The Museum of
FAMILY HISTORY

       the yiddish world

EXHIBITION


The Modjacot Marionette Theatre
by Martin Boris
 

In the 1920's, an age of great ferment in America, Yiddish theatre was also very much alive and flourishing, some 20 playhouses in operation on Second Avenue and its environs, and in the hinterlands of Brooklyn and the Bronx.  This whirlwind of theatrical activity ran the gamut, from serious art theatre exemplified by Maurice Schwartz and Jacob Ben-Ami, to the less highbrow but more crowd-pleasing melodramas and extravagant musicals.  It was the second golden age of Yiddish theatre, and in the same week an eclectic playgoer might enjoy a work by Pinski, Hirshbein or Shakespeare in one theatre and a syrupy musical ending in a riotous wedding in another, without ever leaving the confines of the Lower East Side.
 

But as varied as Yiddish stage fare was in the Twenties, there was yet another form of theatre on Jewish Broadway that drew a select and appreciative audience to a tiny makeshift playhouse ensconced in a narrow four-story, red-brick walkup on 12th Street, between Third and Fourth Avenues.  Many would trudge up to the top loft and view what noted stage designer Boris Aronson labeled the finest theatre he'd ever seen.
 

The acting troupe went by the slightly exotic name of Modjacot Marionette Theatre, and was, by self-description, the only Jewish puppet theatre in America.

 

From the nation's very beginning, puppets were part of the amusements brought by the Spanish Conquistadores and the early English settlers.  Puppet theatre was a favorite of both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.  After World War One there was a new surge of interest in marionettes, beginning at the Chicago Little Theatre on Michigan Boulevard.  Soon puppet companies were springing up in Cleveland, San Francisco, Boston and Pittsburgh.  In 1919 Tony Sarg, an English puppeteer and recent immigrant who'd performed for friends at his studio in the Flatiron building on lower Broadway, opened at The Punch and Judy theatre further uptown on 49th Street.
 

America's greatest puppeteer Remo Bufano began his career however in 1914, and continued on for 30 years, working all aspects of the profession, presenting plays by Edna St. Vincent Millay, Arthur Schnitzler and Edmond Rostand, eventually performing in the movies and on TV.
 

One of Bufano's pupils in 1923 was Jack Tworkow, a 23-year-old Yiddish newcomer from Poland.  A decade before Tworkow had settled in Manhattan, taking drawing classes at the Art Students' League and at the National Academy of Design.  He also learned the puppeteer's trade.
 







Yosl Cutler
 

In his small circle of young artistic immigrants, Tworkow met two others with similar ambitions and talents, greenhorns like himself.  One of them was Yosl Cutler, an orphan, who'd come to America in 1911 at age 15 with his older brother.  Cutler thrived in his new home, blessed with skills in painting and writing, to which he soon added marionettes.  In 1922, he made his literary debut in Abraham Reyzen's monthly journal New Yiddish.  There he attracted the attention of noted playwright and dark humorist Moishe Nadir.

The second artist and puppeteer Tworkow became friendly with was Zuni Maud, who'd emigrated in 1905, a 14-year-old hopeful from Polish Lithuania.  Though deeply educated in Cheder, Yeshiva and Talmud Torah, Maud followed his true interest and enrolled in Cooper Union's art program and at the Baron de Hirsch Art School.  Soon he was doing satiric illustrations for The Kibbutzer, a socialist journal.  He was also learning puppetry.

In 1923 Maurice Schwartz, with a keen eye for new talent, hired the three friends as stage and costume designers for his Yiddish Art Theatre. 
 


Zuni Maud

When Schwartz decided to restyle and update Abraham Goldfaden's The Witch (Di Kishufmakherin) as the final offering of the 1924-1925 season, he asked Maud, Cutler and Tworkow to create a Punch and Judy sequence for the marketplace scene.  Though Schwartz -- who also played the lead role -- received great praise for his imaginative version of the 1879 classic, he was not pleased with the marionette portion:  it was far too small to be seen from the back rows of the theatre on Madison and 27th Street, where the Yiddish Art Theatre was lodged that season.
 

Nevertheless, encouraged by the experience, the trio decided to expand what they'd created.  They spent the following summer at Zuni's brother's bungalow colony in the Catskills*, writing sketches, painting backgrounds and constructing an entire world of puppet characters.  Sunny Ray, in Callicoon, New York, near the Pennsylvania border, was the perfect forge for their labor of love, the summer home of many leftwing writers and painters who might offer an opinion or two, a few helpful hints for the upstarts.

The result of this feverish collaboration was The Modjacot Spiel Theatre, the title an amalgam of their three names.  By the fall they were even more intensely active, rehearsing their act in the loft of E. 12th Street, and on December 17, 1925, they opened with King Ahaseurus, a Purim play, the words by Maud and Cutler, the puppets by Tworkow, the music by Michael Gelbart (a composer of operettas and music director for The Workmen's Circle School), and by Moishe Rappaport.  In ads placed in The Forward, The Day, and Frayhayt, they promised to 'provide pleasure for children from 5 to 93'.
 

The full and enthusiastic audience rejoiced that December evening in the comic scenes of the King's stewards plotting to poison their master; in the clever exchanges between Esther and Mordecai; in the final triumph of good over evil, which in the audience's experience wasn't all that commonplace in the real world of pogroms, low wages, sweatshops and anti-Semitism.
 

The playgoers -- delighted by the subtle humor -- couldn't believe how larger-than-life these amusing figures of wood, cloth and strings were:  jughandled ears that wiggled, bushy eyebrows that lifted in surprise or indignation, whiskbroom mustaches that twitched.  They chuckled at the lovable scoundrels on the tiny stage, at the shrewish wives, the transparent villains:  how they sang, danced, mugged and whined exactly as their flesh and blood counterparts did on the live Yiddish stage.
 

