Chapter Forty-Four: “It’s
a Life of Woe, of Pain.”
From the very
start, despite Marvin’s inflated estimate of gross and net, Maurice
had been leery about playing Miami Beach. The cost of doing
business, from salaries to living expenses for himself and the
troupe flow down from New York, was staggering—triple what it would
have taken to finance the same production in Buenos Aires. The $1000
Marvin had sent from his own savings was being rapidly depleted. But
worse than that, native Miamians and those snowbirds who made
Florida their winter nests, weren’t the kind to be stirred by good
Yiddish Theatre, more the horse-and-dog track crowd, who frequented
night clubs and the Jai Alai games at Dania. Being away from Anna
and Frances had also contributed to Maurice’s uneasiness: “It’s hard
to live without you,” he wrote them. “I even miss the arguments and
the stubbornness of Frances” (Schwartz letter 4 Jan. 1957).
The opening of
Riverside Drive on January 8th at the Variety on
Washington Avenue and 6th Street, in Miami Beach’s
glitzy, cholesterol-encrusted heart, drew an encouraging 1600
patrons. Max Kreshover had come down to act as business manager—with
Mercur already spoken for in New York—and had orchestrated the
publicity campaign adroitly, with the Miami Herald coming
through for him, designating Maurice Schwartz in a promo column as
‘a universal artist.’
good but business wasn’t, the audience dropping off to 750 by the
following Wednesday, then progressively less. Maurice’s earlier
intimations of failure became cold, hard fact. “The longer I’m here,
the more I realize it’s not my place,” he wrote Marvin, who’d picked
up the skein of his life again in Manhattan (10 Jan. 1957).
The boy was
thriving during the brutal northeast winter, temperatures seldom
rising above the low 20’s, as he reported to Anna and Frances, who
were sweltering in the Buenos Aires summer. His main concerns were
preparing for his year-end finals, his regents exams and a battery
of scholarship tests. He was also in constant communication with
Maurice in Miami Beach, suffering his father’s complaints and
misgivings on the telephone and in letters, about the many
misfortunes of trying to conduct theatre in America. In their
father/son talks, while sunning themselves on the beach, Marvin had
parenthetically mentioned that he was starting to go out with girls.
This posed a small problem for Maurice who couldn’t be on hand to
scrutinize the young ladies, pass judgment on their character, or
even offer a few helpful hints. But the boy was over 18, a man in
the eyes of the government, sufficiently adult to fight for his
country. And wasn’t Anna about to bestow on him power of attorney,
so that he might take money from their account to end the two-way
traffic of withdrawal slips across the Atlantic?
It may have
been the coldest of winters in New York, but below the equator in
Argentina, the summer was so torrid that Anna and Frances were
prisoners in their hotel, escaping its air conditioning only for two
weeks in Mar de la Plata, the beach resort area closeby. All the
while, Anna worried immensely about her husband’s health and state
of mind. Her letters to Marvin reflect this concern, including a
ceaseless harangue about financial matters (her field of expertise
and responsibility). In one, she wrote: “I would appreciate very
much if you’d send me last month’s statement with the checks, so
I’ll be able to see how I stand financially. Let me know whether Mr.
Friedman moved from the apartment, and if he did, what Papushka
wants to do” (9 Jan. 1957).
intention, after the tenant vacated the apartment, was to do nothing
until after Riverside Drive opened. If a hit, Marvin would
have to find a new tenant. If a flop, Maurice would pack up and come
north. Camp out on E. 10th Street until his departure for
theatre—and most everything else—at a standstill in Buenos Aires,
Frances got her first delicious taste of what it was like to be
young, beautiful and carefree. She lolled about the hotel lobby,
listening to American music and fending off the advances of both men
and boys, all of whom were unspeakably handsome, some of whom she
fell hopelessly in love with. And she also studied furiously, to
make up for those horrendous weeks on the road, and its non-stop
routine of rehearse and perform.
Riverside Drive had been a bust. At the end of January, Maurice
closed up and left for New York. He renewed old friendships there,
while taking soundings on possibly playing Second Avenue in the
spring. Yiddish Theatre, he quickly discovered, was on death’s door,
having at last caught up to obituary notices that had been written
for it decades ago and every year since. That season, there was no
Molly Picon, no Menasha Skulnik. Only a few operettas were enjoying
a brief rebirth, largely through the efforts of such outstanding
performers as Seymour Rexsite and Miriam Kressyn.
Just for the
sake of idle speculation, Maurice met with Rexsite, who’d been
recently elected president of the Hebrew Actors Union, to kick
around the possibility of doing something on the Avenue. Seymour
offered a few suggestions, one of them being the RKO Orpheum, a
movie house in the neighborhood. None of the options however had
sufficient seating capacity to appeal to Schwartz, if he did decide
to make the move.
made a few new acquaintances in town. Brought low by his chronic
bronchitis and accompanying high fever, he saw a specialist.
Subjected to one of the latest wonders of medical science, the CAT
scan, Schwartz was diagnosed with hardening of the arteries,
especially in the head. “I’m not a sick person,” he wrote Anna, to
tell her the news and soften the blow. “At my age, people do suffer
from hardening of the arteries” (1 Feb. 1957). The process deemed
irreversible, Maurice was advised by the doctor to lose 20 pounds,
restrict his diet and ease up on his herculean workload. The last
directive of course was the hardest to obey.
spent some time with Marvin and noticed a few bad habits the boy had
picked up over the year and a half they’d been apart, the worst of
them an addiction to television. Also, Marvin squirmed at the sudden
inquiries into his lifestyle. He’d been doing quite nicely on his
own, he reminded his father. Unable to adjust to Marvin’s transition
from boy to man, Maurice complained to Anna: “In my present
condition I am a burden to him, so he’ll be happy when I leave [. .
