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The Life of Maurice Schwartz and the Yiddish Art Theatre
by Martin Boris

Chapter Forty: “Young People Are Playing in the Comedy, Not Old Men.”  
Chapter Forty-One: “I Detected a Warm Friendly Feeling.”
Chapter Forty-Two:
A King in Surgical Stockings.
Chapter Forty-Three: "Papa Works Too Hard."

Chapter Forty: “Young People Are Playing in the Comedy, Not Old Men.”

                       Blessed or cursed with an overabundance of energy at 65, the age of retirement for many, and mindful of his demeaning misadventures in Movieland, Maurice was impelled towards an experience that can only be described as ill-conceived and domed to failure. In January 1953, he leased the old Century theatre on North La Cienega Boulevard in West Hollywood, for the purpose of doing classics of both Yiddish and world theatre, and introducing fresh, worthy material. Exactly his goals at the inception of the Yiddish Art Theatre in 1918, except all the productions would be in English.

                       The rent was far from prohibitive: a paltry $150 a week for the first year, escalating the next to $200, with an option to buy the premises for $125,000. Schwartz envisioned a rebirth of sorts, though not in the language he loved, but in the kind of quality productions he'd devoted his life to. Three times before, Maurice had brought the Art Theatre to the Angelinos and felt certain of a large following, even among the non-Yiddish Jews, most of them tied in some manner to the film business, and originally from New York. Their parents had seen the genuine article on Second Avenue, or wherever the Art Theatre happened to be that particular year, or perhaps they themselves had been taken by the hand to see the incomparable Maurice Schwartz.

                        The Century was converted into the Civic Playhouse—seating capacity a very limited 755—with a stage that would do nicely for the season’s schedule of non-musical, non-spectacular productions, including two Sholem Aleichem comedies, Moliere’s The Miser, Gordin’s God, Man and Devil, Tolstoy’s Redemption, Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, Shakespeare’s King Lear (which Maurice always had a hankering to do), and O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms.

                        This attempted return to the past was Schwartz’s most ambitious undertaking in years, 3000 miles from the center of his former universe. He would begin however with an original modern piece, to entice as large and varied an audience as possible: Take Now Thy Son, by Camille Honig, an advisor to General Dwight D. Eisenhower during the war. Stage, film and TV rights were secured by an optimistic Schwartz within a one-page, hand-written, lawyer-excluded document. Her first produced play, Ms. Honig would receive the munificent sum of $100 a week, regardless of the number of performances, when the piece was presented in English, anywhere in America and Canada, except New York City (that particular market unpredictable), where the terms would be five percent of gross.

                         Prior to selecting a crew, Maurice had to come to terms with Actors Equity, the American equivalent of the Hebrew Actors Union. Equity signed Schwartz to its Little Theatre contract, whereby the number of actors required and the wages paid depended on the maximum potential weekly gross. Maurice tried to keep payroll low by estimating low receipts, $4500 a week. Equity agreed, permitting a minimum of seven actors, each of whom would receive not less than $50 weekly, roughly half what he’d paid his top actors 30 years ago. Not to be outfoxed, Equity tacked a 15 percent bonus to wages on a take of over $2700, which really couldn’t have amounted to much, split seven ways. But the arrangement allowed small theatres like the Civic to exist and beginning actors to gain experience and, more importantly, to be seen.

                        Theatre parties, the West Coast version of the Yiddish organizational benefits, were offered 40 percent discounts on seats ranging from $1.20 to $3.00. These parties would prove to be the same mixed blessing as on Second Avenue for the Art Theatre, where profits were either razor-thin or non-existent because of it.    

                        Six relative unknowns—Hollywood bit players or those trying to break into films—constituted the cast of Take Now Thy Son. Maurice directed and also took the lead role as Benjamin Levine, a concentration camp survivor, who brings with him to America, a young female relative. Levine hopes to arrange a match with his American son. But to Benjamin’s dismay, the son turns out to be a slick gangster. The Honig work didn’t fare well with the Los Angeles critics, though opening night was a gala affair attended by Maurice’s ample Hollywood following, and by civic, religious and social leaders, who gave the former Yiddish, presently American, actor a rousing ovation. Wrote one reviewer: “Schwartz dominated the stage, his fine voice adding depth to the good delineation he gives the character. [. . .] His direction, however, is more in the heavy-handed Yiddish Theatre style and most of the cast has difficulty with it”  (Variety 16 Mar. 1953).

                       Unperturbed by the generally negative comments from the press, Maurice forged ahead with his next production, It’s Hard to Be a Jew, the English-language form prepared first in 1931 by Tamara Berkowitz, Sholem Aleichem’s granddaughter (who, by 1953, had become Tamara Kahn). One of the major roles for It’s Hard to Be a Jew, that of Ivanov, the Christian who trades places with his Jewish friend, was up for grabs. Oscar Ostroff, the former manager of the Douglas Park Theatre in Chicago and Schwartz’s current manager in Los Angeles, recommended a 22-year-old tyro named Leonard Nimoy (the future Dr. Spock from Star Trek). Showing up for an audition at the Civic, Nimoy apprehensively made his way down the aisle to the stage, preparing himself emotionally to meet the iconic Maurice Schwartz. Anna and Maurice were by the footlights, observing the young man sauntering down to meet them. The son of Jewish immigrants, Nimoy understood Anna’s comment in Yiddish: “He looks like a ‘goy.’ Maybe he’ll be good for the part.”

                        Leonard Nimoy was thrilled to share a stage with Schwartz, in the role originated by Paul Muni some 30 years earlier. “Schwartz was everything I’d hoped he would be. He was an extremely hard worker. Intense, dedicated, with an enormous range, he could simper across the stage, light as a feather, then suddenly become a thunderingly foul character”  (Nimoy 25 Jan. 1999). He also saw a sad and tragic figure in the former theatrical giant, who’d fallen on hard times: “He was struggling to hold on to his Yiddish following, while trying to reach out to a wider audience. A futile attempt. Young people would pull up to the Civic in their cars, drop off their elderly parents, then drive away”  (Nimoy 25 Jan. 1999).

