. Louis, Detroit, Chicago, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Hartford, Buffalo, Boston, Providence, plus innumerable one-night stands in smaller communities, wherever there was a sizable Jewish community.  All was gay and rosy.  There were few rehearsals, just refreshers to keep us on our toes.  When we arrived in the larger cities, we had morning radio broadcasts to advertise the show.  In our private car, we relaxed after the performance as we moved from city to city, and it was jolly and enjoyable.  Who could ask for anything better?

The road tours familiarized me with the high points of the many cities and their characteristics.  Each city had its own identity and individuality.  Most fascinating were the theatres we appeared in… running the gamut of very old and musty, dusty ones reminiscent of earlier days, filled with theatre history, such as the one in Milwaukee with the old scenery stacked up against the wall and the platforms, ropes and scaffolds reaching to awesome heights.  Then there were the full-length portraits of the stars of yesteryear --Maurice Barrymore, father of Lionel, Ethel and John; Southern and Marlowe, Shakespearian luminaries; John Drew and his mother; Joseph Jefferson to name but a few.  One had a revered feeling as one looked at them.  It was an eerie sight in the semi-darkness, so silent when only an hour before it had been alive with bright lights, music, action and theatre’s magic excitement.

Then there were the magnificent opera houses, such as the St. Louis Municipal Opera House with its modern equipment which required an augmented orchestra, to the utter delight of Joseph Rumshinsky, known as the Dean of Yiddish composers because of his love for flourish and fanfare and privately known as the “Din” of Jewish composers when he got carried away.  Also the Chicago Civic Opera House with its lavish dressing rooms formerly used by such greats as Rosa Raisa, Tito Ruffo, Mary Garden, Galli-Curci, to name a few, and I with my wild imagination envisioned the activity going on backstage during an opera performance.  I could hear the stars vocalizing; the musicians tuning their instruments; the order of the stage manager to "darken the House," the tap of the conductor to begin and the excitement of the opening bars of the overture.  

I hoped it would never end, but all too soon we saw the handwriting on the wall -- the 1929 Wall Street crash and the consequent Depression, which spelled doom for the Yiddish Theatre.  Entertainment was a luxury item that thrives with prosperity.

However, we did not feel the full impact immediately.  It took several years.  It still was viable, and I continued on successfully.

The following year, I was engaged by Sholom Secunda, eminent composer and Misha German, director, who with his wife, Lucy German, as the star were a popular duo.  With Sholom Secunda, a gifted composer, I began another profitable alliance and added many gems to my repertoire of solos.  

Lucy German, as leading lady, was the direct antithesis of Molly Picon.  She was more temperamental than gifted.  By temperamental I mean 99% temper and 1% mental.  However, the cast took her in stride, and Messrs.  German and Secunda held her in tow.  

The following season I continued at the Rolland Theatre with Mr. Secunda at the musical helm and a new cast.  By 1931, I was back at the Second Avenue Theatre with Joseph Rumshinsky.  The endearing and enduring Molly Picon had by now gone on to new triumphs via the summer straw circuit and Broadway but never truly deserted her alma mater. The Yiddish theatre...which was so much a part of her life from earliest childhood.

We took over at the Second Avenue Theatre with European stars who did not “blitz," and by 1932, Jos. Rumshinsky, undaunted, opened at the Rolland Theatre with Michal Michalesko, matinee idol, and funny man -- Menasha Skulnik.  

In the two seasons I played with him, I giggled through it all.  I was the arch-giggler and could not resist his antics.  He broke me up in every scene I had with him, and I suspect he enjoyed titillating me.  It had the right effect on the audience, who lapped it up and we were a success.  So much so that he wanted to take me with him on a South American tour, where he was a great favorite, but Papa had just passed away and I was not in the mood.

Throughout these seasons, there always followed the road tours, although the seasons were being reduced, as were the tours.  One outstanding tour was that of a revival of “Bar Kochba,” the classical Biblical opera by Avrum Goldfaden starring Moishe Oysher, brilliant singer, with a select [cast].