.]. He’s an independent person. You don’t have to worry about him”
(Schwartz letter 1 Feb. 1957).
To Marvin, he
said nothing, knowing what little good it would do, wiser than most
fathers confronted by children with minds of their own.
14th, Maurice was set to return to Buenos Aires. By ship,
though he preferred to fly and apply himself sooner to the upcoming
season in Argentina. As much as Anna missed her husband, she told
him to book passage on a ship, for the therapeutic value of a sea
voyage. So arranged, Maurice would leave New York with $750 in his
pocket—his Miami Beach earnings—and twelve trunks, most of them
crammed with lighting equipment, for which he’d have to pay an extra
$463 in baggage fees.
Because of a
short unscheduled layover in Rio, Schwartz didn’t arrive in Buenos
Aires until March 10th, at the close of its rainy season.
Anna and Frances met him at the dock and took Maurice and his
luggage back to the Monumental Hotel. To the Schwartzes great
relief, there’d been enough advanced sales for the new season to
warrant a maximum effort on Maurice’s part. As it had for 40 years,
the upcoming agenda energized him to the extreme, never mind his
doctor’s orders to slow down.
After weeks of
morning-to-evening rehearsals at the Teatro Argentino (seating
capacity 1155), which his South American manager Wolf Goldstein had
obtained, the 1957 season opened on Saturday, April 20th
with Yosele Solowey. Reviews were exceptionally good, Frances
being singled out for special mention as the young girl, Esther. For
the season, Maurice had an ambitious array scheduled: The Wise
Men of Chelm, Kiddush Hashem, Wandering Stars,
Uncle Moses, The Cherry Orchard, Jew Suss, Rags
and Anathema. In each, there’d be a substantial role for
Frances, who’d come into her own. This meant a tremendous amount of
work for her, in addition to regular school studies and ballet
lessons twice a week.
In May, Marvin
was thrilled to tell his parents that he’d won a scholarship to City
College. Anna wrote back at once with the family’s congratulations.
She informed Marvin that business was good—the mantra they lived
by—but would be better still if Papushka took 30 percent off the
top, like the season before, instead of the $900 a month they
presently drew, with the expectation of a healthy bottom line at
(for Anna) letter arrived that month from Herman Yablokoff, who’d
labored so mightily two years before for the Yiddish Art Theatre
Association. It was a proposal for next season that involved another
debilitating tour of a few select American cities. Anna reacted
negatively in a letter to her son: "It’s not a joke to take a
company out on the road these days [. . .] unless we travel without
scenery and with a small company” (17 May 1957). She ached to quit
South America after the season, but not if it meant Maurice’s
undertaking a project that couldn’t possibly make money and would
surely take years off his life.
proposition was rejected by Maurice, who knew the economics of it as
well as Anna and disconsolate about having to refuse Herman. In the
same unhappy vein, perhaps after a bad day at the box office or on
stage, Maurice wrote his son: “It’s important that you’re smart
enough to stay away from the machinations of the theatre—it’s a life
of woe, of pain, of rain and cold, of television, radio and
meetings, funerals and weddings. All these things wear out your
nerves” (10 June 1957).
graduated from Stuyvesant High School on Thursday morning, June 27th,
in Carnegie Hall, with Morris Strassberg standing in as his
surrogate father, and with a substitute family of a few close
friends. Photographs were taken. Presents were tendered to the
graduate, including a camera and a portable radio to be used in
summer camp. Afterward, the celebrants went to Rumplemayer’s for
lunch. Marvin set the Schwartzes congratulatory telegram on an empty
chair at his table in place of them, then Strassberg toasted the
graduate with champagne.
The letter to
Anna, describing Marvin’s special day, saddened her profoundly.
Never had she so missed her son. Never had she hated Buenos Aires
with such venom. The image of the telegram perched on the empty seat
in Rumplemayer’s, in loco parentis, was seared in her brain: “I
never thought that I would be away for such a long time and miss
such important events as your birthday and graduation,” she wrote
Marvin. “That’s the theatrical life. There is a lot of glory, but a
lot of pain and headache” (5 July 1957).
Then, at long
last, the season was over. Wolf Goldstein had already spoken about
next year at the Teatro Argentino. Anna was decidedly against it,
but she deferred such matters to Maurice. For better or worse, she
never made demands and bowed to whatever her headstrong husband
wished. Her job was to watch over the cashiers at the box office,
and guard the pennies and dollars. And later agonize obsessively
when the sum total was insufficient to meet their expenses.
It was an
unavoidable shame that they docked in New York weeks after Marvin
had begun classes at CCNY. A young man, entering college, needs so
much, and the parents on hand to provide it. Ann had told Marvin to
buy the necessary clothing at Orbach’s, with Strassberg along to
Also dying to
be home, Frances had been jolted in an earlier letter from Marvin
during the height of the season. He’d told her that there was
interest in having her play the lead in The Diary of Anne Frank,
which had been running on Broadway since 1955, and was about to go
on national tour with a new Anne to replace Susan Strasberg, a very
hard act to follow. Frances had been willing to hop on a plane to
New York and audition for the part. It would be her big chance to
break into Broadway. She chose instead to let the opportunity go by
the boards for now, subsumed by Maurice’s expectations of a
profitable season. She had become his leading lady. His needs always
took precedence in the family, even over his darling Frances’s.
wait long after unpacking before getting into the swim once again.