                        The Schwartzes ran the Civic like a family grocery store, with Anna in charge of the box office, handling money her forte. Marvin would do some acting, while also handling the candy concession with Frances, who also performed as an extra on stage and helped the cast change costumes backstage. Maurice did everything else, which included riding herd on the children as actors, demanding more from them than from the rest of the cast, a kind of reverse discrimination, because they were his children, therefore subject to the same high standards he set for himself.

                        It’s Hard to Be a Jew ran 14 weeks, an eternity for a Los Angeles-based play. Interspersed, were untried, original plays in which inexperienced actors cut their teeth. The next major work was the Art Theatre chestnut, Sender Blank. For the hip California crowd, Maurice called it Mr. Blank’s Family. “I think it will be a success,” he wrote to Mercur in New York, “because young people are playing in the comedy, not old men”  (Schwartz  letter 6 Sept. 1953). This was an unkind reference to those old reliables he’d used year after year, and who may have outgrown their roles, but not the brilliance they brought to the productions, players such as veterans as Serebrov, Dubinsky and Julius Adler, who’d found less to do in Yiddish Theatre, and when doing it, in smaller and smaller parts.

                        Opening the second half of the Civic’s 1953 season early in October, Mr. Blank’s Family was a solid hit (many organizations booking entire blocks of seats), running well until the first week of December. The cast was large, over 20 willing but green players. The Miser was supposed to take over and run into 1954, to be followed by a batch of excellent pieces, but Maurice chose to fold the Civic and not extend the lease. Just as he’d delivered a lot less than promised over and again in the past, so he repeated the same pattern now. He sent the actors away and put a lock on the playhouse door.

                        A glance at Anna and Maurice’s Federal Tax Return for 1953 perhaps provides the explanation. They reported a sizeable loss of $25,000 for the year. Expenses for the shoestring operation were a manageable $68,000, but receipts barely reached $42,000. Only the candy counter made money for the Schwartzes. Sold out performances meant little, Maurice was reminded (as if that was necessary), because the seats snapped up by the theatre parties were practically given away. Even as Mr. Blank’s Family was doing SRO business, Maurice contemplated a return to New York. On November 17th, he telegraphed Mercur to find him a playhouse on Broadway, and that he wasn’t interested in anything on Second Avenue, where theatre seating was too limited to cover expenses.

                       The Uptown house he had his eye on was the President, on W. 48th Street, and his scheme was to bring It’s Hard to Be a Jew to it, but under its third American title Let’s Change Places. Opening night was scheduled for January 14, 1954. The deal, like so many others, failed to materialize, and he told Mercur that he’d be arriving back in New York on the 9th of December to gather a company for another tour.

                        At about the same time, Maurice signed his first contract to tour South Africa, the Lou Irwin Agency brokering the deal. The African Consolidated Theatre Limited of Johannesburg agreed to pay Schwartz $1500 a week to play His Majesty’s Theatre and other playhouses in South Africa. The tour would commence on July 9, 1954, and he’d be doing a dozen or so plays with actors whose salaries (and other operating expenses) would be paid by African Consolidated, thus relieving him of that tiresome burden, and leaving Maurice the room to do his productions with a clear head, as he’d never been able to do before. But until then, he had half a year at his disposal. Perhaps he’d spend another spring in South America, though Yiddish Theatre there was drying up too. It couldn’t possibly be the same as before, but with the children along as part of the troupe, he might make a happy go of it.

Chapter Forty-One: “I Detected a Warm Friendly Feeling.”

                        The deal for the President Theatre and Maurice’s attempt to reintroduce Sholem Aleichem to Broadway in the dismal winter of 1954, fell flat because the current tenant, the Negro Dramatic Group wasn’t ready to vacate the premises. Its production of Born Yesterday was running better than expected, with a cast that included Edna Mae Robinson, the wife of the former middleweight boxing champ. Instead, Schwartz made ready for another circumnavigation of the East Coast and Canada, with a group of whoever was available. One of those candidates was David Denk, who’d done a spot of acting for the Art Theatre in the past.

                        Denk received a phone call early one February morning from his former employer, with the offer of a role. They arranged to meet next day at 10 AM at the Hebrew Actors Union building on E. 7th Street, near Cooper Union and just down the block from McSorley’s, the oldest pub in Manhattan. On its second floor, contracts between actor and manager were often signed, and rehearsals were held by directors, if no theatre was available at the moment.

                        Not having seen Maurice in years, Denk was astounded at how life had taken its toll on the often bluff, usually unbending theatre titan. “I detected a warm friendly feeling in the way he spoke to me, It seemed that I’d met a new Maurice Schwartz. What Hollywood can do to a person!”  (Denk  238).

                       He was only partially correct: attributing the softened Schwartz to the humbling effect the film industry can have on the most independent and rigorous of artists and other creative minds. Mellowed like fine old wine, yet with a tinge of sadness, Denk couldn’t help but notice, though it was more the steady erosion from disbanding the Art Theatre, and from his failure the year before to make a go of the Civic Theatre.

                       The part offered Denk was as Levine’s gangster son in Take Now Thy Son. The play was scheduled to open in Montreal the following week. “Was this the director of the Yiddish Art Theatre? I could never have imagined that he would be talking to me about a play involving modern gangsters in his theatre. ‘How did that happen?’ I asked. I was sure he’d answer me sharply. I didn’t mean anything by it. The words just slipped out”  (Denk 240).

                        Bolts of lightning didn’t descend on David Denk for the temerity to question the great master’s decisions. Instead, Schwartz reached into his briefcase, withdrew the bound pages of the script, and handed it to the actor. Maurice then left the building, promising to return in an hour to begin rehearsal. Alone in the large second floor room, Denk realized that he’d accepted the role without a glance at the manuscript and without discussing how much Schwartz was willing to pay him. Part of his silent approval was out of curiosity. He simply had to see more of the greatly altered Maurice Schwartz, to learn if he could still command a crew.