Betty Simonoff, in "Song of Israel," 1932
Courtesy of the New York Public Library

CHAPTER EIGHT

The season of 1932 came to an end with a flourish at the Rolland Theatre with Joseph Rumshinsky at the baton and Michal Michalesko, matinee idol and star, followed by a curtailed road tour.  It was mid-April and the customary few months of idleness lay ahead.  To me it was never idleness but leisure.  I was never bored in my beloved city, there was so much to do and so much to see, and my numerous friends were there to see and do things with me. 

The months of repertory work were so time-consuming and a great responsibility, and now I was free to enjoy myself at will.  

I was home about a week when Michal Michalesko telephoned me and asked me if I would like to accompany him on a European tour for the Spring.  I flipped and hesitated about three seconds and said, “Yes.”  Was it possible?  Was the impossible dream happening to me?  I met him at the Yiddish Theatrical Union [Hebrew Actors' Union],which was our agency and we entered into a verbal contract.  Mr. Michalesko was leaving for Paris, and I with his wife were to follow a week later.  We selected the “Last Dance” as our main vehicle, one of Mr. Michalesko’s outstanding successes.  Mr. Michalesko gave me full license to substitute my own special tried out “show-stoppers."  I didn’t have too much theatrical know-how, but I remember Papa’s wise counsel.  “Give them all you’ve got for on your first entrance.  Don’t save it for your special spot in the second act.  That will come anyway.”  And so it was.  Bless him.  He was always beside me on stage as Mama was and still is with me off stage.  If I am worth a hill of beans today, I owe it all to them.  

I immediately got busy refurbishing my wardrobe and had complete orchestral arrangements made of my music.  Marco Polo II with shining eyes made ready to take on the Grand Tour, and a grand tour it was, an enriching experience that left its imprint on me to this very day and broadened my concept of living in parts of the world other than my little corner of the universe.  

The momentous day for departure arrived and on May 5, 1933, Mrs. Michalesko and I embarked on the S.S. Cunard liner, Majestic.  Our cabin was none too large and most inadequate to handle the overflow of friends and relatives seeing me off and all laden with flowers.  They couldn’t get in and spilled into the corridor, much like a scene in a famous Marx Brothers movie called, “A Night at the Opera."  To add to the pandemonium, my sister had brought her son, Bobby, age thirteen, a virtuoso of sorts, to serenade me on the lugubrious oboe with “Oy iz dus a meydl (Oh is this a Girlie),” a song referring to Molly Picon and not me, but I loved it.

Soon it was time to say goodbye and they all left for the pier to wave farewell.  Mrs. Michalesko and I went to the deck where I had a full view of their faces.  I suddenly came down to earth and realized I was undertaking a great adventure far away from home, practically alone, although for but a month or two.  I didn’t know then that it was to stretch into more than a year-and-a-half.  Nevertheless, when the liner jolted loose from the dock, my heart jumped with it as I had a premonition, although joyous that I would be away from home for such a long time.  As the liner slowly moved, the last words I heard was Sholom Secunda yelling, “Bring me a kolbas (salami) from Warsaw,” and the last thing I beheld as their dear faces disappeared was the bright colorful scarf of my close friend, May Kursch, fluttering in the breeze.

When they were out of sight, Mrs. Michalesko and I went to our cabin, sat down on our berths and wept copiously.  We soon, however, dried our tears, freshened our faces, changed our clothes and went for dinner.  My mixed emotions caught me by surprise.  I hadn’t realized heretofore that I was so sentimental, and it was a lesson in what goes on in one’s subconscious.  I guess I was still growing up, although I was past twenty-one.  “One does not grow up on the calendar,” as some wiser person than I once said.  

In the dining room, we were assigned to a table for four.  We wanted a table for two, but when we walked over to the table assigned to us, two handsome young men rose and invited us to join them.  We succumbed.  They were regular theatre patrons, had recognized me, and requested a table with us.  It was a very happy arrangement, and they made our voyage most enjoyable.  Both young men were named Harry.  Harry Roth, with a comic Chaplinesque moustache, I steered toward Mrs. Michalesko.  Harry Blum was much more personable and appealing, and I made a wise choice, and a good time was had by all.  

