The Russian immigrant on the East Side
has the help of his family in his work, and his family usually
shares his pleasures. He has little inclination in the direction of
sprees, and while some of his countrymen frequent the coffee houses
where they play games and smoke, and others go to the clubs of which
there are many in the district, nearly all the toilers of the
sweatshops go to the theatre; and they go not singly or in pairs,
but in family groups. For that reason, a Yiddish theatre audience is
unlike that of any other playhouse in the city. In some instances,
the children are not old enough to appreciate the play, and are
taken along only because there is no one at home to care for them.
Mothers must frequently divide their attention and miss the poetic
pictures on the stage while ministering to the material wants of the
On Friday and Saturday nights and
Saturday matinees the houses receive the greatest patronage. The
storekeepers close their places of business on Friday at sunset, and
after coming from the synagogue they look for amusement. The
strictest Sabbatarians see no wrong in going to the theatre. On
these nights the best plays are produced, and the highest prices are
realized; at the matinees the regular prices are cut in two. On
Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday evenings the houses are
turned over to societies, lodges or to religious organizations at
prices ranging from $100 to $250. The prices are graded in keeping
with the play and the number of people in the cast.
The troupes in these theatres
are composed of people who come from Russia, Rumania and
Galicia, and they all speak the corrupt German which is known
as Yiddish. The plays in which they appear range from
Shakespeare and Goethe to those with local color, which are
written by the "house author," for each theatre has its own
playwright and composer who write several plays each season.
The homemade plays are a mixture of religion and New York
life, in which the author always shows how the poor Russian
may become a valuable American citizen. In these plays the
comedian usually makes his greatest hits by using a jargon
which is a mixture of Yiddish and Bowery English. One of the
most popular of these plays, "Chaim in America," was performed
at the Thalia Theatre last week, and another, "The Ghetto," by
Thomashefsky, had a long and successful run at the People's
The East Side pushcart man, the
little shopkeeper and the prosperous merchant, the sweatshop
worker and the Divisionist milliner, the jewel and gold
bedecked wife of the successful ward politician, are all
represented in their true colors in these plays; but behind
all, pointing a moral and reminding them of their duties as
citizens and men, is the rabbi or the religious teacher,
pointing out the ills that follow sin, and in some of the
popular plays laying particular stress on the crime of
apostasy. The "bad man," the "scheming villain," is often an
apostate, whose career in the part is made unusually
burdensome by the hisses which greet him every time he
Thomashefsky, author-actor-manager and writer of "The Ghetto."
These plays are popular and draw large
houses, but as the business manager of one of the theatres says,
"These people want philosophical works, and a manager who would try
to palm off trash on them would soon learn that he had made a
mistake. And what is more, they want morally clean plays, and would
not bring their families to listen to works like some that are
produced on other stages."
Among the plays that have been
produced at the People's Theatre this season are "Hamlet,"
"The Merchant of Venice" and "Romeo and Juliet," and the same
company performed "The Bohemian Girl," "Carmen," "Der
Freischütz" and "Bluebeard." Bertha Kalich, the star at the
Thalia Theatre, has appeared as Ophelia, Fedora, Magda, and as
the heroine in a number of religious plays.
To gain a correct idea of the
Yiddish theatre one must see it, and that it may be thoroughly
appreciated other senses than that of sight must be drawn
upon. The crowds in the lobby resemble those which are seen in
the clothing district when a strike is on, and the air is
thick with cigarette smoke. Inside, men and women are talking
and visiting and paying little attention to the orchestra.
Boys with trays of candy, cakes, fruit and "soft drinks" do a
paying business, and sell their wares in the body of the
photo: Bertha Kalich, star
of the Thalia Theatre.
The opening lines of the actors are
usually lost, except to those people who sit far in front, and
demands for silence come from all parts of the auditorium. Sometimes
these are in the form of the hissing "Pst! pst!" which one hears in
all European theatres, and sometimes the more imperative "Ruhig," "
'Smaul halten!" or "Still!" are heard. Then comes the play, and
close attention on the part of the audience, frequent applause and
boisterous laughter and sniffles are sure to reward the efforts of
On the nights when the theatres are
run by the management and not by private societies, the prices of
admission range from $1 to 25 cents. The boxes are rarely sold to
one party, but seats in them are for sale to any one who wishes to
pay a little more than for chairs in the orchestra.