                        A week later, in the early evening cold, the train containing Schwartz’s hastily gathered troupe pulled into Windsor Station in Montreal. Schwartz was already there, having flown in the day before to welcome the group and inform them of a 9 AM rehearsal tomorrow at the Monument National Theatre on St. Catherine Street. Next morning, Schwartz was waiting as the company arrived on time. He’d gotten in hours earlier to supervise the carpenters and the electricians. If Maurice had seemed almost unrecognizable at the Hebrew Actors Union building, patently enervated from fighting a never-ending war against the Art Theatre’s demise, he was now the hyperactive manager of old, magically everywhere at the same time, barking orders, moving scenery, positioning lights and dashing about like a man half his age.

                        The cast was thoroughly drilled by the patient but demanding director, and hours later, they broke for lunch. Schwartz remained behind, still running at top speed, finding all manner of minutiae to require his personal attention. On the street, Denk parted from the troupe and went his own way, slowly negotiating the slushy streets of the Jewish district, once thriving, now rife with abandoned and decaying buildings. He took a brief lunch at Woolworth’s, then returned to the theatre with coffee and a donut for Schwartz.

                       A grateful Maurice Schwartz wolfed it down, on his feet, on the go, at the same high octane pace as in the early morning. The small repast was probably unnecessary; preparing for a performance seemed to be all the sustenance he needed. The woes, the calamities of the past, the disappointments, the plans gone awry—all were cast aside in the holy service of theatre. He worked the actors relentlessly through the afternoon, but with loving care and kind consideration—the new Schwartz—until dinnertime, when he sent his crew out once more, but remained behind, with so much as yet undone. Denk brought back a sandwich for Maurice from the Imperial, the lone remaining Jewish restaurant in the area.

                       By dusk, content with what he’d hammered together in a single day, Maurice retired to his dressing room, where he applied his makeup and got into costume. The curtain rose at 8:30 sharp that evening on Take Now Thy Son. The door, stage right, sprung open. A bright light shone in and Schwartz entered. At once, he began joking with the other characters on stage, setting the tone. To Denk and the rest of the actors, worn thin by a full day of intense rehearsing, it seemed as though they’d done the piece dozens of times, instead of its premiere presentation.

                        Denk declared his performance to be stunningly brilliant, but after the curtain fell and Maurice received his ovation and was congratulated by everyone in the cast, he reverted back to the pathetic old warrior seen at the union headquarters. “My best performance,” he told the troupe morosely, “was my first. After that, every other one was imperfect”  (Denk 254).

                        Schwartz was back in Manhattan by early March, preparing his rather convoluted tour arrangements: Brazil and Argentina for three months, then South Africa for three more, ending with a revisit to South America for another two weeks. He hoped to be back in New York by early fall, far too late to find a place for himself on Second Avenue. Such an untoward consideration had actually crossed his mind despite the unhealthy state of Yiddish Theatre. Even his undeclared rival for the crown, Menasha Skulnik, had fled the kingdom for Broadway, achieving great success in The Fifth Season, and Odets’s The Flowering Peach, co-starring Bertha Gersten. Notwithstanding as well the lack of still extant Yiddish playhouses in Manhattan. It’s a profound tribute to the man’s tenacity that Schwartz would even consider strapping on the harness of leasing a house and hiring a company once more.

                       And yet, before departing for South America, he made inquiries about leasing a location for next season. With the union’s blessing and cooperation, Maurice began negotiations with Isadore Edelstein, Joseph’s son, to use the Second Avenue Theatre for 1954-1955, though only under certain circumstances. Maurice demanded extensive renovations and a sharp cut in rent. He also let it be known that he intended to present a string of Yiddish plays, followed by a program of English-language works like the format for the Civic in Los Angeles. But the team of actor/producer Irving Jacobson and actor Edmund Zayenda were also dickering with Izzy Edelstein for the same playhouse. The year before, they’d scored a direct hit at the playhouse with the light comedy Second Marriage.

                        “I didn’t want to take the theatre from them,” wrote Maurice, a tad too magnanimously. “This goes to show that for being a gentleman, you get paid only with gossip”  (Schwartz letter 1 May 1954).

                       The Schwartzes arrived in Sao Paulo, Brazil, at the end of March, Maurice complaining that en route some of his special theatrical lamps had been broken. (He’d neglected to insure them and demanded the shipping company pay for damages.) There, he banded together a group of about 20 local Yiddish actors and formed a troupe he called The Overseas Yiddish Art Company, which they certainly were not by any stretch of the imagination. Among the works presented was a fairly new piece, The Struggle For the Negev, by the brilliant Israeli, Yigal Mosenson. The piece, written by a young man who’d lived the story, deals with the defense of a kibbutz against Arab marauders. It was not too dissimilar from the Elias Gilner play, The Voice of Israel. The Mosenson work was originally presented at the Habima in Tel Aviv and was used to open the Folksbiene’s 40th season on December 14, 1953, at the Radin Auditorium in Lower Manhattan.

                        In May, it was on to South Africa. Maurice took the entire staff along, even if the original contract with African Consolidated had consigned that task to itself. The Overseas Yiddish Art Theatre would open at His Majesty’s Theatre in Johannesburg on July 19 in The Brothers Ashkenazi, the first of many old favorites. The tour would conclude with two weeks at the Alhambra in Capetown. Everywhere the company played, the red carpet was rolled out for them, and the troupe responded in kind, performing very well indeed, even with players not up to the original troupe’s standards.

                        At the reception tendered them by the Consolidated, at which representatives from the Johannesburg media were present, Schwartz delivered a lecture that he’d given so many times before, whenever he had an important audience. He opened with the call for a new approach to live theatre that would compete successfully with movies and television. He brought up the enormous costs of mounting a modern stage production as compared to the economics of moviemaking, where a million- dollar investment can reap many more millions in profit. “These facts must be taken into account when we look upon the poor financial state of the legitimate theatre. Its managers, actors and dramatists are waiting for a messiah to lead them back to the successful days when the stage was the champion of the amusement world. Can that messiah appear in our century?”

