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The Jewish Quarter
of Philadelphia

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THE ARCH STREET THEATER

 

     In the summer of 1898, Morris Finkel decided to bring first-class Yiddish theatre to Philadelphia and he rented the old Arch Street Theater,[i] 613 Arch Street.  Morris Finkel, a regisseur, (i.e., a Yiddish theater entrepreneur), determined to bring New York excitement to the sleepy Yiddish stage of Philadelphia.  During the fall of 1898, the Arch Street Theater sparkled with Yiddish shund, or popular theater, and drama.   

     The Arch Street Theater was not the first Yiddish theater in Philadelphia but it would be one of the largest.  Another theater, the Oriental, located at Dramatic Hall, 5th & Gaskill streets, had been popular when the immigrants first arrived.  In the early 1890s, Tatem's stables, a comparatively new brick building on the east side of 8th Street below Lombard Street, was purchased by a "company of Hebrews" and plans were made to transform the building into a Yiddish theater.  Nothing came of this idea and for a number of years there was no established Yiddish theater in Philadelphia.  During the Panic of 1892, the immigrants had little money for frivolities, although they did attend infrequent traveling productions given in halls and theaters rented for individual performances.[ii] 

The Arch Street Theater, Philadelphia
 From a photo-engraving in
"The Delineator", September, 1923.

     By the fall of 1898, economic conditions in the country, and in the Jewish quarter, improved; for three or four months, the Arch Street Theater proved wildly popular with the immigrants, but this popularity did not necessarily excite young offspring.  The younger generation grew to maturity in their adopted country and for them, English was their mother tongue.  They "not only did not wish to remember [Jargon, or Yiddish], but pretend they do not know."[iii]

     Opening the Arch Street Theater, however, may not have been Finkel's chief reason for moving to Philadelphia.  Finkel, who was then well into his forties, divorced and living in New York, persuaded the teenage actress, Emma Thomashevsky, the youngest sister of Boris, to marry and escape to Philadelphia, a place familiar to her as she played here on the Yiddish stage as a young girl.  Finkel did this behind the backs of the loving and close Thomashevsky family.
[iv]  In Philadelphia, Finkel immediately scheduled High Holy Day services at the Arch Street Theater, presumably to acquaint the immigrants with the location of the building which was somewhat north of where most of the immigrants lived.  Advertisements in the New York Yiddish press soon announced that Sigmund Mogulesko (Mogulescu), the great Yiddish comic actor, would perform for an entire week at the Arch Street Theater.  No Jewish actor was more loved in the immigrant community than Mogulesko. 

     Finkel declared that Mogulesko would perform in Philadelphia "for the entire coming season," a claim many must have seriously doubted, given the semi-provincial nature of the Yiddish stage in Philadelphia.  Among other pieces, Mogulesko was to star in Coquettish Ladies, a show Mogulesko himself had brought to Philadelphia a decade earlier.  The following week, Finkel had even better news for the yidn.  He announced that the great actress, Keni Liptzin would appear for an entire week and on Friday evening, Saturday afternoon and evening, October 3rd and 4th, 1898, she would perform Mirele Efros, the Yiddish King Lear, perhaps the best loved play of Jacob Gordin.  However, soon Finkel tired of the city, or exhausted his supply of actors who wanted to leave New York, and so the Arch Street theatre reverted to vaudeville again and would not again see Yiddish theatre on this grand scale until Mike Thomashevskky took the Arch Street Theatre over in 1909 and for the next 27 years ran it as a Yiddish theatre and a vaudeville theatre until it was sold in 1936."


[i]  For personal recollections of one of the stars of that old theater, see Autobiographical Sketch of Mrs. John Drew, with biographical notes by Douglas Taylor (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1899), and Evening Bulletin, July 10 and October 21, 1936.  Mrs. Drew was the grandmother of the three Barrymores, Ethel, Lionel and John.  The Arch Street Theater was reconstructed in 1863.  With its red plush seats, its white and gold trimmings, its crystal chandeliers and general appearance of newness, it was considered "the last word in the provision of a modern playhouse."

[ii]  Public Ledger, Monday, June 13, 1892, at the Academy of Music.  In the summer, the Academy of Music and other center-city theaters were used for Yiddish productions.  The legitimate theater ended its season when the summer heat arrived which made these buildings available to the immigrants.   

[iii]  The Immigrant Jew in America, Edited by Edmund J. James (New York: B.F. Buck & Co., 1907), p. 235.  Within the next several years, two additional theaters catered to the older east European Jews, the uptown National Theater, 10th & Callowhill streets, which produced plays in English and Yiddish, and the Standard, 12th & South streets, which for a few years had an English-speaking stock company which produced immigrant-theater fare.  See, The Immigrant Jew in America, pp. 235-237.

[iv]  The marriage ended in tragedy.  On June 7, 1904, Finkel, in a jealous rage, shot Emma and killed himself, The World, June 9, 1904.  At the time of the shooting, Emma was twenty seven years old and mother of their three children.  She was permanently crippled.  For years after, Emma enjoyed the Yiddish theater crowd in Atlantic City, NJ, at the Majestic Hotel, 169 S. Virginia Avenue, owned by Pelicoff and Frankel.  Yiddish actors, especially the Thomashevskys, danced and laughed at the hotel and on Sunday evenings they performed at local theatres. 
 

PHILADELPHIA 1 
Photo courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Gallery. Text  from "The Jewish Quarter of Philadelphia" by  Harry D.  Boonin, 1999.

 



 



 

 


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