Lives in the Yiddish Theatre
Volume 8

MORE SHORT BIOGRAPHIES CREATED FOR A NEW ONLINE VOLUME
OF ZALMEN ZYLBERCWEIG'S " LEXICON OF THE yIDDISH THEATRE"

 

Charles Shapiro

 

From granddaughter Charlotte Goldstein Shafran, in her own words:

Charles Shapiro -- "Charlie" -- was born in 1865 in Ciechanowiec, Galicia. He immigrated with his family to America, to Boston, where a time later made the acquaintance of a group of young actors who would soon become his close friends.

There was an air of "excitement", an exuberance, a "joy" that would descend upon him in their presence, and he soon came to realize that this "euphoria" that he was experiencing, stemmed from the fact that they -- each of them, he included -- shared the same gift. This very special "magic", this talent that empowered each of them in his turn to -- with an ease-- transport an audience from the magical realm of his imagination, directly into that special place known as "the theatre". He decided early on that he too, like his friends, would become an actor.

In this case he would be a Yiddish actor. He would pursue a career in the Yiddish theatre, and that became his life's goal.

To that purpose he moved on to New York, where he soon met a young lady whose name was Anna Kaufman. She was beautiful, this Anna, an enchanting young girl, scarcely more than a child when they met. She immediately captured his heart, and he fell hopelessly in love with her. He knew with a certainty, from that first moment on, that he could never ever possibly want anything

 

more than he wanted to marry this girl, make her his wife and keep her close forever. But he also knew that to achieve his heart's desire, he would first have to win her widowed mother's approval, and then her consent to this marriage. It became for him the "impossible dream", given the fat that he was by now an actor, in an era when all actors were looked down on with scorn and disdain, for no other reason than because they were actors, and the "acting profession" was without discussion and without debate unacceptable, scandalous and a disgrace.

So he decided that it would best serve his cause if he at least for the moment -- until a time in the near future when they would hopefully already be married -- free to make their own choices as to what path they wished to follow. If he would at least temporarily abandon his newly launched acting career -- and that's when he became of all things, a house painter. It worked like a charm, for they were soon married, with Anna still not quite sixteen years old.

And so, for the next few years, Charlie painted houses and he took on all sorts of odd jobs, and at one point they even took in boarders (paying guests), anything that would enable him to make a living and support his little family, for by now they had a delightful baby daughter to love and to raise, and so it wasn't until a time later when he once again began to perform in the theatre an take on roles in plays, being presented at the popular "Labor Lyceum Auditorium", all the while gaining a reputation, not only as the fine actor that he was, but also as a reputable singer, since he also possessed a rich, mellow baritone singing voice. This was until 1900, when he came to the attention of Elias Glickman, who ran the successful "Glickman Theatre" in Chicago, and who had for some time now been hearing such glowing reports about "this" Charles Shapiro.

And he invited him to come to Chicago for the upcoming season, to join his company performing there, and of course Shapiro with unspeakable joy accepted. And thus he was at long last returning "home" -- back into his cherished world of the theatre.

From here, Charlie began focusing his attention more keenly onto Anna's mounting interest in theatre, in the hope that it would inspire her to look closer on a more direct, more personal level, onto her husband's recently resurrected acting career that would now be encompassing his world, and that is when the discovered, to their surprise and delight, that Anna herself possessed an innate, natural potential that could with a little encouragement, and a bit of hard work, easily result in her becoming not merely an "adequate" actress of sorts, but a very acceptable one with time. Who knows -- probably quite a good one. So, after a short stint in the chorus, she soon began appearing at her husband's side, winning the approval along with the admiration of audiences wherever they appeared, and sometime later even gaining entrance into the Hebrew Actors Union, entirely on her own without anyone's help, which was in itself quite an accomplishment.