                       The savior Schwartz never ceased to stump for wore the tattered raiment of subsidy and he served it up to the South Africans with renewed passion. But he should have been more careful about what he pleaded for, as the following year he got it, and the result would be the most ignoble and destructive experience of his entire career, very nearly ending it.

Chapter Forty-Two: A King in Surgical Stockings.

                        The serious problem of what Maurice Schwartz was to do with the rest of his life, once back in New York, seemed to have been felicitously solved by a deal with the Russell-Farrow  production company, to do strictly English-language theatre at the tradition-encrusted Downtown National Theatre. Located on E. Houston Street, where Second Avenue begins, it had a capacity of 1425 seats. Over $60,000 had been pored into renovations by the company. Three works were planed by Maurice, the same three he’d scheduled for the Civic: Hard to Be a Jew (under its fourth title, The Grass is Always Greener), slated to open on February 16th, The Miser, from March 24th to April 28th, and King Lear, to complete the season.

                        The mostly English-language cast consisted of Michael Tolan, Nancy R. Pollack, Martin Brooks and Joan Copeland—all rising stars on Broadway and in television. Maurice took his usual role as David Shapiro, and Marvin, now 16, played the lad who changes place with the non-Jew, a part he knew well. Anatol Vinogradoff, by this point well experienced in both Yiddish Theatre and Broadway, was the only other Schwartz alumnus engaged.

                        Maurice’s faithful American reviewer, Atkinson, came through for him: “It is impossible to take The Grass is Always Greener seriously as dramatic art. But it is also impossible to be impervious to the family hubbub it manages to get on the stage and the feeling of theatre excitement Mr. Schwartz generates out of long experience with audiences”  (Times 16 Feb. 1955). John McClain of the Journal-American, Jeanette Wilken of the Daily News, Robert Coleman of the Daily Mirror, William Hawkins of the World Telegram and Sun, and Richard Watts Jr. of the Post—all concurred in their own idiosyncratic prose.

                        Joan Copeland, who played Betty, the Shapiros’ modest but romantic daughter, knew little about the Yiddish theatre legend she’d be working with, but was quick to find him quite approachable, without the lofty put-on airs expected of a legend. “He called me ‘the little one’ because I was the youngest in the company. And I called him ‘Papa Schwartz.’ He was kind to me, very protective and never harsh”  (Copeland 19 Oct. 1998).

                        The Miser opened Thursday evening, March 17th. Atkinson and the rest of the press hated the production, especially Schwartz’s clumsy direction of the Moliere farce: “It consists of reducing The Miser to the level of Second Avenue stock company improvisation”   (Times 18 Mar. 1955). More succinctly, McClain of the Journal-American stated: “It seemed to me it was improperly adapted and interpreted; it emerged as an embarrassing bore”  (18 Mar. 1955).

                       By their second stint together, Joan Copeland could be more objective about ‘Papa Schwartz’: “He seemed terrified of The Miser. He really didn’t know the work, having never done it before. He appeared to be afraid to get onstage and demonstrate his ineptness with the part. He never studied the lines, never rehearsed them with the other actors. The day before we opened, he still didn’t know them”  (Copeland 19 Oct. 1998). After six poorly attended performances, The Miser closed. So did the Downtown National. King Lear was jettisoned, ending Maurice’s constant yearning to do the darkest of Shakespeare’s plays, though he intended having at it the following year, he informed the press with unwarranted optimism.

                        Joan Copeland’s characterization of a man out of his depth with Moliere may not have been totally on target. Schwartz had much to distract and addle him. For the cheek to go strictly English-language, the Hebrew Actors Union banned him forever from doing Yiddish theatre. It exercised its excommunicative power by denying him the future services of Yiddish actors, and the use of Yiddish playhouses, both of which were within the union’s jurisdiction.

                         Schwartz considered himself the injured party. While in South Africa, during the previous summer, he and Nathan Goldberg, current head of the union, kept up an ongoing exchange of letters in an attempt to reactivate the Yiddish Art Theatre, but on a firm foundation of subsidies. Their idea was to form an umbrella of Jewish institutions that would ensure the necessary funds. Schwartz and Goldberg were united on the importance of Yiddish Theatre in the cultural life of American Jews, each for his own reason. They seemed to be on the same page in their correspondence and close to a joint action. When nothing concrete resulted, and Maurice was about to return to New York in the fall of 1954, he simply had to take care of himself by signing with Russell-Farrow. Then Goldberg acted swiftly with his edict.

                       Maurice was furious: “This doesn’t mean that by playing three pieces in English I’ve committed such a crime that the union should come out with such a hysterical decision against me, that I should never again be allowed to play Yiddish Theatre”  (Schwartz interview  4 Mar. 1955). The union, looking after its own in the lean year of 1955, argued that Schwartz should have resisted temptation and refuse to perform in anything but Yiddish Theatre.

                         The ban fuss, for all its charges and countercharges, proved to be a tempest in a teapot, lasting but a short while. Schwartz and Goldberg kissed and made up, and by April, Maurice had signed to do Yiddish plays in Yiddish for Israel Rosenberg and his dancer-wife Vera Rosanka, proprietors of the Elsmere Theatre on Tremont Avenue in the Bronx. Maurice had agreed to do five shows a weekend—beginning on April 29th and ending late in May—of Yoshe Kalb (in which Frances made her New York debut), My Darling Children (aka Sender Blank), and Kiddush Hashem.

                        For three sharply curtailed productions, Maurice was fortunate to obtain the services of a few still-active Art Theatre stalwarts: Serebrov, Vinogradoff, Appel, Gustav Berger and Jacob Mestel. Joining as well was William Mercur, who received the highest salary in the company, $125 a week, because his union was the AFL’s Association of Theatrical Agents and Managers, not the Hebrew Actors Union, its scale much lower. Schwartz’s entire payroll ran less than $1700, even with such spectacles as Yoshe Kalb.

