The Museum of
the yiddish world
Joseph Buloff: An Appreciation
by Martin Boris
“He doesn’t have to act,” wrote Maurice Schwartz, seeing him perform for the first time. “His special twists and turns move the audience so that they automatically break out in laughter. Buloff was a born clown. For the rest of his life he could merely play Joseph Buloff.”
And so he did, over the next sixty years, as well as hundreds of characters on the Yiddish and English-language stages, a longevity unmatched by few actors—and never less than a rave review.
After the desertion of Muni Weisenfreund (who would morph into Paul Muni) from the prestigious Yiddish Art Theatre in 1925, Schwartz was desperate for a replacement. Reports had come to him of a remarkable actor currently the rage of Bucharest for his imaginative adaptation of and performance in ‘The Singer of His Sorrows.’ Though young and relatively inexperienced, Joseph Buloff was part of the famous Vilna Troupe. He’d been in the premiere of Ansky’s masterpiece ‘The Dybbuk.’ For a decade, the Troupe had built an enviable reputation, performing quality ensemble theatre with a repertoire of the finest Yiddish and mainstream plays. Maurice Schwartz’s own Art Theatre had in great measure been inspired by the Vilna’s ideals and practices.
Born in Vilna on December 6, 1899, Buloff grew up in the chaotic atmosphere of war and revolution convulsing Eastern Europe at the time. His own home life was equally unsettling because of a father who’d made a fortune in America and lost it in The Pale. But determined early on to become an actor, emotionally unsuited for anything else, he edged into the shabby Elysium Theatre in Warsaw and told Leib Kadison, the Vilna Troupe’s founder, of his intention. “Very good,” was Kadison’s bemused response. “And where do you live?”
“I don’t live yet,” came the gritty reply.
He was soon to however, blossoming with the Vilna, becoming its finest player and winning Kadison’s lovely talented daughter Luba to the bargain. By 1923, the Troupe had fractured, one branch going off to play Berlin and other Western capitals. Joseph and Luba took their group to Bucharest and quickly won accolades from the average Yiddish theatre-goer to King Carol, the reigning monarch. Then the fabulous Maurice Schwartz beckoned, and after months of negotiations, the Buloffs emigrated to America. Growing fascism in Europe helped influence the decision. In 1926, Schwartz opened the million-dollar playhouse built for him on Second Avenue and 12th Street with Goldfaden’s ‘The Tenth Commandment.’ Buloff’s debut in it couldn’t save the production, a splashy flop.
Discouraged by the experience and disenchantment with commercial Yiddish Theatre, Joseph went to Chicago to direct experimental theatre for the Dramatishe Gesellschaft, an amateur company that rehearsed evenings and performed only on weekends. Somewhat gloomily, he wrote Moishe Nadir, the Yiddish writer and humorist, “Although the work is hard and our pay small, their enthusiasm gives me satisfaction. There are compensations, but I can’t see any future in it.”
Two long, impoverished years later, the Buloffs returned to New York, where Joseph gathered the remnants of a Vilna Troupe limb that had come to America and failed, and opened a theatre in the Bronx. It lasted but a single season. Chastened, he went back to work for Maurice Schwartz in 1930, acquitting himself well in four plays. Secretly, Maurice would hide himself behind the curtain to watch Joseph perform. “Here is an actor whose every gesture and movement is eloquence itself,” wrote Schwartz.
At season’s end, the Buloffs headed back to Bucharest, where they were treated royally. The America they returned to months later was mired in the Great Depression, over one-quarter the working force having become idle. Broadway felt its stultifying effects, as did Second Avenue, where only Maurice’s Art Theatre showed any signs of life. But Joseph wouldn’t consider working again for Schwartz. They were after all two very strong personalities, similar in temperament, but with diametrically opposite points of view on Theatre. Buloff was the purist, committed only to the finest material regardless of mass appeal, while Schwartz was more pragmatic, as much exquisite actor as entrepreneur.
For the next decade, Buloff did
his best to remain afloat yet adhere to his principles, finding honorable
work with Luba, acting and directing in the few Yiddish playhouses left on
and around Second Avenue. His band of like-minded players included such
consummate actors as Lazar Freed, Zvi Scooler, Yehuda Bleich, Celia Adler
and Bima Abramowitz (the supreme mother-figure of Yiddish Theatre).
Together, in repertory, they performed the works of Yiddishdom'’ finest
playwrights: David Pinski, Perez Hirshbein, Chono Gottesfeld, Sholem Asch
and Ossip Dymov---though never long in any one location as "not many
producers are interested in artistic Yiddish productions,” Joseph told a
And as far as the theatre owners were concerned, Buloff wasn’t terribly in demand, hadn’t the drawing power of matinee idols such as Jacob Ben-Ami, Samuel Goldenburg and Schwartz. Joseph was short, with Slavic features, mischievous eyes, and a sardonic smile . He had no singing voice and couldn’t dance, but his ability to inhabit a role completely had nevertheless won him a small but intensely loyal following among playgoers and critics alike.