The Shapiros stayed on with Glickman for the next three seasons in Chicago, until in 1903 when the devastating fire, known as "the Great Chicago Fire" broke out in a local theatre The fire destroyed everything in its path, causing the tragic death of hundreds of men, women and children, which in turn resulted in almost overnight changes in the existing fire prevention laws, especially for those governing theatres. This, coupled with the fact that just around this time the Yiddish actors chose to unionize into what would become the "Hebrew Actors Union", that had like in the fire regulations a whole list of new rules to adhere to and obey. It just became too much for Glickman to handle and he was forced to close the doors of his theatre, throwing the local Yiddish actors out of work. But it didn't affect the Shapiros personally in any way, as they were sought after in other cities and went on to Baltimore to the "Largman Theatre" at just a most propitious time, when that "icon" of Yiddish theatre, the immortal Jacob P. Adler and his talented wife Sarah Adler, had come to Baltimore to guest-star with their sensational success of that season -- the playwright Z. Libin's melodrama, "Di gebrukhene hertser (Broken Hearts)". Adler became so taken with Shapiro, so impressed with his talent and with his personality and with his melodious, most impressive singing voice, that at the end  of this Baltimore engagement, he insisted that Shapiro accompany him back to Boston to finish out the Boston season, and from there on to New York to the famous Grand Street Theatre, and from there on to the Windsor Theatre. Also in New York Charlie had the occasion to perform with another legend, the immortal David Kessler, who like Adler before him didn't cease with singing his praises and lauding him. Shapiro had made it! He had definitely made it. He had reached his pinnacle, he had reached and fulfilled his life's goal.

And so life went most pleasantly on, until 1908 when he suddenly fell seriously ill. It started with a thyroid disorder, which soon escalated to a complete disaster. He took to his bed for a complete year, until 1909 when he lost his battle and passed on. It was on June 30, 1909 at age forty-four.

In his all-too-short life, he managed to leave behind a reputation as a skilled actor to be reckoned with -- the very best! The fact that he had this unusual voice, in addition to his other talents that I'm sure played a big part in his gaining entrance into the Hebrew Actors Union with such ease, while for most candidates it remained an iron fortress, with walls almost impossible to penetrate.

In the archives chronicling a list of the important plays that were through the years produced in the Yiddish theatre, and the outstanding actors who appeared in them, he is listed as the "first" who created the role of "Reb Yokeb Alchunen" in Jacob Gordin's classic "Ohn a heym (Without a Home)". In his cable hands the role became one of the highlights of the performance. Incidentally, Jacob Gordin wrote the play expressly to showcase the talents of Sarah Adler, a great actress! It remained her signature role throughout her life, from the day when it premiered in October 1907 at the Grand Street Theatre, with Charles Shapiro, a memorable member of the cast.

At his death, he was interred at the old burial grounds of that era -- the old "Washington Cemetery" in New York, his final resting place.

Charlotte further recalls, to Steven Lasky, the founder and director of the Museum of Family History:

"I was named 'Charlotte' in memory of my mother's father, my grandfather, who was 'Charles'. I have been told that he was such a delightful person! How I regret never having the privilege to know him, or even to have enjoyed at least the memory of a story told me, of how I had at least once in my life been cradled in his loving arms. For alas, he passed on, even before I was born. Even before my mother and father even met, fell in love and were married.

Strange how history in a family often ties repeats itself, for my grandfather passed on at such an early age. He was only forty-four, and my dear father, Jacob Goldstein, who was also a Yiddish actor, who married Charlie's only child, his beloved daughter Sadie Shapiro. My father was only forty-two years old.

Well, I'm glad to be able to report that I -- who followed my heritage and also became a Yiddish actress -- was fortunate enough to break the cycle! Since I just recently celebrated my one hundredth birthday in August 7th of this year, 2012, I have no intention of calling it "quits", not anytime in the near future. On the contrary, I am already looking forward to one hundred and one! And from there on in -- we'll talk about it, and we'll see. Who knows? And now, yours most sincerely, Charlotte Goldstin Chafran."


Sh. E. from his granddaughter Charlotte Goldstein Shafran.


 

 

 

 


 

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You can read the Lexicon's original biography of Charles Shapiro in its Volume 6..
 

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