                        The origin of the subsidy arrangement that finally came to fruition in 1955 is uncertain. Schwartz claimed that his dear friend and earlier backer Louis Gordon was the prime force that spring in setting everything in motion. Herman Yablokoff presented a different scenario: “Louis Segal, General Secretary, and Sam Bonchek, Vice President, of the Farband—a National Zionist Labor Organization—called a conference of labor, culture and social leaders to revive the Yiddish Art Theatre, with Maurice Schwartz as artistic director”  (Yablokoff 482).

                        In reality, the plan was Maurice’s, what he’d never given up on for what seemed like a millennium. Regardless of who lit the fuse, Segal and Bonchek called their meeting for the purpose of weaving a secure safety net for Schwartz. Yablokoff attended as the union’s representative and was elected Executive Secretary. A large committee of over 30 prominent New York Jews, coming from organized labor and the newspapers, was chosen as the governing body. At once, Herman immersed himself in the daunting project of raising the necessary capital. The Yiddish Art Theatre Association was registered as a non-profit, tax-exempt corporation, and rented the Downtown National for $1250 a week, with another $10,000 anted up for the security deposit. They money was raised by an assortment of committee heads through donations and benefit dinners.

                        Yablokoff informed Maurice that the multiple strands related to the business of theatre, once handled at the Art Theatre by a single individual, would now be divided among a handful of subcommittees. Under the new arrangements, Schwartz should concern himself only with directing and acting. As for what plays were to be selected, this would be decided by the Repertory Committee composed of Yiddish journalist Dr. B. Margoshes, Day Morning-Journal publisher Morris Weinberg and his editor David Mechler, General Manager of the Forward Alexander Kahn and his editor Hillel Rogoff; and from the field of labor, Jacob Pat, B. Sheffner, Joseph Breslow and Abraham Miller. Businessman Louis Gordon was asked to serve, perhaps in recognition of the key role he’d played in initiating the project. Herman and Maurice were also included, the only theatre professionals on the committee.

                        Schwartz had been used to one-man rule, a dictatorship rather than a democracy, at his Art Theatre, making his selections fearlessly and without influence. But now he was forced to accept many hands on the wheel. Yablokoff advised him to send each manuscript he perused to the Repertory Committee for final approval. That after all was their job. “Well, what do you think I’ve been doing” Maurice told him. “The Committee is already swamped with scripts. They haven’t recommended anything. But I’ve heard that an original drama, written by an unknown, Lazar Treister, has already won an award. Maybe you can contact the author and have him send me a copy”  (Yablokoff 484).

                        Herman phoned Treister, who dispatched a set of publisher galleys, which were read soon after by Schwartz and approved, then read and accepted by the Repertory Committee. Later, Maurice would claim that the committee had foisted the work on him. On the other hand, his friend and confidante Seymour Rexsite maintains that Schwartz was delighted with the selection because it was about a king, and Maurice always had a special affection for regal roles.

                        The monarch in question was Saul. Once before, in 1925, Maurice had tackled the part of Israel’s first king. The truth of who chose the work aside, Maurice sunk his teeth into adapting The Shepherd King over the steamy New York summer in his tiny apartment on E. 10th Street. Anna and the children were sent Upstate at the end of June to the Workmen’s Circle camp. As was his working habits, Maurice applied himself furiously and fanatically, 14 to 16 hours a day, in the process wearing out Yablokoff (no slouch himself), who was busily engaged in trying to raise the funds needed.

                        One scorching July day melted into another, until a manic Maurice Schwartz summoned Yablokoff and Sholem Secunda (who was writing the music for The Shepherd King) to his apartment. He’d completed a first draft and would like an opinion. In the airless, sweltering living room, Maurice read what had been consuming him completely for half a month. Afterwards, the two seasoned pros didn’t break out in hosannas, as Maurice expected, each withholding his opinion, each declaring himself a novice in the area of biblical dramas. They deferred instead to the Repertory Committee, when total unflinching honesty would have been the better choice and might have averted the fiasco to come. Privately, Herman and Sholem expressed their doubts to each other.

                        Yablokoff had his own serious problems to deal with. Reports from his treasurer were not encouraging despite Mercur’s best efforts at promotion. A paltry  400 subscribers had signed up, and from those honoring their pledges, only $17,000 was collected. Another $40,000 in benefit sales were raised. The Association sponsors had added its own $48,000, as the result of fundraising within their individual organizations. Who would have believed that with all the interest and commotion stirred up by the press and within the various groups, there’d been such little response, so few dollars in the coffers?

                        A week before the opening, as luck would have it, Maurice fell ill. His legs blew up to nearly twice their normal size, indicating a problem with his heart or kidneys, or perhaps both. Without a word to anyone but Anna, he consulted a doctor, who recommended immediate surgery. With The Shepherd King close to premiere, and so much time, money and sweat invested, Herman had to be informed. He took Maurice for a second opinion. The specialist, after a long and comprehensive examination, confirmed that an operation was indeed needed, but not at once. Maurice’s condition was not dire, though he was ordered to wear surgical stockings.

                         In the spirit of fresh starts, an excellent cast was engaged. To Schwartz’s King Saul, Edmund Zayenda would play David. Frances Schwartz, in her second New York role, would be Michal, David’s first wife, and Miriam Kressyn, Maurice’s leading lady in Esterke, would play Ritzpah, the king’s lovely concubine. In one scene, Ritzpah, prone at Saul’s feet, clutches his legs. She feels Maurice’s elastic hose, then flinches in surprise. “What’s the matter?” whispers Schwartz in mock disdain. “Haven’t you ever seen a king in surgical stockings?”  (Rexsite 15 Jan. 2000).

                        All Jewish New York crossed its fingers and held its breath on opening night. That special evening, the audience was mainly comprised of Association members, their families and friends, city officials, the drama departments of Yiddish and English-language dailies, and most of the disappointingly minuscule corps of subscribers. Before the first act was over, Yablokoff knew they had a bomb on their hands. Part of the audience walked out in a huff during the second act. To their many and pointed jibes, Herman said nothing, just as he’d kept silent in Maurice’s apartment during the first reading. “I wouldn’t even defend myself with the explanation that I had nothing whatever to do with choosing a play because a special repertory committee had been designated for that purpose”  (Yablokoff 487).

