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The Life & Death of a Yiddish Art Theatre
by Martin Boris

In 1923, a young, brilliant but inexperienced stage designer named Boris Aronson arrived in America with little English at his command and less money.  Born in Russia, the son of the chief rabbi of Kiev, he'd happily left behind the artistic straightjacket of a post-revolutionary Moscow Theatre, to study first in Berlin, then in Paris, before moving on to New York, where he rose steadily over the next four decades, becoming an outstanding stage and lighting designer for such mainstream Broadway productions as Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret, and The Diary of Anne Frank.

Aronson couldn't have come during a more propitious time.  Yiddish theatre was thriving, in its second golden age, at some 17 playhouses that offered both the sentimental melodramas and gaudy musicals known collectively and pejoratively as shund (trash), and the more high-minded fare called art theatre, written by the finest Yiddish and non-Yiddish playwrights.


For the more sophisticated productions -- at a mere handful of playhouses scattered over lower Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx   -- the Twenties was an especially bountiful era, dominated by Maurice Schwartz's Yiddish Art Theatre, Jacob Ben-Ami's Jewish Art Theatre (though it lasted but two seasons, from 1919 to 1921), the Folksbiene (started by The Workmen's Circle in 1915), and a few repertory companies in Brooklyn, and the Bronx, struggling for existence so far from Second Avenue, the Yiddish Theatre's equivalent of Broadway.

Nevertheless, the art theatres were blessed by the astonishing fact that many of the greatest Yiddish playwrights were very much alive and active and close at hand.  Among these giants was Perez Hirshbein, whose play A Forsaken Nook (A Farvorfen Vinkl) had, in 1915, boosted Schwartz's sagging career and proved to be a turning point for Yiddish Art Theatre in America.

On the scene too was David Pinski (King David and His Women, The Treasure, and Yankel the Blacksmith).  And Ossip Dymov (The Bronx Express, Hear, Oh Israel), not to mention Sholom Asch and his large body of theatre creations, which often found their way onto the English-speaking stage.

Within a year of Boris Aronson's less-than-auspicious arrival in New York, his first job was with one of those small art theatre groups in the Bronx, a recently formed avant-garde repertory company that self-consciously called itself Unser Teater (Our Theatre).  Aronson was given a blank check to try out his highly original ideas about costumes, lighting and set design.  "I did my most experimental work [at Unser], which I haven't topped yet," he said in a 1961 interview.

This cutting edge ensemble at Unser was the realized dream of a tiny select circle of left-leaning Yiddish playwrights and theatre intellectuals called the Jewish Theatre Society.  Two years earlier, disgusted with Second Avenue shund and dissatisfied with many of Schwartz's recent plays of little substance that nonetheless showcased himself, the Society decided to establish its own theatre, modeled after the great repertory troupes of Moscow and Vilna, where emphasis was placed on substantive material and not the star players.

On Unser's Board of Directors was David Pinski and Perez Hirshbein, and two of the most ubiquitous Yiddish theatre intelligentsia:  Jacob Mestel and Mendl Elkin, each brilliant at directing and producing plays, and at writing theatre history and criticism.

This disgruntled and distinguished body approached Sidney Stavrov, an enterprising former actor on the Russian stage and veteran of the English music halls.  Stavrov had already rented the old Booth silent film movie house at 2135 Boston Road and E. 180th Street in the east Bronx.  He was in the process of transforming it into a 285-seat theatre, and studio on the floor above for his wife Beatrice Stavrova, a ballet teacher and performer.

To the Board, the location seemed excellent if not ideal: at the foot of the East Tremont Avenue elevated line, within eyeshot of Bronx Park, and surrounded by myriads of working- and middle-class Jews, who not that long ago had deserted ghettoish lower Manhattan for the fresh air and relative openness of the Bronx.

Stavrov had named the reconverted movie house The Bronx Art Theatre, and was so taken with Unser's goals that he not only welcomed the fledgling group as a subtenant, he also volunteered his and Beatrice's services as performers.

Boris Aronson was similarly affected, and with great élan he designed the murals for Unser's auditorium, of joyous chasids dancing and fiddles playing and brides radiant in full wedding attire.

For the opening production David Pinski wanted to use one of his own plays -- he had more than fifty to chose from -- but Hirshbein cautioned against it.  "How would it look," he asked Pinski, "if we open a theatre with ourselves as directors to have our own plays done?"

Wisely, Pinski reconsidered and together they selected S. Ansky's Day and Night as the opener, a dramatic poem fashioned for the stage in three acts by Pinski and Elkin.  Ansky, who died in 1920, had achieved worldwide fame ten years earlier with The Dybbuk.