He bought the Yiddish stage rights to Edmund Morris’s The Wooden
Dish for $125 a week. In July 1954, it had opened in London at
the Phoenix, where the work was well received. A year later, it had
a short Broadway life, only 12 performances, starring Louis Calhern,
and in a Texas setting. Maurice adapted the piece to the Jewish
experience, changing the title to The Fifth Commandment.
The story is about a father whose children aren't particularly
willing to look after him in his declining years. His granddaughter
on the other hand is only too happy to assume the obligation. In the
end, the father forgives his children their egregious sin.
The cast was a
roll call of past Schwartz graduates: Rosetta Bialis, Jacob
Rechtzeit, Morris Strassberg, Anatol Vinogradoff and Menachem Rubin.
Cast as Fanny, the sympathetic granddaughter, was Frances. They
opened at the Sam Shubert Theatre in Washington, DC, on the weekend
of November 9th and 10th, then on the
following Thursday in Montreal, at the National Monument for another
five days. The piece wasn’t much of a success in either theatre, but
the Schwartzes were home, on native ground, a complete family once
more. Marvin took no part in the production, swamped by the
exigencies of college life and eager to participate in it.
later, the Folksbiene resurrected the play with a fresh translation
by Slava Estrin, and adapted and staged by David Licht. Oddly
enough, the technical director on the set was Marvin Schwartz.
Chapter Forty-Five: “Somehow
Yiddish Theatre Will Continue Here.”
Civic Theatre in Los Angeles for the first past of 1958 proved
impossible, so Maurice had to be content with the smaller, recently
built Ivar in Hollywood, close to the Knickerbocker Hotel, where
William Faulkner had written Absalom, Absalom!. With a
seating capacity of a mere 340, it was the tiniest playhouse he’d
worked in many years, and a metaphor for what his career had
devolved into. Despite its size, the Ivar had gained an impressive
reputation for quality theatre. Susan Peters had performed on its
stage in the 1930 romantic drama The Barretts of Wimpole Street.
Two-time Academy award winner Luise Rainer had taken the lead in the
theatre’s production of Joan of Lorraine by Maxwell Anderson.
absence of four years, Schwartz returned to California with Frances
and Anna, leaving Marvin on his own in Manhattan, a college
freshman, quite self-sufficient and intent on becoming an engineer.
He loved theatre, and would remain involved after graduation for
years, behind the stage, though refusing to make it his be-all and
end-all. Uncertainty and living on the edge was far too quirky for
his technical mind.
Lonesome Ship by Yiddish playwright and novelist Moshe
Dluznowsky had first been produced in December 1956 at the
Folksbiene’s Radin Auditorium on the Lower East Side, and ran well
for months. Directed by David Licht, the work had a very compelling
theme in post-Holocaust America, awakening to its indifference over
the plight of Jewish victims. The play takes place aboard a ship in
the Atlantic, trying to unload its cargo of 400 Jews, a cargo no
government wishes to accept, just as in real life the St. Louis and
its full complement of refugees were denied entry at American ports.
Esperance is being shadowed by a Nazi submarine with orders to halt
the vessel and remove one of its passengers, a man who’d
assassinated a high Nazi official. Should the captain refuse the
demand, the U-boat commander intends to sink the vessel. The
conclusion of the play is neatly accomplished with the ship’s
salvation and the sinking of the submarine, at the cost of a single
life, that of a young man who poses as the assassin.
the piece, had it translated into English, and made a slight
alteration in the title to The Lonely Ship, for some
inexplicable reason. Morris Strassberg came west to do the scenery,
which consisted of a three-deck view of the Esperance. He would
eventually spend the last years of his life in California, at San
Juan Capistrano, after a late-blooming career on TV and in the
Now a nubile
17, Frances took her first romantic lead, handling it with skill,
charm and pathos. Her lover was played by James Drury, who would, a
few years later, become The Virginian on the tube.
was a favorite on the West Coast and warmly welcomed back into Los
Angeles’s Jewish and theatrical circles, the play, opening on April
30th, received generally unfavorable reviews because of
trite dialogue, even if Maurice as director fared better.
end, after a string of one-man concerts in America’s heartland, the
Schwartzes were back in Manhattan. Marvin and Frances were
dispatched Upstate to Highland Mills, to summer camp, where they
worked as counselors.
emblematic of Yiddish Theatre’s hopeless condition, the Second
Avenue Theatre (once Kessler’s special joy) was sold for a parking
lot, and by September, the wrecker’s ball was leveling what had once
been Yiddish Theatre’s holiest temple. A few blocks south, at the
Downtown National, where once Boris Thomashevsky had ruled supreme,
the comedy Nice People was currently having a successful run,
but would be the playhouse’s swan song, before being demolished as
well, to make way for the Second Avenue station on the IND’s F line.