                         This self-serving absolution was patent nonsense. As a member of that committee, he hadn’t spoken up when he’d had the chance. Failure, being the orphan that it is, found no father in him. After the final curtain descended to only a smattering of applause, Maurice made the weakest of obligatory speeches. He dissolved back into the wings to find only a few close friends who’d hung around out of loyalty. The usual coterie of back-slappers and hangers-on had already gone home.

                        This was Murray Schumach’s first Schwartz review for the Times. An avid follower of Maurice’s career, he didn’t shrink however from stating that “Lazar Treister’s play wallowed in dialogue that was somewhere between Italian and soap opera”  (13 Oct. 1955). Yiddish critics also lambasted the play. Maurice didn’t panic. He’d been through this too many times to disintegrate over hideous reviews. It was on to the next production, The Brothers Ashkenazi, with its cast of 30, including Frances and Marvin. It was the first time the three Schwartzes would appear together on the same stage. The family affair gave a much- needed boost to Maurice’s wounded psyche.

                        The critics reversed gears and saluted the production: “The Brothers Ashkenazi proved last night that though its tale of avarice and industrial and military strife may have lost much of its pertinence in this post-Hitler world, it still carries the bite of deep tragedy”  (Schumach 12 Nov. 1955). Though a hit, the second production by the Yiddish Art Theatre Association wasn’t successful enough to cover the bloated weekly expenses. Grosses for The Shepherd King were running about $7500 a week, which barely covered payroll. By the play’s close, they’d lost over $37,000. For The Brothers Ashkenazi, though a winner, the profit and loss statement was no rosier. With receipts averaging about $8000 and expenses close to $10,000, each and every week, there was little hope of maintaining Schwartz’s impossible dream. His constant albatross of spending more than he earned, as usual, had doomed him.

                        After 12 weeks that began with the highest hopes and deteriorated into despair, Yablokoff and the Association decided they’d had enough. On December 4th, the Downtown National shut operations. As he’d had after many a prematurely shortened and losing season on Second Avenue, Maurice packed the troupe and left town for his usual Christmas week in Canada. If he’d expected Paradise through the boon of subsidies, he was forced, in very short order, to settle for the usual exile in Siberia.

Chapter Forty-Three: “Papa Works Too Hard.”

                       “There’s no more hope in London or in Paris for the Yiddish Theatre, even with a subsidy,” declared Maurice glumly, in a letter to William Mercur from England  (29 Feb. 1956). He’d arrived from Paris, having recently completed a series of one-man shows with limited success. The month before, he’d initiated the new year in the States, at the Shubert Theatre in Washington, DC, doing Hard to Be a Jew in Yiddish, and using a lighter than usual crew that included his children. A week later, it had been The Brothers Ashkenazi at the Palace in Brooklyn.

                       Though London and Paris were lost causes in his estimation, and despite the degrading debacle at the Downtown National the previous autumn, he hadn’t as yet given up on Yiddish Theatre in New York. A glutton for punishment (or an incorrigible addict), he instructed Mercur to scout the possibility of obtaining a playhouse, one that has been decently renovated: “I’d have to take a ten-year lease for them to fix it up. But I don’t want to crawl into a sickbed. Each actor and actress will have to be financially involved. I cannot and do not want to go through that hellish torture again, and I don’t want so many bosses over me again either”  (Schwartz letter 29 Feb. 1956).

                        But regardless of a great deal of shadowboxing and a tepid courtship between Maurice and Nathan Goldberg, and between Maurice and the Yiddish playhouse owners, nothing materialized. Schwartz would play Second Avenue only once more, two years later, and with unfortunate results. Perhaps he’d subconsciously tried to sink his own plan with unreasonable demands, especially the economically unfeasible one requiring other performers to put money into the project. Only the major stars such as Picon and Skulnik did that years ago and without serious profits resulting.

                       The rather brief European tour was made without Anna and the children, the three having grown accustomed to a normal family life in Manhattan, Marvin attending Stuyvesant High School in the neighborhood, Frances at Washington Irving closeby. But on April 18th, mother and daughter booked passage to Buenos Aires and left early in May to join Maurice, who’d signed to play the Corrientes Theatre from April 25th to July 29th, employing a handful of Buenos Aires performers. Where they’d be in August and beyond, was unclear to Schwartz, best left for fortune and the gods of Theatre to decide. Maurice kept his options open, in no position to reject any decent offer. For certain, Second Avenue wasn’t beckoning to him for the 1956-1957 season.

                       Marvin would not be accompanying Anna and Frances. He was at the tail end of his junior year, preparing for finals and mulling over which college to apply to. Though he’d become a fairly facile actor and an even better lighting technician, he yearned for a career in engineering. The truth was, he craved a steady profession and a life less hectic and uncertain than Yiddish Theatre, which was rapidly becoming extinct and which sucked the very marrow from the bones of its slaves. This independent streak, and his unwillingness to tie himself to the vagaries of the acting life and its guarantee of genteel poverty, had set him on a collision course with his adoptive father. Frances, on the other hand and much to Maurice’s delight, had tasted the heady wine of the stage, and didn’t object to being yanked from school to accompany Schwartz on tour.

                        After much discussion and copious tears from Anna, the Schwartzes had decided to go on without Marvin, leaving him in the care of Morris Strassberg and his wife Mae. Strassberg was a dear and trusted friend, as well as almost an original Art Theatre player. He’d grown to love the two little Belgian refugees. Marvin moved in with the couple.

                        Like Lord Chesterfield, Maurice wrote a letter to his son containing some valuable advice, after the two women had left for Argentina: “Be careful. Remember that the Almighty is with you. Don’t take liberties because Mother and I aren’t closeby. Drink four glasses of milk a day, eat well, and bathe twice a week. Brush your teeth after every meal and drink plenty of juices”  (Schwartz letter 7 May 1956).

                        As if to reassure Mamushka and Papushka that he could be depended upon, Marvin wrote back: “Monday, I had a regular breakfast like at home, with orange juice, eggs and milk. We also had a wonderful supper with steak, herring, potatoes, peas, applesauce and prunes. It is very pleasant to be with Strassberg. We share everything and get along well”  (18 May 1956).