On the same bill were original satires and parodies written by Cutler and Maud dealing with old world Yiddish foibles and hypocrisies.  Cutler's What Ails You is a rich comedy of courtship politics, with a daughter's yearning for a husband pitted against her father's resistance to the suitor's demand for a sizable dowry.
 

Included also in the evening's entertainment were plays by Moishe Nadir and Abraham Reyzen.  Other numbers were Maud and Cutler adaptations of various Purim plays, Biblical subjects which for millennia, until the 1850's, were the only form of theatre permitted by Jewish religious authorities.

Arguably, Modjacot's most successful number was Ansky's The Dybbuk, reworked as a parody that was both gentle and charming.
 

"This theatre," wrote David S. Lifson in his classic work, The Yiddish Theatre in America, "became a center of attraction for cultural-minded Jews from all over the world."  Sholem Asch and Maurice Schwartz were frequent visitors and loyal supporters.  Yiddish newspapers of all stripes were lavish in their praise of the marionette theatre on E. 12th Street.
 

The next year brought changes to Modjacot.  Its repertoire had expanded to include original operettas and works by other Yiddish writers such as Sholom Aleichem and new satires and parodies by Cutler and Maud.  But the Fire Department began harassing them over occupancy limit excesses and other fire code violations.** Modjacot was forced to move in May 1926 to 95 Second Avenue, where the seating and stage were larger and only one flight up, though the rent was considerably more, an exorbitant $166.50 a month, with two months rent held as security.
 

Shortly after, Jack Tworkow left the group because of ideological differences with Maud and Cutler.  The least political of the three, Tworkow was unhappy with the choice of material selected and the socialist spin put upon it.  He was more interested in art theatre, the play itself, and not in using Modjacot to present an obvious political agenda.

Modjacot became Modicot with the exit of Jack Tworkow, the J in his name going with him.  He went on to create set designs for The New Playwrights' Theatre, a slightly less radical, more play-oriented troupe that included such luminaries as John Dos Passos, John Howard Lawson and Em Jo Basshe.  According to Elmer Rice, the group "attracted little attention and had no discernible influence upon the drama or upon the theatre.  After two or three abortive seasons, the organization was disbanded."
 

Jack Tworkow journeyed on, working during the Depression and until World War Two for the W.P.A's Federal Art Project.  In the early '40's, he devoted his considerable talents to designing military hardware.  In 1945 he returned to painting, winning, over the next 35 years, many awards and honors, among them serving as chairman of Yale's School of Art and Architecture.  He died in Provincetown, Massachusetts in 1982, a long and productive life to his credit.
 

After Tworkow's departure from Modjacot (now Modicot), Cutler and Maud continued performing for another year at the Second Avenue location.  Occasionally they took other assignments, one of them designing costumes for Schwartz's production of Gordin's God, Man and Devil in December 1928.  In addition, Yosl Cutler contributed various articles to Yiddish journals.  He also wrote a continuing column for Frayhayt and for a children's publication.
 

In 1929, Modicot abandoned its location to tour America first, then Europe, a three-year stint during which they visited London, Paris, Antwerp, Vilna, Warsaw, finally ending up in Soviet Russia.  Each stop along the way they were enthusiastically received.
 

Back in America, the pair split up, Zuni Maud nearly vanishing from the New York theatrical scene, except for a stab at a one-man show of his paintings.  The exhibition proved to be a failure, and Maud then devoted most of his time to painting for himself at Sunny Ray, the family bungalow colony in the Catskills.  He died in 1956.

Yosl Cutler remained active.  He continually wrote articles for magazines and plays, both from a leftist point of view.  He composed numerous songs such as Happiness With His Jewess and Mishka.  In 1934, his book "Muntergang" -- which he also illustrated -- was published.  Cutler continued his life-long interest in puppet theatre, writing and performing at The Workers' Laboratory on Irving Place.
 

Unfortunately, Yosl Cutler met a tragic end.  Early in 1935, he put together a test film of his puppetry, hoping to interest Hollywood in a marionette version of The Dybbuk.  On June 11th of that year, on his way west, he was killed in Indiana, in an automobile accident.  It was reported that over 10,000 people attended his funeral.
 

Of course, Modicot is gone, merely a footnote at best to the glorious history of a Yiddish theatre that has also vanished, a tiny speck of the brilliant comet that once flashed over Second Avenue.  But in their day both glowed brilliantly, ample evidence of what wonderful diversity Jewish talent and creativity had to offer its people and the entire nation.



* - Hershl Hartman suggests that "Maud's Catskill place was not a bungalow colony, but a hotel or resort. Its name was Zumeray, a bilingual play on words. In Yiddish, it was a newly-created neologism that translates as 'summerness.' In English, Summer Ray. It is likely that either Cutler or Moyshe Nadir -- both masters of word play -- came up with the name. (Nadir's pseudonym means 'Moyshe, here you go,' and is bilingually wed to nadir -- the low point.)"

** - Hartman suggests also that "the closing of the 12th St. location was not due to overcrowding, but to the content of the plays, both pro-communist and sexually liberated. The landlord appealed to a magistrate, who ordered the closing. The Fire Department may have been the instrument."

Further note from Hershl Hartman: "The article implies that Zuni Maud retreated to Zumeray as an artist/hermit. In fact, in the late 1940s and early 50s, he was a very frequent visitor at the East 12th St. editorial offices of the Morgn Frayhayt ('Freiheit' in the article) -- Morning Freedom, then the communist Yiddish daily newspaper. He would hang out with his buddies S. D. Levin (on staff) and humorist Sam Liptzin, a frequent contributor. I was a cub reporter there at the time, the only native-born Yiddish journalist until recent years."


 


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