In the 1934-1935 season, Buloff caught a break at the playhouse Schwartz had recently vacated to go on tour of Europe. Renamed the Yiddish Folk Theatre, it served as host to the newly-formed New York Art Troupe. Fashioned after the Vilna, it presented a full slate of quality Yiddish works. In most of these productions, Joseph acted and directed, winning wide praise in both capacities. But as heady an experience as the New York Art Troupe was, it lasted only a single season. Sheer necessity forced Buloff onto the American stage, as it had for many a Yiddish actor such as Bertha Kalich, Ludwig Satz, the sisters Adler, and even the great Maurice himself. With obituaries for Yiddish Theatre appearing more frequently than usual, Joseph made the painful transition in 1936 with ‘Don’t Look Now,’ a comedy at the Nora Bayes Theatre on W.44th Street, where as usual he stood out, even if the play lasted or 16 performances only.
From this point on, Buloff would
oscillate with apparent ease between Yiddish and Broadway theatre, his
reputation in both arenas steadily mounting. In 1937, he played in Mike
Todd’s ‘Call Me Ziggy,’ where he was ‘discovered’ by New York Times drama
critic Brooks Atkinson. “If it were not for the rich comic acting of
Joseph Buloff, ‘Call Me Ziggy’ would be courteously ushered into the large
hall of the undistinguished.”
It wasn’t until 1941, after a
varied diet of small Broadway comedies and even smaller Yiddish plays that
That watershed year, Buloff also made his American film debut in ‘Let’s Make Music,’ a thoroughly forgettable movie even if the screen play was by Nathaniel West. What made Joseph Buloff an overnight sensation on the Broadway stage in 1943, after two decades as an actor, was his role in ‘Oklahoma,’ as Ali Hakim. Wrote Lewis Nicols of the Times: “Joseph Buloff is marvelous as the peddler who ambles through the evening, selling wares from French cards to Asiatic perfumes…”
The Rodgers and Hammerstein masterpiece ran for over 2200 performances, tying up Joseph for three years, after which he made a few less-than-outstanding films. By 1950, Yiddish Theatre had officially died with the closing of Maurice Schwartz’s Art Theatre as an actual entity, reducing him to a nomad’s existence of journeying from city to city, performing with local casts in smaller pieces. ARTEF, the leftist theatre company that also offered better plays, had folded a decade earlier, beset by many internal and external problems. Only Folksbiene continued on, playing to a limited audience and not concerned with turning a profit.
In 1951, a genuinely earned greatness came to Joseph Buloff when he translated Arthur Miller’s ‘Death of a Salesman’ into Yiddish and took the lead role at the Parkway Theatre in Brooklyn. Raved actor and critic George Ross, “What one feels most strikingly is that the Yiddish play is really the original and the Broadway production was merely Arthur Miller’s translation into English…Particularly in the character of Willy Loman, whom Buloff acts as well as translates brilliantly.”
Other triumphs followed, the fruits of a long and distinguished career on two stages and in films. In 1952 he directed Helen Hayes in Mary Chase’s ‘Mrs. McThing’ at the Martin Beck Theatre. Two years later in London he charmed the staid English with Sylvia Regan’s ‘The Fifth Season.’ In 1956, he played a candy store owner in the film ‘Somebody Up There Likes Me’ and was outstanding. A year later, still in Hollywood, he was hilarious in ‘Silk Stockings,’ as part of the trio come to check up on Ninotchka.
On Broadway in 1959, he livened up Marcel Ayme’s short-lived ‘Moonbirds,’ and the next season found him in ‘The Wall,’ based on the John Hersey novel, receiving special mention for his portrayal of Fishel Shpunt, the brave peddler.
Yiddish Theatre rose from its grave in the early ‘70’s with Buloff acting and directing for the Folksbiene, first in ‘The Brothers Ashkenazi’ (1970) and in his much-loved ‘The Singer of His Sorrows’ (1972) under its alternate name ‘Yoske Musikant,' and again, when Jewish Nostalgia Productions took over the Eden Theatre on Second Avenue and 12th Street (Schwartz’s former Art Theatre locale). Joseph snugly fit into the lead roles in ‘Hard to Be a Jew’ (1973) and ‘The Fifth Season’ (1975). No matter how noble and mighty the effort, the resurrection attempt failed.
At the age of eighty, Joseph tackled a new assignment in 1979, playing the crafty furniture dealer in Arthur Miller’s ‘The Price.’ Wrote Richard Eder of the Times: “Joseph Buloff plays him full array of tremors, hesitations and thickly-accented gnomishness. It is a diverting performance…”
His last major appearance took
place in 1981, in Warren Beatty’s epic film ‘Reds,’ where he dominated
every scene he was in. On February 27, 1985, during a trip to California
for a reading engagement, he died suddenly.*
Above photographs courtesy of the New York Public Library of the Performing Arts/Billy Rose Theatre Division.
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