                       Never mind that Morris and Mae were having domestic problems, their marriage on the rocks, with Mae moving out soon after Marvin moved in. The Schwartz apartment on E. 10th Street became vacant, and Anna had put it up for subletting. She’d assigned the 18-year-old the job of getting a tenant—besides his other obligations to eat sensibly, stay healthy, pay the utility bills and do the banking chores such as deposits, withdrawals and mailing the monthly statements to her.

                        From London, Maurice had gone in March to Israel, for a month of single performances, before rendezvousing with Anna and Frances in Argentina. He’d thought seriously of planting an Art Theatre in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, but quickly gave up the idea, at least for the present. Playhouses were few and engagements were often for a single night, which was much too strenuous even for youngsters. Nevertheless, he was happy to have come and performed in a land where “the Theatre means honor with bread”  (Schwartz letter 14 Mar. 1956).

                        By the first week of May, the family minus one was reunited in Buenos Aires. Maurice had come a few weeks before to prepare the Corrientes for his engagement, and worked his customary non-stop pace with the new company. He was ecstatic to embrace his wife and daughter again, marveling at how Frances, nearly 16, had blossomed in the three months. The theatre manager in him figured her for a wider range of roles, not merely as the troupe’s ingenue.

                       At once, Maurice provided his daughter with a tutor for regular schooling and assigned her a large number of parts. And worried, like any ordinary father about the flocks of handsome native boys she would be certain to attract, like hummingbirds to nectar. More often than not, her roles involved singing, dancing and acting, and she’d have to rehearse from early morning until evening. However, under Maurice’s relentless tutelage—parental feelings aside—she would receive the most florid praise from critics and audiences alike. Making her South American debut on May 29th, in Hard to Be a Jew, Anna exclaimed in a letter to Marvin: “She was really good”  (31 May 1956).

                        In Manhattan, Marvin was enjoying his bachelor life. Though out of his parents’ orbit, the boy ate properly, attained good grades, paid the bills, mailed off the statements each month—and sublet the apartment for the balance of the year to a Mr. Friedman, an apparently decent sort, who paid $70 in rent every two weeks and assumed responsibility for the furniture and utilities. This concern for the apartment, its occupancy and welfare, would be part of almost every letter from Anna, who revealed a near pathological fear of being tenantless, of doing without the $140 a month in rent. Also, each communication with Marvin, loving though it was, would contain some mention of money, sent to or received from Marvin out of the family’s meager checking account. Or, Anna would agonize over why the current statement was late, or incomplete. While Maurice’s letters to his son never broached the subject of money. In this way, he and Anna were being themselves.

                        For the summer, Marvin and Strassberg would be Upstate, at the Farband’s Camp Unzer, Marvin as a junior counselor, Morris in charge of its amateur theatre. In a letter to Maurice that also included a Father’s Day card, Marvin advised his father to remain in South America a while longer, as Yiddish Theatre was in the doldrums. He also informed Schwartz that he intended to go to either City College or Cooper Union in the fall, on a scholarship, if his marks were high enough. He wouldn’t be following in Maurice’s impossible-to-fill footsteps, though “the Theatre was very good to me. It taught me to be productive and responsible for both myself and the things I do. I think that is the best thing I have learned in the Theatre”  (15 June 1956).

                        Maurice’s return letter was a heartfelt expression of love for his son and gratitude for the Father’s Day card: “I was moved to tears [. . .] that we have such a precious son. A father is, one can say in theatre language, the epilogue of a play,” wrote the actor who thought of life only in theatrical terms. “The mother is the prologue and the three acts. The father is the one who ends the play. But I can’t complain. You are a devoted son”  (18 June 1956).

                        The tour that year was only moderately successful, as Yiddish Theatre continued its steep decline, TV and the movies luring away what little audience remained. The month of July was made memorable for the Schwartzes by Frances’s emergency appendectomy, then slow recovery. Maurice and the troupe strongly felt her absence. She’d become a major attraction, a star. In Maurice’s letter to Marvin about the operation, he informed the boy that he was taking his advice and would remain abroad for another full season. Marvin should prepare himself for a second year with Strassberg.

                        By the latter part of August, Frances sufficiently healthy, the troupe crossed the Rio de la Plata to Montevideo for a short engagement at the Artigas theatre. Schwartz brought along a cast of five, including himself and his daughter. They performed excerpts from Prager’s hauntingly mystical The Water Carrier, from Abraham Reisen’s The Field Marshal, from Rudelsky’s The Dancer, and from Tevye and His Daughters (a pared down version of his big hit).

                        Upon his return to Buenos Aires, the first week of September, Maurice addressed a gathering of Yiddish-Argentine theatre bigwigs, with an audacious plan to revive Yiddish Theatre by turning it into an institution, a dream that he wouldn’t let die. Issuing what amounted to a challenge, perhaps even an ultimatum, he outlined a program for a cultural complex along the same lines he’d proposed to Jewish community leaders in 1941. In a statement reminiscent of his 1918 manifesto, he first of all, demanded that the actors’ union sign contracts with its members far in advance of the new season, to lock them in place. He also would require cast listings in alphabetical order to squelch the star system, though he’d tried this repertory arrangement 40 years before, until it proved unworkable in highly competitive Manhattan. Moreover, he intended to found a dramatic school like the one he’d begun in the playhouse Louis Jaffe had constructed for him. He insisted on fixed wages for his actors to keep the payroll from consuming the profits. Another demand was a free hand in doing spectaculars, as it was a sure-fire method of attracting large audiences. The income from one of them would be handed over to the union, from another to be divided among the performers in direct proportion to their salaries.

                       “For my participation, which will be the largest,” he told the Buenos Aires theatre representatives: “I’ll take full responsibility. In the Art Theatre in New York, in good times and even bad times, actors never had to wait an extra hour to receive their pay. And that is how it will always be here.”