Only the Public Theatre still remained, the last active outpost of a
cultural phenomenon that would exist no more, and was hanging on by
the slimmest of threads. Maurice’s old stomping grounds on Second
and 12th, which everyone once thought would endure
forever, had long since stopped hosting better Yiddish fare, in
favor of more profitable and less uplifting amusements. In 1973,
during a short, brilliant burst of optimism, Harry Rothperl, a
Schwartz friend and devotee, formed Jewish Nostalgic Productions,
and together with Seymour Rexsite presented fine Yiddish Theatre
once again. Three years and three excellent productions later, they
too had to give up the ghost for lack of public support.
Downtown National and the Second Avenue folded in 1958, Seymour
said, though with vague uncertainty: “Somehow Yiddish Theatre will
continue here” (Schumach 21 Sept.1958). There were few, in any,
believers. Maurice Schwartz did attempt to redeem the hope, that
most arid of seasons, with a Yiddish translation of A Hole in the
Head, which had done exceptionally well the previous season on
Broadway, running for 157 performances before being made into a film
starring Frank Sinatra. In writing the screenplay, the author,
Arnold Schulman, transformed many of the Jewish-American characters
into more strictly American types, but retained its original flavor
told Seymour of his plans, Rexsite tried to discourage him. Jews had
flocked to the Plymouth only the season before to see the play and
it didn’t merit a revival so soon, even with Maurice Schwartz in
charge. Maurice was undeterred, and when pushed by Rexsite for a
sound reason, he confessed a hankering to do comedy because Menasha
Skulnik had scored well on Broadway in English-language Theatre. He
was frankly jealous of the funny little man in the porkpie hat.
“I’ll show him,” said Schwartz rather pugnaciously. “I’ll put on a
comedy, and you’ll see what I’ll do to him”: (Rexsite 16 Feb.
jealousy was sufficient reason to undertake so demanding an
assignment, Schwartz rented the Public (under its new name, the
Phyllis Anderson Theatre), from Jacob Jacobs and Benjamin Rothman,
then set about creating a groundswell of interest in his return to
Second Avenue. A Hole in the Head, he told the Times,
would be his first attempt at morphing a modern Broadway play into
Yiddish Theatre, emphasizing that Schulman’s piece “is a mixture of
Chekhov and Sholem Aleichem [and] could well have been written first
in Yiddish and then translated into English” (Calta 23 July 1958).
on November 25th, the play had Muni Serebrov in the role
established by Paul Douglas at the Plymouth and Frank Sinatra on
screen. Maurice took the lesser part as the rich and more stable
brother being importuned into lending money to Sidney, who tries to
save his teetering Miami hotel. Old-timers Rosetta Biales and Yudel
Dubinsky took supporting roles, as did Lillian Lux, as the blonde
divorcee trying to tie Serebrov in a marriage knot. Lillian’s
husband, Pesach Burstein and their son Michael, were also players.
Michael would achieve stardom as Mike Burstyn in American and
Israeli Theatre, his most notable effort being the title role in
After much hot
air and inflated promises in the Yiddish and the mainstream press,
David Denk understood why the play couldn’t possibly succeed: “The
Yiddish public was used to seeing the great performer Maurice
Schwartz in a better play, in a bigger and better role, in a bigger
and more spectacular production, especially when he came to Second
Avenue” (364). In other words, Schwartz was not presenting what he
alone had created and perfected: his own brand of splendiferous
theatre so familiar to Art Theatre patrons, many of whom had either
died or had moved on to other forms of entertainment. Supporters
such as Denk wanted him pigeon holed forever, frozen in time, which,
as Maurice had long ago learned, paused for no one.
panned the play but on opposite grounds. To him, A Hole in the
Head on Broadway had been “a comedy with serious touches. At
the Anderson Yiddish Theatre [. . .] it hovered for two hours
between soap opera and farce before wheezing to a happy ending” (Times
26 Nov. 1958).
autopsy had declared too little Art Theatre, the Times
reviewer decried too much. Schwartz bravely disregarded the terrible
reviews and completed the play’s run to badly winnowed houses. The
weekly take averaged between $7000 and $9000, far less than what was
needed to make a profit that justified the investment. By Christmas,
Schwartz and his troupe of over 20 were already in the more
receptive city of Montreal, at Gratien Galina’s La Comedie
Canadienne Theatre. From Thursday, December 24th to
Wednesday the 30th, they did Yoshe Kalb in
English, with a new translation by Sala Staw, the actress/director
for Eva LeGallienne’s Civic Repertory Theatre, and with fresh sets,
costumes and music.
For the next
week, the first of 1959, the troupe played It’s Hard to Be a Jew,
also in English, followed on the weekend by Tevye, but in
Yiddish. “There is no question in my mind that we have been
experiencing a Jewish spiritual and cultural revival,” he told a
Canadian interviewer. “But we must also be realistic and recognize
that the vast majority of the younger generation has lost its
familiarity with Yiddish [. . .]. My plan is to do ‘Jewish’ plays in
both English and Yiddish, perhaps on alternate nights” (Lazarus 2
Maurice was being pragmatic and experimental at the same time.
Straight Yiddish Theatre was no longer viable, and performing only
in English would further alienate him from his original
constituents. Perhaps a blend of both would be the magic formula to
preserve what still remained. It seemed to Maurice that works by
Gordin, I.L. Peretz and Sholem Aleichem could be successfully
presented in both languages. “After all, not all of Chekhov’s plays
are done in Russian or Sartre’s in French” (Lazarus 2 Jan. 1959).