We finally reached Cherbourg, said a tender goodbye to the Harrys, vowed to meet again and promptly forgot them.  We boarded the tender for the train to Paris.  We had a delectable dinner (you can’t beat the French cuisine).  As the train pulled in, there stood Mr. Michalesko with a bouquet of flowers for his wife, and there stood Georges with a bouquet for me.  Georges was a close friend of Mrs. Michalesko’s son by a former marriage.  Not only was he charming and attentive, but he owned a car and he showed me Paris and its environs, as I might not have seen had I not met him.   

It was all to the good.  I am afraid I was not too true to my calling.  I must admit my secret passion and goal was to see Paris.  Would I ever have such a choice plum again?  I felt the pulse of the city.  I marched to its tempo.  The streets were so alive and vibrant; the charm of language, dress and customs so versatile, so irresistible, so undeniably unique, all there for me to imbibe.  I glowed and danced to her tune.  It was so magnifique.  Here was Paris made to order for me as I visualized it so many times magnified by my imagination and whetted by my spirit.  I was the ideal tourist, not only seeing all points of interest, but mingling with the people and acquainting myself with their characteristics and idiosyncrasies.

After living there eleven weeks, I felt like a native, met many of our American actors, managers and entrepreneurs.  On the Rue De La Paix and at the bank I ran into a number of school teachers or as they sipped an aperitif at a sidewalk cafe; all was very gay, chummy and “haimish” as we say in French.

I saw two outstanding plays, one a drama, which I confess I did not understand fully, a French scholar I was not, and the other a musical which was more familiar.  I visited several museums, the Montmarte, Pont Neuf, and Les Tuileries (one of Marie Antoinette’s palaces and gardens) -- never a dull moment.  It was the month of May, Paris in the Spring, everywhere they sang “Parlez Moi D’Amour” (speak to me of love).  The air was filled with the delightful perfume of lilies-of-the-valley, flower vendors everywhere, fresh, sweet wild strawberries in season with “smetana” yet, (Yiddish for sweet cream).  I enjoyed eating in the side-street cafes, conversing in half-Yiddish and half-French with the Polish-born restaurateurs.

I visited the Musée De Cluny, which had a large collection of ancient Hebrew artifacts, as well as a fabulous collection of early Torahs and scrolls made of leather and papyrus; also I was fascinated by the many rich, ornamental silver ceremonial beakers and platters and ornate candlesticks, plus other ritual and traditional wares with carvings and precious stones, the handicraft of earlier centuries from Germany, France, Italy, Holland -- from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance.  

Outstanding were my visits to the Louvre, first, like the typical American tourist, I had to see the Venus De Milo and the Mona Lisa.  I was not too impressed.  The Mona Lisa, I found was a small painting about 15” X 20."  I had seen many bigger and brighter reproductions.  As for the Venus De Milo, the only difference was the several erosions the replica at the Metropolitan Museum of Art did not have.  I was still a novice and an art connoisseur I was not, that is, until I discovered Claude Monet.  I wandered into a small room and was dazzled.  I shall never forget the ecstasy of that moment, as I beheld the most glorious colors from veiled, muted delicacy to exquisite brilliance and its impact on me.  To this day I do not know who was the greater impressionist -- Monet or me.  

Georges, dear Georges, who was so lovable, and handsome to boot, showed me the Champs-Élysées, the Bois de Boulogne and Fontainbleau.  Before I left Paris for Antwerp, he surprised me by calling at my hotel quite early, announcing we were driving to the country to have lunch at Nogent-sur-Marne, a village along the river.  The drive into the country was delightful, and our lunch on the riverside consisted of freshly caught fish from the river, with all the delicious side dishes as only the French can make.  He then declared it was his birthday and opened a bottle of champagne in celebration.  It was a joyous and memorable day and was carried out with great delicacy and aplomb and among my fondest memories.  