                         Of course, this was a blatant untruth, but despite the bluster, the bravado and the breadth of vision, nothing was done because there was no real interest in the scheme. The Jewish community of Buenos Aires really didn’t care to nurture such a dinosaur. This wasn’t 1918, the start of the Second Golden Age of Yiddish Theatre, and though quality productions may have been more valued in Argentina than New York, it wasn’t enough to warrant the investment.

                        With his contract’s conclusion, Maurice took the company to the provinces—as he’d often done in America--, a two-month swing through the smaller cities of Brazil, Argentina and Chile. Departing Buenos Aires by railway, the crew was in Porto Alegre, Brazil by October 2nd. The trip was nightmarish, four days and three nights of hot, dusty cars with no sleeping accommodations and inedible food. The bustling coastal metropolis proved to be a dispiriting way to begin the tour. Wrote Maurice to his son: “It was a mistake to go into a town where you do a play just one time. You have to do so many plays. [. . .] There was no lighting here, so I had to paste sections of colored paper to change effects”  (2 Oct. 1956).

                        Neither Frances nor Anna had come wholeheartedly. Frances chafed over the many hardships she’d have to endure, going town to town. She hadn’t fully recovered from the operation, would tire easily, and was without an appetite. To make matters worse, she developed a rash that the rugged conditions of travel would only make worse.

                        Anna had more serious concerns. She yearned desperately to go home to America and Marvin, and was torn between him and Maurice, who after all was approaching 70, and working at a killing pace, his swollen legs encased in surgical hose. “I told mother to go home,” wrote Maurice to his son. “It’s not easy to be alone, but I’m an adult while you’re still a young boy, needing her care”  (2 Oct. 1956). His plans, he told Marvin, were first to complete the tour, then, if nothing developed after, he’d be back in America in December to test the waters, maybe do a play in Miami Beach. Most likely however, he’d be spending another season in Buenos Aires. Then he hit the boy with a loaded question: “Mother wants a truthful answer from you. Do you want her to come home? Will you be okay in New York alone? She’s in doubt as to who comes first, you or me. Please be honest and let us know”  (2 Oct. 1956).

                        Phrased in that manner, of course the answer would be the one Maurice wanted. His needs were always primary, a given in the family. If Marvin had any objections, his cheery, newsy letters didn’t reflect it. Perhaps he was delighted to continue being on his own, without the loving tyrant overseeing his every action and thought. School had resumed in the fall, and Marvin applied himself diligently, studying hard and looking forward to graduation.

                        The company packed up and left Porto Alegre on October 9th, for Sao Paulo, 500 miles up the coast. Maurice took a plane to arrive early and set things in motion. The troupe, including Anna and Frances, went by rail, another three days of torment. In Sao Paulo, they checked into the Hotel Florida and prepared for a month’s stay in the thoroughly modern seaport. Advance sales were very good, standing room only on weekends. Indeed, the itinerant company did exceptionally well, though Anna couldn’t stop worrying about her husband, who never rested for a moment, making do with three hours sleep, hardly pausing for meals. “Papa works too hard,” she complained in a letter to Marvin. “In order to do good business, he has to put on two new plays a week. Last Saturday and Sunday we played Yosele Solowey, and this coming Thursday we’re putting on Yoshe Kalb”  (18 Oct. 1956).

                        In November, they played the Argentine boondocks. First stop was Rosario, in the east central part of the country, 200 miles from Buenos Aires, with a population of 800,000, some 15,00 of them Jews. Then due north to Santa Fe, with a quarter million souls, but only 4000 Jews. Bemoaned Anna to Marvin: “It was a mistake to play in these small cities. We didn’t lose money, but Papa worked too hard for nothing. Frances also worked very hard”  (26 Nov. 1956).

                        Cordoba, in the deepest heart of Argentina, was nearly a million strong, a thriving pampas city, with a small but active Jewish community. The troupe put on five performances and did well. Next, they traveled west to the foothills of the Andes, to Mendoza near the Chilean border. It was an especially arduous journey. In Mendoza, they did two shows then crossed mountains 23,000 feet high, descending into Santiago, Chile, end of the line for the tour. At long last.

                        There was something special to celebrate on both continents in December, besides the expected meeting of Maurice and Marvin in Miami. On the 3rd, Marvin Schwartz, born Moses Englander, officially became an American citizen. At the Federal Courthouse in Foley Square, he was sworn in by a judge, who recounted his own father’s citizenship ceremony. Marvin wrote of this moving experience to the family: “While the judge was speaking, I saw my whole life passing before me like a moving picture. My early life in Antwerp, then the orphanage. Then when you, Papushka and Mamushka, came to the orphanage to adopt a child [. . .]. I thought how proud you would have been if you could see me standing there in court and becoming a citizen”  (5 Dec. 1956).

                        Maurice touched down in Miami Beach around Christmas. Marvin went south to visit him. They spent joyous hours getting reacquainted and going over what had of necessity been omitted from their correspondence. They took long meals together and went swimming each day in the bathtub-warm ocean. In between, they toiled over the English-language version of Riverside Drive. Maurice had wrapped up a deal to play the Varsity Theatre for two weeks, from January 8th to the 22nd. Together, they labored over the translation, the publicity required, the ads, the posters, and selecting the cast. If Marvin had been only a minor aid to his father in the past, he’d matured into a most capable young man, a source of immense pride to his father.

                        On the last day of 1956, Marvin left Miami Beach for New York. Besides returning to his busy life, he had to purchase the plane tickets for the entire troupe and withdraw $1000 from his own bank account to tide Maurice over until the play opened. The son was more than impressed at how his father had been treated: celebrated on the local Yiddish radio station, honored with a luncheon attended by the city’s notables, feted at a cocktail party for the Miami press—all part of the necessary hoopla, he knew, yet it had warmed Marvin as much as the Floridian sun. Like a peppy manager—like the Ed Relkin of old—Marvin forwarded his upbeat opinion to Anna and Frances resting in Buenos Aires after the debilitating tour: “I think Papa should do ten to twelve thousand a week and make a nice few thousand for himself”  (31 Dec. 1956).


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