Though these weren’t the best of times for
Maurice, trying to cobble together anything that might work
artistically and financially, he kept intact his gallows sense of
humor. Playing David Shapiro in It’s Hard to Be a Jew to
Lillian Lux’s Mrs. Shapiro, the two passed each other in the narrow
corridor between their dressing rooms. She was heavily padded to
appear older and he was tightly corseted to seem much younger. They
paused momentarily to examine each other. Maurice shook his head.
“We’re still not much of a pair, are we?” he asked ruefully, but
with a disarming and bittersweet smile (Lux 25 April 1999).
Chapter Forty-Six: “I Am
Overworked and Exhausted.”
“I stay in a
nice hotel, a quiet family hotel. I have a decent room with a
kitchenette. It cost $6.50 a day,” wrote Maurice to Anna (14 Feb.
1959). He was in Cleveland, at the Jewish Community Center’s
playhouse on Lee Road. The play he’d come to do was Yoshe Kalb,
the English translation by Sala Staw. The engagement would be from
the end of February through March 8th. The cast, except
for Schwartz, comprised an assortment of homegrown talent, none of
them even remotely Art Theatre caliber, and because of this, he
wanted Frances’s participation.
brother had two years earlier, Frances was preparing to graduate
from high school, with limited free time. A fun lover, with huge
brown eyes and a rich mane of chestnut hair, she’d also managed an
active social life, as her brother had. And like Marvin, she was
thinking in terms of a real-world occupation. Mathematics had been
her favorite subject in school and she strongly considered becoming
a teacher in that area.
as usual, Maurice tried prying Frances loose for her adolescent
activities. He wrote Anna: “It would be good if she could arrange
with her teachers to be here. This would be beneficial to my health
as well as the program” (14 Feb. 1959). In a separate letter to
Frances days later, he tried instilling equal portions of guilt and
vanity by disparaging the girl playing Malkele, indicating that he’d
feel ever so much better if his daughter took the role. The obvious
bit of manipulation worked. Frances interrupted her studies and
social involvements to devote a few days in Cleveland, not as an
actress, but to stage the choreography and directed the dancers.
Ballet had become one of her major interests and she’d developed a
flair for it.
Yoshe Kalb caused reverberations as expected in New York,
especially at the Hebrew Actors Union and among the diehards on the
Yiddish dailies. Schwartz disregarded the carping, the chorus of
objections, to Yiddish Theatre done in other than Yiddish, turning
a deaf ear to all of them. “It means ruination,” he wrote to Mercur
from Cleveland. “Playing Sunday evenings for three or four hundred
dollars just can’t be done anymore. New pieces have to go up, but in
both languages. Only in this way can we save Yiddish Theatre. Canada
has proved this” (14 Jan. 1959).
Yoshe Kalb for presentation at the Cleveland JCC, Maurice was
dickering with the powers that be on Second Avenue to lease the
Anderson in the spring, but only if he could use his alternating
format. If not, he’d try to get a playhouse Uptown, or maybe tour
the country for a year doing only Sholem Aleichem. For an astute
individual, acutely aware of how badly things were going for him and
for Yiddish Theatre, he remained blindly steadfast in his demands,
unwilling to compromise over what he believed it took to stay alive.
Year after year, he’d done just that, by adhering to no set
philosophy, pragmatically altering everything except his faith in
quality Yiddish Theatre and himself, enduring long after he should
have slipped into history.
remotely available or affordable in Manhattan, he rented the Walnut
Street Theatre in Philadelphia for a short stay. One morning soon
after, Isaiah Sheffer was surprised to answer his phone and hear the
basso profundo tones that sounded like God’s very own. “Boy, do you
want to play a week in Philadelphia?”
young man of 20 and former child actor with the Art Theatre, had
made his debut at age seven in Tevye at the old Public. Two
summers before, he’d attended Unzer Camp with Marvin, both working
together in Hard to Be a Jew in Yiddish. Though a small
frisson of interest coursed through him, set off by the Jove-like
timbre of Schwartz’s voice, Sheffer hesitated. He was no longer
involved in Yiddish Theatre, having moved in other directions. He
would become an announcer at radio station WEVD, then a playwright
and producer in his own right. Nonetheless, Isaiah was intrigued and
consented to accept the part offered.
morning, Sheffer showed up at the Hebrew Actors Union building to
sign contract and begin rehearsing the part of Greenberg in Hard
to Be a Jew. Waiting to go on, he heard a loud ruckus coming
from Seymour Rexsite’s office. It was a Wednesday morning, the play
was to open the following Saturday evening at the Walnut, and here
Maurice was arguing vehemently with the actor Moe Honig about money.
Honig was to play Schneerson, one of the play’s major characters.
The shouting continued, until Seymour’s door was flung open and Moe
declared vociferously that Schwartz owed him a substantial sum from
his work in Montreal.
shouted back that he didn’t, then Honig attempted a power play by
declaring that he was quitting. He walked to the door, did a rapid
about face, and spit out a conversation-ending “Fuck you.” Not to be
bested, Maurice faced the rebellious actor, puffed up into a
towering rage, and trumped him with “No, fuck you. The boy,”
he said pointing to Sheffer, “will play your part” (Sheffer 22 Feb.
