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

Chapter Forty-Four: "It's a Life of Woe, of Pain." 
Chapter Forty-Five: "Somehow Yiddish Theatre Will Continue Here."
Chapter Forty-Six: "I Am Overworked and Exhausted."

Chapter Forty-Seven: The Death of an American Citizen.

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.’

                         Reviews were 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).

                        Maurice’s 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 Argentina.

                        With 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.

                        Overall, 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.

                        Maurice also 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.

                        Maurice also 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.

                         By February 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 season’s end.

                        A disturbing (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.

                        The Yablokoff 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).

                        Marvin 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 supervise.

                        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.

                       Schwartz didn’t 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.

                        Eight years 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.

                        Obtaining the 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.

                        After an 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.

                        The 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.

                        Dluznowsky’s 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.

                       Schwartz bought 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 movies.

                        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.

                        Though Maurice 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.

                        By spring’s 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.

                        As if 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.

                        After the 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 and warmth.

                       When Maurice 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. 2000).

                        Whether 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).

                        Opening 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 Barnum.

                       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.

                        Schumach also 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).

                         Where Denk’s 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 Jan. 1959).

                         As usual, 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.

                         As her 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.

                        Self-centered 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.

                        The Anglicized 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).

                        While shaping 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.

                        With nothing 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?”

                        Sheffer, a 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.

                        The next 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.

                        Schwartz 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. 2000).

                        Perhaps 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 discussed.

                        Later that 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).

                        For Frances 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.

                        Guthrie had 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

                        After 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).

                        Not accustomed 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).

                        In 1959 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).

                       While 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 Laughing.

                        Raved Brooks 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).

                         A star: 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).

                        The California 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 stardom.

                        While in 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 electrical equipment.

                          Marvin, 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.

                         Marvin was 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.

                        Seymour 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.

Chapter Forty-Seven: The Death of an American Citizen

                        A goodly 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).

                        The evening 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).

                        What made 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.

                        Disregarding 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).

                          But as 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 June 1960).

                        Maurice may 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 1960).

                        Disappointed 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.

                        Werlin was 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.

                        No doubt, 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).

                        Though Maurice 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.

                         These plans 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).

                        Maurice 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 role.

                        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.

                         “Of course, 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.

                        Over 5000 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.

                        Burial took 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.

                        Tributes 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?

                         Miriam Kressyn may well have been speaking for all of them when she said, “Maurice Schwartz brought the Sabbath holiday to Yiddish Theatre.” 


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