My Parisian debut was a success beyond all my dreams.  Our audience consisted of many Polish Jews who immigrated and settled in Paris after World War I.  They were known to be the choicest audience because of their great need for the Yiddish word, as were the early immigrants of America whom I described so vividly here in my previous chapters.  They came to see the same play two and three times over, so hungry were they for this form of entertainment in a foreign land.  

Mr. Michalesko was most popular in Poland and the United States.  He was not only talented, but handsome, versatile and enjoyed an enviable reputation as a great favorite.  Unfortunately, he was very vain and shared success grudgingly.  I saw it from a different angle.  I was glad to work opposite a big star and glad I was instrumental in enhancing the play and contributing to its success, both artistically and financially.  

I was completely unknown in Europe.  Had he heralded me as the sensational coloratura prima donna of the United States or adjectives to that effect, they might have sat back and said “show me."  Instead he chose to barely mention me in the billing and advertisements.  This boomeranged in my favor, and their enthusiasm was phenomenal.  I was not only pleased, I looked upon it as a feather in Mr. Michalesko’s cap.  I complimented his performance, which proved a great asset at the box office and stretched into eleven weeks instead of six.  

A coolness arose in our relationship which distressed me, but could not detract from my chief ambition… the Grand Tour.  I was imbued with the great adventure and nothing could hamper me.  This was my first and probably my only opportunity to “see the world,” and nothing was going to dampen that desire.

From France we trekked on to Belgium and Poland, with more ahead for me.  
 

CHAPTER NINE

Leaving Paris was most difficult.  I felt I had barely scratched the surface.  Paris was not France.  There was the pastoral but equally exciting countryside with its rural customs and folk, there was the Midi and the Mediterranean shore.  My appetite was insatiable.  I forgot I was only a working girl under contract.  I had to move on and adventure was verboten.  Then there was Georges, such a dear, always ready to please me, and being quite the cavalier, he did just that, leaving me with fondest memories of our brief encounter.  

And so onward to Belgium.  By slow train to Brussels, I got many glimpses of a new world.  I observed and absorbed the quaint villages, the fields, the architecture.  Finally, we reached Brussels, or “Petit Paris” as it was called.  Both French and Flemish were spoken here.  Flemish, I found to be a mixture of Dutch, German and English, sounding just like Yiddish, yet I did not understand a word of it.  The folk women dressed in sabots, voluminous skirts beautiful lace collars and cuffs and numerous strings of coral or aged pearls wound about their necks, just like having stepped out of a Rembrandt painting. 

We gave a concert there to a packed house and the following day left for Antwerp, where we remained for seven weeks.  On arrival, the following morning I went to the theatre for first rehearsal with a new company of actors and musicians.  As I entered the lobby, coming toward me was our orchestra leader, Daniel, with the soulful eyes.  He made Antwerp come alive to me, as I found it rather stodgy, lacking color and vivacity.  At least so it seemed to me at first, as I was confined to the environs surrounding the theatre locale.

We played in Antwerp seven successful and lucrative weeks.  It was a busy commercial city, as Daniel pointed out, but it had its charms and romance, as Daniel point out to me.  Many prosperous diamond and fur merchants were patrons of the theatre, and the attendance was phenomenal.  Full houses were very inspiring.  Equally, was Daniel facing me in the orchestra pit and waving his baton.  Music hath its charms, and our rapport was reflected in my singing.

Daniel was a long-haired musician and played in the Antwerp Aufgebau Symphonic Orchestra.  He was moved by my rendition of cantorial singing, and I was easily attracted to his earnest and emotional demeanor.  He took me to two concerts, in one of which he participated.  He showed me parts of interest and history of the city, especially the famous statue at the edge of the sea of the legendary hero whose hands were amputated and thrown into the sea for defying the reigning tyrant, therefore, “Hantwerfen” anglicized as Antwerp.