Maurice was bluffing, a skill he’d mastered ages ago. Or maybe he
recalled that Isaiah knew the part from Unzer Camp. After Honig
stormed out of the office, Schwartz recomposed himself and
telephoned his son, ordering him to take the part Sheffer had been
first hired for. He didn’t ask if his son was available, if he might
have other plans. It was a demand that couldn’t be refused or even
week at the Walnut, after an endless day of rehearsal, the cast took
a break and went out for dinner. Isaiah remained behind in the
empty, darkened theatre, where he munched on a sandwich and did some
reading. Preparing to leave, he noticed a figure onstage, slumped in
a chair, enveloped in shadow. “Sit down,” invited Maurice, though it
was more a command.
Sheffer did as
ordered, then in a self-dramatized soliloquy, Schwartz muttered,
“Look at me. I used to do six weeks in Montreal, six weeks in Buenos
Aires, and now, if we’re lucky this Saturday night, we may break
even” (Sheffer 22 Feb. 2000).
Schwartz, this was a most hectic and exciting year in her young
life. She would commute daily between New York and Philadelphia to
play the Walnut—as Chava in Tevye and His Daughters, and
Betty in It’s Hard to Be a Jew—on weekends and evenings. Then
she’d scurry home late at night to make classes at Washington Irving
High School the next morning. Sometime during that spring, she’d
auditioned for the part of Evelyn Forman in Paddy Chayevsky’s The
Tenth Man, a modern version of The Dybbuk. It was the
only female part in the piece. Expecting nothing to come of it, she
was called back three times for more readings and was twice
interviewed by Tyrone Guthrie, the director. On the day Hunter
College accepted her, Frances was notified that she’d been chosen
from over 250 applicants for the part.
also offered Maurice his choice of roles in The Tenth Man,
but it was a work with no lead roles. All of the nine males were in
supporting parts. Maurice declined, unwilling to be merely one of a
group. He claimed a prior commitment in California, which was true.
What Maurice did contribute to the play consisted of changing his
daughter’s first name to Risa, because Frances sounded too much like
a man’s name
barnstorming for the summer as usual, Schwartz ended up in
Hollywood, not at a standard theatre, but at the Westside Jewish
Center on West Olympic Boulevard. For one month, from October 27th
through Thanksgiving Day, he’d present his mixed marriage of
Yoshe Kalb in English and Rags in Yiddish. He’d brought
no one with him, relying on whatever was available. Old habits die
hard, and Maurice began work, as he’d been doing for years, at 5 AM.
He disregarded such niceties as midmorning coffee breaks, lunches,
diners and other forms of relaxation, to put his all into the
production, no matter the playhouse and the imperfect crew. But
concerns about his health were beginning to encroach on his
consciousness. “I am overworked and exhausted from the group and the
center’s management,” he confessed in a letter to William Mercur
(18 Nov. 1959).
One of the
players at the Westside Community Center was June Barfield. A very
qualified professional actress, she was on a short hiatus from
studying with Uta Hagen in New York, visiting her family in Los
Angeles. Shown an ad in Variety about the production, June
read for the part of Malkele. “Two things drew me to this play. One
was the formidable off-stage presence of Schwartz By that time in my
studies, I’d developed a quick recognition of an Actor: the
total moment-to-moment focused attention; the relaxation that’s
poised and ready to spring; the use of one’s entire being as an
instrument. I recognized that being in Schwartz. The other: I
finished my cold reading and Schwartz turned to another actor with a
‘Nu. This is Malkele’” (Barfield 20 Feb. 2000).
to the Schwartz style of acting and directing—not as a Hagen
student—the technique at first seemed somewhat outdated and
artificial. But she followed instructions implicitly. “And I found
that once I learned Schwartz’s timing and beats, it was as if he’d
given me a score that I could then interpret. I was able to
integrate Hagen’s technique into my performance. Suffice it to say,
that at every single performance I received an ovation” (Barfield
20 Feb. 2000).
Schwartz seemed very old to June Barfield. She recalls sitting
opposite him after a lengthy rehearsal in a delicatessen on Fairfax
Avenue. In a subdued voice heavy with age and fatigue, she noticed
how poorly his suit fit. Then Maurice dug into his jacket pocket and
withdrew a few yellowed newspaper clippings of his reviews and set
them on the table. “That action encompassed something at once
forlorn and perplexing to me; it seemed so unnecessary in someone so
accomplished, to need to carry his notices in order to show them to
anyone” (Barfield 20 Feb. 2000).
Maurice was preparing his play in Los Angeles, The Tenth Man
had opened at the Booth Theatre on November 5th to great
reviews for all involved. The production fielded an outstanding
cast. Jacob Ben-Ami, once Maurice’s staunch antagonist at the start
of the Art Theatre, played Frances's’father. The others were Lou
Jacobi, George Voskovec, Jack Gilford, Donald Harron and Gene Saks,
who not long after became a director, scoring in 1963 with Enter
Atkinson about the daughter of an actor he’d admired for decades:
“Risa Schwartz is superb. She makes the transition from madness to
sanity by effortless means, and her moments of sanity are full of
passion and loveliness” (Times 6 Nov. 1959).
exactly as Maurice had predicted. Her New York agent Milton Goldman
wrote Schwartz in Hollywood of the auspicious debut. Maurice wired
back, expressing his concern over what Goldman had in mind for his
daughter’s future. The agent replied: “Rest assured that before we
do anything, we will consult with you and with her to make sure that
all out thinking coincides on the important matter of her career”
(Goldman 10 Nov. 1959).
assignment over, Maurice hurried back to New York to see The
Tenth Man. He wasn’t impressed with what had been done to
The Dybbuk, but he delighted in Frances’s performance, extremely
proud of the orphan he’d found in Belgium, then shaped with love and
direction into a radiant actress capable of attaining the heights of
Manhattan, he signed contracts with the Hebrew Actors Union to do
another Christmas-in-Canada tour. The contracts would also cover a
week at the Walnut, from January 18th, 1960 until the 24th.
