The Hebrew actor is a careful person. He
has no social ambitions, lives thriftily and next to his art loves his
home. His family ties are strong; he dotes on the opera and music, and
he has a union to uphold the standard of pay for his services.
He has become an important element in the
life and business of the East Side. A new theatre in Grand street, to be
devoted exclusively to plays in Yiddish, is about to be built at a cost
of nearly half a million dollars. This shows the progress made by the
Hebrew actor in this country in the last twenty years.
There are at present three Hebrew theatres
in New York, all on the Bowery. They are the Thalia, the Windsor and the
People's. In addition, there are a half dozen music halls, and all of
them are making money.
The first Hebrew theatre of note here was
the Oriental on the Bowery, between Hester and Grand streets. A company,
headed by Boris Thomashefsky, gave performances there in 1882. The
theatre had a brief career and soon closed for want of patronage.
About 1884 a few performances were given
at Turn Hall in East Forty-first street. Thomashefsky was the manager
and leading actor of the company, but the venture was soon abandoned.
It was not until about ten years ago
that the Hebrew actor became a permanent institution on the East
Side. Up to four years ago the Windsor and the Thalia had the
field alone. Then the People's came into line with them. The
latter playhouse is considered the swellest Yiddish theatre in the
city. The privileges of the patrons are more restricted. The sale
of candy, soda water, fruit and other edibles is prohibited in the
To Boris Thomashefsky is given the
credit practically of introducing the Yiddish drama in this
country. He and Jacob Adler, Sigmund Mogulesko, David Kessler,
Sigmund Feinman, Bernard Bernstein and M. Moskovitz are considered
the foremost Hebrew actors now in America.
photo: Front of
the Thalia Theatre, Bowery, New York City, 1904.
Courtesy of the NYPL Digital Gallery.
Versatility must be one of the Hebrew
actor's qualities if he is to succeed. He must be able to sing as well
as act, as the repertoire at the theatres consists of light comedy,
comedy melodrama, tragedy, farce, operetta and comic opera. One night he
appears in comedy and the next he may be called upon to enact a
Thomashefsky's Hamlet and
Moskovitz's King Lear are classics on the East Side. Kessler is a
matinee idol and also a clever tenor singer and has often been compared
by his admirers with Jean de Rezake.
Among the noted Yiddish actresses is Mrs.
Kalish, who speaks French, German and English, besides her mother
tongue, Yiddish, fluently. She has appeared as Hamlet, Camille,
Magda, the Yiddish Zara and the Yiddish Sapho.
A famous playwright once thought seriously of taking her under his
management and starring in an English play written by himself.
The Actors' Union does not affect the
stars. Very few of them are members, as they are, as a rule, the lessees
or managers of the theatres in which they appear. The average salary of
the less prominent Hebrew actors is $22 a week, while the chorus girls,
who also have a union, receive between $12 and $14 a week. The stars
have been making during the past three years an average of form $5,000
to $10,000 a year.
On Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday
nights the theatre is leased to various East Side societies. These
societies pay the management from $225 to $250 for one performance,
according to the strength of the play and company.
Friday night, Saturday matinee and
Saturday night belong to the management. Plays which are hits are
produced and the stars have their inning. On Sunday afternoon and
evening sacred concerts are given.
A successful play usually has a run of
three months. It must be extraordinarily popular to run longer than
this. On society nights only old plays are put on, unless there is
a special agreement with the management.
Jacob Gordin is the popular playwright of
the East Side. He was born in Russia about 59 years ago and has been
writing plays about twelve years. It is currently reported that he will
not part with a play unless he receives $1,000 to $1,500 in advance. He
sells his products outright and does not receive any royalty.
The managers of the theatres do not spare
any expense in producing plays, as the competition is very keen. Two
seasons ago one play cost nearly $10,000 to produce. But the risk was
worth the while, for the manager realized nearly $20,000 out of the
The plays most liked are those on a
Biblical subject. Nevertheless, the theatres are kept severely up to
date and plays of present interest are given, the dramatization of the
Dreyfus case and the Gieldsenauppe murder being two instances.
Nowadays the Hebrew actor does not travel
around the country as in former years. He does not have to; as all his
time is taken up in town. There was a period, however, when he was
compelled to accept engagements outside the city, but this is all
Once in a while a whole company takes a
flying trip to Philadelphia and Boston. But they must have a guarantee
of a goodly sum before it will go. Chicago is the only other city
outside of New York that supports a Hebrew theatre.
The Yiddish season is longer than in the
American theatres. It lasts from the later part of August until the
middle of June. During the intervening time the actors either go to the
county or spend their vacation in town attending to business ventures in
which they are interested, such as cigar stores and jewelry shops. One
Hebrew actor owns a wholesale fancy goods store in partnership with his
brother and has an income of about $5,000 a year.
The majority of the actors are married and
live with their families in the neighborhood of the theatres where they
are employed. They are frugal and law-abiding and seldom get mixed up in
scandals. They marry young and by the time they make their reputation
have growing families.
Some of them marry out of the profession,
but the wives of most of them are actresses who appear with them in the
same companies. For a leading man to kiss his real wife on the stage or
take her in his arms in loving embrace is considered the proper thing on
the East Side, although the same procedure may be frowned upon on the