Among the actors employed by Unser for the premiere and for the other plays to follow, were Egon Brecher of European fame and David Vardi from the original Habima Theatre of Moscow.  By contrast, Aronson was a complete novice, but he eagerly threw himself into the project.  "Nobody knew for sure if they would be paid or not," recalled Aronson.  "But they [Unser's board] had an adventurous spirit...and I happened to arrive at the right time.  They were willing to do unusual things."

According to the Jewish Theatrical News, reporting on the debut of Day and Night, on December 9, 1924, "to judge by the enthusiasm of that evening, the play is assured of a long run."  In actuality, the play ran for 79 performances.

The next Unser offering was The Final Balance, a four-act tragicomedy about the problems of a prosperous flour merchant.  It was written by David Pinski, who apparently overcame Hirshbein's reluctance to present their own creations.  Again Aronson did the lighting, the scenery and the costumes, continuing to improve and gain confidence.

Location after all being everything, perhaps the Bronx Art Theatre was too far from Second Avenue.  Or perhaps Unser's agenda was too leading edge, too intellectual for Yiddish-Americans used to spectacle and star-driven vehicles.  After less than a year of operation, the brave little troupe folded, its many talented individuals moving swiftly along to other enterprises.

Early in 1925, Sidney Stavrov, who'd remained behind, assembled a company of English-speaking players and formed his own group.  He slightly altered the premises to allow better access to Madame Stavrova's dance studio on the second floor, and had erected a ten-by-eighteen foot electric sign that read:  The Intimate Playhouse.  It reopened in April, 1925, with The Enchanted Prince, a musical based on an old Russian folktale.  Beatrice Stavrova's ballet company provided the dancing.  Ticket prices ranged from 50 cents for the cheap seats to $1.50 for the front row.

Other Intimate Playhouse evenings included Luigi Pirandello's Sicilian Limes, The Model (a play by Stavrov himself), and a ballet recital by Stavrova and company.

But despite the appeal to a wider audience, this second attempt at theatre also failed after a single season.  However, Joseph Schildkraut, the popular star of Yiddish theatre, Broadway and Hollywood, subleased the Bronx Art Theatre from Stavrov for five years, as a sixtieth birthday present for his father Rudolph, whose fame on the Yiddish stage was greater than his son's though a stranger to the general audience.  About the Bronx location, Joseph wrote, "Its distance from the heart of the theatre district did not deter Father's admirers -- and they were numerous.  Here they could see him once more in his whole repertory, from Shakespeare to modern farces."

In September, 1925, the Schildkraut Theatre opened with Ossip Dymov's The Singer of His Sorrows, starring Rudolph and directed by Joseph.  At the time the play was a great success in Bucharest, Rumania, where it was well-adapted and directed by Joseph Buloff for his Vilna Troupe, and ran for over three hundred performances, Buloff in the lead role.

Financially though, the greatest triumph for the Schildkrauts at the Bronx Art Theatre was Dymov's Bronx Express, which ran for a year before going on tour.  Rudolph played an overworked button maker who falls asleep on the subway after a hard day's work in the factory, and dreams he's rich and on vacation in Florida.

The Schildkrauts had the good fortune to use Boris Aronson for costumes, lighting and set design.  So involved was Aronson with the overall production that he is credited as co-director.

According to Joseph Schildkraut their most favorite play was August Strindberg's Sheet Lightning, which he directed, influenced by having seen the legendary Max Rheinhardt's version in Berlin.

Once again however the Bronx Art Theatre went dark, soon after the following notice appeared in the Jewish Theatrical News of March 23, 1926:

Schildkrauts To Close Theatre

Rudolph and Joseph Schildkraut, father and son, will

close the Schildkraut Theatre, 2135 Boston Road on

April 19, 1926, and go to Hollywood, California,

where they will perform together in Young April, a

motion picture to be produced by Cecil B. DeMille.           

The Schildkraut Theatre may not reopen in the fall.


Once more Boris Aronson was at liberty, but he soon joined Maurice Schwartz's Yiddish Art Theatre at its new home on Second Avenue and E. 12th Street.  Aronson designed the sets and costumes for its maiden performance on November 18, 1926 of Abraham Goldfadden's The Tenth Commandment.  The association didn't last long as Aronson then went to work for Eva LeGallienne at the Civic Repertory, his next step up the ladder. 