Since he’d forged a good working relationship with the very
vivacious Bursteins, he signed them up as mainstays of his troupe.
Sensing his deteriorating condition as never before, and beginning
to feel his years, he decided not to go on ahead to Montreal to set
up the stage and the lighting. Instead, he’d send up Marvin in his
stead. His son was more than capable backstage, especially with the
who’d been acting distant, even disobedient of late, flat out
refused to go to Canada. He’d just come off a rough first half of
his sophomore year, spent and weary from keeping up with his
courses. Surely Maurice was demanding too much of the boy, who’d
been looking forward to the holiday recess, during which he might
restore a semblance of his active social life. But, pleaded Maurice,
it wouldn’t be as if Marvin would have to attend the grueling
rehearsals or perform on stage.
unmoved, and the two argued bitterly, as they’d been doing of late.
It must have hurt Schwartz terribly to be denied by his son, though
upon reflection, he probably could understand and forgive. Hadn’t he
also refused to follow in his own father’s footsteps in the rag
factory? Maurice asked his good friend Rexsite to act as his
intermediary and speak to the boy. He simply had to have him in
Montreal. Seymour buttonholed Marvin, applying pressure, but the boy
remained unmoved. Theatre wasn’t his life anymore.
Rexsite, who’d always revered the battered old lion, refused to let
up: “Do it this once Marvin and I’ll never ask you again” (Rexsite
6 Aug. 1998). The boy finally relented, scotching his holiday plans
and taking the train to Montreal. It would be the last time he’d
work with or for his father.
The Death of an American
number of friends more practical and realistic than himself begged
Maurice not to go to Israel at the beginning of 1960 for yet another
tour. They warned that audiences there were not particularly
receptive, many of them concentration camp survivors, who wanted
strictly mindless entertainment, not cultural uplifting. Seymour
Rexsite was one of those discouraging voices, recalling for Maurice
his own unfriendly experiences with the Israelis: “When my film A
Yiddishe Mame played there, they threw oranges and inkwells at
the screen” (6 Aug. 1998).
before Maurice and Anna took off for Tel Aviv, Charlotte Goldstein
(now married to Fred Chafran, an international jeweler) phoned to
wish him safe journey. He wasn’t well, she knew at once by the
strained tone of his voice. He admitted as much, describing problems
with his legs and his stamina. “Then why are you going?” she asked
pointedly. “Because I told them I was coming and they’re expecting
me,” he replied (Chafran 29 Dec. 1999).
Maurice run was the outside chance he might resettle there, as his
father had many years ago, not to await his Maker, but in his
constant, unquenchable hope of regenerating the Art Theatre, as his
people had made the desert bloom again. Though bone-weary and ill,
he was prepared to begin from scratch, if necessary.
all voices but his own, Maurice arrived in Tel Aviv in late January,
and a week later was elbow-deep with an Ohel troupe of 30, preparing
his signature piece Yoshe Kalb. He opened early in March to
packed houses and stunning reviews. But he soon found himself
performing in a different city each evening, never returning to his
hotel until three o’clock the next morning. “No time remains for
rehearsals. One lives on the road and I doubt if this can be
changed. This is how it’s done here. We have to bring everything
along, from a needle to a piano” (Mercur June 1960).
impossible as working conditions were for Schwartz, his active,
hopeful mind leaped ahead to prospects for a permanent Art Theatre
in Eretz Israel, stimulated by the marvelous reception he was
receiving from audiences composed mainly of recent European
settlers. It was the same unrealized goal he’d always had,
untarnished by sad experience. As if it were a new vision, he wrote
to Mercur of a multifunctional complex in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv that
would house a theatre, a drama school, a library and a learning
center, where Yiddish would be taught and preserved. “Here,” he
indicated in a naked egoism as naïve as it was quintessential
Maurice Schwartz, “my name and my work can be perpetuated” (Mercur
have been an unregenerate dreamer, but he was certainly no fool.
Despite his spate of optimism, he grasped the lay of the land,
comprehended the anti-Yiddish bias of both the Israeli government
and its intelligentsia. He was also quite aware too that the
generation of Holocaust survivors, for whom Yiddish was all they
could cling to, would eventually die off, leaving no replacements.
As for their children and the Sabras, “they run from us to the
English-language theatre [. . .]. Here, in the schools, English,
Arabic and French are taught, but Yiddish is a secret. One feels
oneself to be very strange here, almost a foreigner” (Mercur June
surely about prospects in Israel, Maurice encouraged a written
courtship by Jerry Werlin, a Philadelphia promoter. In all fairness
to Maurice’s acuity about theatre conditions in the Jewish State,
the wooing had begun before Schwartz had left America and grew more
palatable as his hopes for a replanted Yiddish Art Theatre on native
soil evaporated in the unforgiving heat of reality.
ready and willing to spearhead the formation of a national Yiddish
Art Theatre in America, similar to the limited local New York
attempt headed by Herman Yablokoff in 1955. This expanded,
impressive approach would link together a network of key cities
across the United States, where Yiddish Theatre had always drawn a
hefty audience. Werlin was prepared to get the ball rolling with
making the necessary contacts, preparing a form letter and other
feats of publicity, and to organize and raise sufficient capital to
ensure not only an Art Theatre, but a handsome profit to his group
of investors, Schwartz included.