We were playing about three weeks in Antwerp when our manager announced the best-known entrepreneur in England was in the theatre to appraise us.  We were playing a short play, followed by a concert by Mr. Michalesko and me.  Mr. Blumenthal was impressed and booked us for three months in London after our stint in Lodz, Poland, which was to end our tour.  Naturally, I was pleased.  Couldn’t imagine being in Europe and passing up London.  I had already made tentative plans to meet Daniel after my tour, and to go to Salzburg for the Mozart festival.  Ah me -- it was not to be.  So au revoir Daniel and Viva Britannia.  

We arrived in Lodz, Poland on schedule.  Lodz, the second largest city in Poland and formerly a thriving industrial center, had been devastated by World War I and still showed the ravages of that war.  It had never regained its former supremacy.  Up to now the Jewish people I met in France and Belgium were indistinguishable from any other until they spoke Yiddish.  In Lodz, they were immediately recognizable by their garb of kaftan, yarmulke and payes (side curls).  Their poverty and misery showed cruelly in their demeanor.  They were reduced to menial labor, and I observed far too many carrying staggering loads on their backs.  There were few automobiles or horse- drawn vehicles visible.  Only once I hailed a droshky, equivalent to our hansom cab, but far more rickety.  I wanted the experience and POW!  I got it.  I bounced around on it holding on for dear life expecting any moment to hit the pavement head first.  Needless to say I never ventured on one again.   There were many beggars, mostly women and children.  It was very sad and depressing.  Their social status painfully low.  It was 1933 and no awareness whatsoever of the impending Holocaust six years later in which so many of my fond colleagues of the theatre perished.  

I was reminded of the early immigrants of my childhood who came to New York City, which I described in my earlier chapters.  Here too, the theatre was their only refuge and entertainment.  We played only one play for seven weeks, and they came repeatedly becoming familiar with it and singing along with us.

As though made to order, there stood Hertzke, a violinist and the younger brother of Fania Rubina, who was a member of the company.  Hertzke almost immediately attached himself to me, and I often wonder when I look back what drew these young attractive men to me.  Was it me or my voice?  Quién sabe? [Who knows?].  I only have a beautiful souvenir from each.  A photograph of Georges sipping an aperitif at a sidewalk cafe on the Champs-Élysées; a book of Lieder [songs] by Hugo Wolf from Daniel, and a silver pin with an inscription inside, the pin representing the first bar of my outstanding success -- a cantorial chant.

Lodz was not as large a city as Paris and Antwerp and we were closer knit.  I became more attached to my fellow actors.  It was the end of 1933, yet no one seemed aware of the disastrous confrontation facing Poland only six short years later.  So many of them perished in the Holocaust, and I shall never forget them, nor shall I forget all other innocent human beings of whatever race or color, making me more anti-war than heretofore, if that is possible.  

Hertzke and his sisters succeeded in escaping to America.  After a year in New York, Hertzke joined an orchestra in Hollywood.  Returning from an engagement in Las Vegas to Los Angeles he was killed in an automobile accident, and sweet, tender Hertzke was gone but he still lives on in my heart as does every friend I have lost.  

The seven weeks in Lodz flew by all too quickly.  I bid my many friends a fond farewell and set out for Gdynia, the port on the border of Germany and Poland and the Baltic sea.  I stayed overnight at a hotel and was to board the Polish deluxe liner, “Pilsudski,” the following day.  

I was shocked at the sight of Gdynia.  All the buildings bore banners with Nazi swastikas.  The night clerk, a woman, was in uniform with swastika armband.  She was arrogant and offensive.  She repelled me and stole my Sheaffer pen to boot.  

I was glad to board the ship the following day and blot out the horrendous sight.  The voyage on the Baltic and North Seas was rather rough, but being a good sailor I mustered it well.  I managed to blot out the ugly memory of Gdynia and enjoyed my trip.

So goodbye Gdynia and cheerio London. 

 

Exhibition Curator: Steven Lasky

 

Exhibition made possible with the cooperation of the New York Public Library.

 


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