But the Stavrovs never lost heart.  In May 1927, with an optimism almost ludicrous given the Bronx Art Theatre's track record, they signed a long term lease with Elizabeth Steinmetz, the building's owner, that would expire in September, 1944.  Their faith was rewarded as Joseph Buloff and the American branch of the Vilna Troupe became, in 1929, the theatre's next subtenant.  This proved to be a bitter experience for the Vilna and for Buloff personally, according to a New York Times story a year later.  "Last season, he [Buloff] directed a small theatre in the Bronx, obscure so far as the general public and even most of the cognoscenti were concerned.  From it, however, several individuals brought back glowing accounts."  One of those individuals was Maurice Schwartz, who'd first invited Buloff to New York in 1926.  Viewing his work at the Bronx Art Theatre, the great Maurice returned to Second Avenue duly impressed.

Distance and obscurity weren't the only handicaps Joseph Buloff had to endure.  The Vilna Troupe couldn't afford union help and tried to function with non-union stagehands.  Stench bombs were tossed on stage during the performances.  Buloff would open all the doors to air out the theatre, but this discouraged the sale of tickets.  With so much against them, the Vilna folded.  For the 1930 season, Joseph Buloff worked for Schwartz and received rave notices in Uncle Moses and The Witch of Castile.

In the theatrical season of 1930-1931, the first full year of The Great Depression, Mark Schweid attempted to breathe life once more back into the Bronx Art Theatre.  A graduate of the Polish Dramatic Society, Schweid worked primarily in the Yiddish theatre during the Twenties as an actor and a director.  He also wrote plays and poetry.  A decade later he went on to play leading roles on Broadway.  During World War Two, he was employed by the OWI (the Office of War Information) and was in charge of the German press at the Nuremberg war crimes trials.

Among the actors he assembled for his Bronx company were Eli Mintz (later part of the The Goldbergs radio serial), Zvi Scooler (the future voice of radio station WEVD), Gershon Rubin, and Helen Zelinska -- all veterans of both Schwartz's and Ben-Ami's companies.

Not only was Schweid director and producer of the plays presented at the theatre in the Bronx, he also did the hat trick of acting in them.  Such plays as Sholom Asch's The Electric Chair and Chono Gottesfeld's God's Thieves.  About the latter, the New York Times wrote of Mark Schweid:  "He has put on one of the many good things Jewish theatre should have to offer and generally does not."

Despite the good notices and fine actors, Schweid's efforts were in vain.  After one season he too had to close shop.

The widening Depression and the shrinking Yiddish-speaking, Yiddish-oriented audience chased almost every art theatre from the scene.  Except for Maurice Schwartz's Yiddish Art Theatre.  He survived by perseverance, determination and force of personality, and by mixing high art and shund.  In those lean times, many Yiddish actors, directors and playwrights were forced to try their hands at the Broadway stage and in films.  Occasionally a sprinkling of serious art theatre would surface and like bubbles quickly dissolve into nothing.

At the Bronx Art Theatre during these arid and hazardous days, the husband and wife team of Jacob and Annie Cherniak tried to survive as Schwartz was doing on Second Avenue, by offering a varied bill.  Jacob was a businessman and functioned as producer, while Annie, formerly with Oscar Green's company at the Hopkinson Theatre in Brooklyn, was an actress who could play serious roles as well as those requiring the talents needed to squeeze tears and soulful sighs from an audience seeking respite from the dreary days of the Depression.

By the latter half of the '30's, the Cherniaks had given up, passing the torch to the Dubrovinsky family.  Mrs. Dubrovinsky was a versatile actress and not only emoted grandly but often wrote her own material, mostly over-the-top melodramas ending in a wedding scene.  Ironically, it was precisely the genre that drove Hirshbein and Pinski to open Unser Theatre.

The two Dubrovinsky daughters, Esther and Vity Dubrow, carried on the family tradition, often appearing together in Yiddish-American farces on Second Avenue in the 1960's.

With the Second World War came the demise of the Bronx Art Theatre.  The building was sold to a Nicholas Kritikos, who leased the premises for a combination luncheonette and stationery store.

In 1966, the City of New York condemned the entire block and razed its buildings to the ground.  Five years later, construction of the Lambert Houses, a public housing development, was begun.  Gone as well was the surrounding of bustling stores and the vibrant Jewish community they served.  Today nothing remains to indicate that here was once superlative Yiddish theatre of all types, and the legendary figures who once made it thrive, both providing not merely entertainment to its audience, but ample evidence of a talented people, transplanted in bits and pieces to a hospitable new world, lighting up the sky like a comet, if only for a very brief moment in time. 


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