Maurice loved what Werlin had proposed—the Holy Grail he’d been
seeking all his life—and nibbled at the bait, made even more
palatable after the frosty reception from the Israeli establishment.
In a billet-doux, the Philadelphia promoter wrote: “It doesn’t mean
that Maurice Schwartz has to be in every play or to make one-night
stands, or go barnstorming throughout the country. [. . .] But it is
important that a group be organized as a good venture with the
cooperation of the Jewish communities” (Werlin 16 Apr. 1960).
increasingly delighted in what he heard of Jerry Werlin’s grand
scope and coast-to-coast intentions, he made it crystal clear that
he wouldn’t put a dime into the pot. His participation would be
limited to the Schwartz name and abilities only. Werlin didn’t
object, pleased to have engaged the titan’s interest and promised
stewardship. With great anxiety, Jerry awaited the signal from
Maurice to begin the campaign.
however came to an abrupt halt in mid-April, while Maurice was
rehearsing the troupe for Kiddush Hashem, while at the same
time starring in Yoshe Kalb. He felt an oppressive weight on
his chest serious enough to hurry over to Beilinson Hospital in
Petah Tikva, just outside Tel Aviv. He registered under the name of
Black—the literal translation of Schwartz—hoping for anonymity, so
that ticket sales wouldn’t fall should word get out of his heart
attack. After a short while though, his very potent sense of self
rose to the surface and he asked his attending physician, “Do you
know who I really am?”
On April 28th,
after a few weeks of enforced idleness, he was feeling much better
and intended to quit the hospital. His doctors decided otherwise. By
this late date, the public had become aware of his condition and
that he would be out of action for an indefinite period. “Business
fell down,” wrote Anna to the children. “Without Papa, Yoshe
is not an attraction. The company will stop playing April 30th.
It is useless to lose money” (28 Apr. 1960).
Schwartz was never to leave the hospital alive, as a series of 11
heart attacks followed one another in rapid succession. On May 10th,
he died. In the Report of the Death of an American citizen, a
standard US State Department certificate, it was confirmed that
Maurice had indeed expired from a recurrent myocardial infarction.
The heart that had beaten only for the Art Theatre would beat no
more. That evening, after being told, Frances was unable to go on in
The Tenth Man. Her understudy, Renee Haafner, stepped into
The next day,
the children telegraphed Anna expressing their sorrow and their
love, and begged her to return home as soon as possible. Alone,
confused and heartbroken, she phoned Seymour in New York, asking
whether she should bury her husband in Jerusalem next to his father,
or fly the body home to America.
he must come home,” insisted Seymour. “He was the greatest thing
ever to happen to Yiddish Theatre. He belongs here” (Rexsite 6 Aug.
1998). After the body lay in state in Tel Aviv for a few days,
visited by long lines of Israelis, the Yiddish Theatrical Alliance,
the organization created to help Yiddish actors in time of need, and
headed by Seymour, arranged for the flight back to New York.
tearful mourners, many still in shock, filled the Gramercy Park
Memorial Chapel on Second Avenue, between 9th and 10th
streets, overflowing onto the sidewalks Maurice had known so well,
to pay homage and render their last good-byes, a kind of silent and
final ovation for what he’d come to mean for them. George Jessel,
representing the American Theatre, eulogized him as “the last of the
great stars of Yiddish Theatre in America.” Other tributes from
friends, colleagues, and those he’d often fought bitterly with, were
lengthier and more personal, as the entire Yiddish theatrical world
looked on, each member realizing that Maurice’s passing was not only
that of a man and an era, but of an entire realm he all but sired
and alone maintained.
place at the Mt. Hebron Cemetery in Queens, among many of his long
and recently departed associates in the rarified art he’d practiced
religiously for 60 years, in the plot owned by the Alliance. Within
its confines, were more Yiddish actors, musicians and playwrights
than any single location on earth, living or dead.
poured in like a surging river for weeks, to Anna and the children,
either in personal, sincere remembrances, or within the pages of
Yiddish and English-language publications. Perhaps the most succinct
of these, and the one Maurice might appreciate the best, came from
Anne Woll, his last English-language publicist: “This truly great
man of the theatre knew how to take the bitter with the sweet, and
his priceless sense of humor never deserted him at any time” (Times
15 May 1960).
What more can
be added that hasn’t already been made evident (the writer hopes)
within these pages and elsewhere, about this most rare individual
who, for all his self-promotion, outsized ego, mistakes,
shortcomings, failures, caustic manner with the less gifted, and
repeated cries for subsidies where economy might have been the
remedy—was not only truly larger than life, but the divine spark
itself, to countless thousands, for whom a trip to the Yiddish Art
Theatre in the evening was often the sole reason for tolerating and
enduring the world’s insults that day?
Kressyn may well have been speaking for all of them when she said,
“Maurice Schwartz brought the Sabbath holiday to Yiddish Theatre.”