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From the New-York Daily Tribune, dated November 5, 1905.

Lives in the Yiddish Theatre

By Bernard G. Richards

Competition is Fearfully Keen in This Limited Field,
and Its Effects Are Apparent Upon Actor and Manager.

On the Rialto of New-York's Ghetto every night the curtain goes up to reveal many striking, shifting scenes of action that are as comic and as dramatic as any that are every witnessed in the theatres. In the theatrical café's along Grand and Canal sts., which form the Yiddish Rialto, men and women struggle for recognition, for ambition, for honor, for either the center of the stage or at least some visible corner in the background, for either great worldly possessions or at least daily bread, for either the admiration of the gallery or the favor of the discerning few. Here dramatic talent is offered for sale to the highest bidder, but the highest bidder is not always he who holds out the largest check. Sometimes it is he who offers most room toward the center of the boards, new plays of much promise, or grateful roles, or absolute control of the company or other opportunities which betoken an assured measure of applause. It is in these cafés, at any rate, that the destiny of all stars and lesser, luminaries of the Yiddish stage is determined, at least for one season.

All artfulness, tact, cunning and diplomacy are employed in these theatrical negotiations. The histrionic powers of the player and of he manager, too, who is always at least somewhat of an actor, are brought into play. The unengaged actress puts on her brightest stage smile and he defeated manager affects an indifference, denoting not the least interest in theatrical or any other kind of life. Those who would weep laugh, and the most dejected of Thespians struts and swaggers across the café. The comedian tells stories and jests to while away the gnawing hours of sadness, and through all the obstreperous disputes between the managers and the leaders of the Hebrew Actors' Protective Union, through all the heated discussions on trade unionism versus art, the folk are not what they seem; reality and illusion constantly meet and part, wage war against each other and then make peace again.

The field of Yiddish theatricals is limited, and competition is fearfully keen. Each manager has his most dreaded rival, and all managers have now to meet the deadly rivalry of the ever-increasing number of Yiddish vaudeville houses, which are cutting so deeply into the legitimate show business. The promoters of Yiddish variety again have their troubles with the large number of music halls opening up in the same neighborhood. And for the stars and even the smaller players there are numerous pitfalls; danger lurks on every side, dangers that neither the position of the star-actor-manager on the one hand, nor the power of the actors' union on the other, can always avert. The errors and blunders made on the Rialto, the misunderstandings and misdirected efforts, the wasted energy and the acting that is in vain, the defects and all other things that happen to others, furnish fine amusement to those who are not immediately concerned, and enemies of the people concerned are all the more amused. There are throngs of players about, and the actor's friend is seldom an actor, and still more rarely a manager.

The Yiddish player is generally a naïve, elemental, crude creature, and his art is only a small remove from his life. Sometimes the difference does not exist at all, and one is at a loss to tell where appearance ends and actuality begins. He wears his heart on his sleeve, and the story of his life is an open book you are constantly invited to read. It is a story of strange wanderings and stranger adventures. No product of schooling is this player, and what power of mimicry is his is only part of the histrionic training received by the Jew in a world ever set against him, a hostile world, wherein he has constantly to assume the color of his surroundings, imitate his baiters, entertain his enemies, dance attention upon his persecutors--a world wherein to be he had always to seem. Small wonder then that this Thespian's art is so strangely interwoven with his life, that he acts so little on the stage and so much in the café, that he plays before his manager as well as before his audience, and performs the drama of his life before any one who is willing to witness it.

"Theatre politics" deal, of course, with the future destinies of players, playwrights, managers and theatres, and regularly there comes the season when it absorbs the attention of all the denizens of the Ghetto, from the humblest sweatshop workers to the most successful merchants. There are the numerous bands of "patriots," faithful followers all, of the stars of the Yiddish dramatic constellation, and you will find them all, at all hours of the night, on the Rialto. The cafés might be a bit too expensive for ill-paid factory workers, but there are always the sidewalks, and the whirl of the theatrical exchange does not take its course without the attendance and the advice of the devoted "patriots." For hours and hours managers and favorite players, prizes that they would capture, walk up and down the street in front of the leading theatrical café in Grand-st., and the finest eloquence and the greatest power of persuasion are employed to bring about a satisfactory engagement. Meanwhile the "patriots" watch and wait and hope that the bet will happen to their respected idols.

The shrewd impresario has reduced the politics to a science. The problem is not only to engage the best company to secure the most popular star, but also to keep the other manager from accomplishing this. For this purpose it is often necessary to engage players for whom there is absolutely no room in the company, who are just prevented from playing elsewhere and kept chiefly as ornaments. A successful combination of several Yiddish managers to reduce the number of playhouses by helping a producer of American melodramas to secure one of the East Side theatres is one of the proofs of a shrewd and crafty business sense.

Many stray birds appear on the Rialto in these days of excitement. the cafés and the sidewalks swarm with theatrical folk, performers of the past, present and future, for there are always the stage aspirants and the stagestruck. Strange forms out of the past rise again, and those who have long fallen by the wayside are miraculously resurrected. The shadows of the past, idols of days that are dead, mingle with the living figures of the present. The ghosts, "has-beens" of the stage, long cast aside by time and change, are suddenly reanimated with life. Ambition stirs again within their breasts, and thoughts of a new life upon the stage crowd upon their bewildered brains. Hope springs forever in the histrionic breast. Out of the darkest obscurity do the forms of the past emerge, and for a brief space of time all bask in the electric shine and warmth of the Rialto. They come from near suburbs, from cities far away, and even from farms, the players that once ruled the day, and again they are part and parcel of the greatest Yiddish theatrical Rialto, of the greatest Ghetto, in the largest Jewish center of the world.

There is the stalwart, dominating, blustering presence of the famous German star, a wandering Jew of the stage, a player known on two continents, who every year visits the great American Ghetto and condescends to appear in a number of "Gast" performances, with either one or the other of the Yiddish companies. A roving spirit and a high disregard of life's regularities combine to bring him to spheres beneath those of his former days, but great are his prerogatives when he comes here, and even the "king of the Yiddish stage" sinks into insignificance beside the bragging, swaggering, swashbuckling knight of the classic German drama. All the Rialto is hushed and listens breathlessly when he raises his sonorous voice and most dramatically recites his wonderful amours and theatrical exploits of the past.

Now there trudges along the dilapidated, shabby figure of an eccentric Hebrew poet, singer--in the purest Hebrew--of wine, women and the restoration of Zion, high priest of Bohemia east of the Bowery. He bears copies of his latest book under his arm. It is a translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam into the Hebrew. Ah, it is fine! "It is better than the original," says the translator. At any rate, there is as much of the Hebrew bard as there is of Omar in the book. It is "Omar Imbrer," says a jester of the Ghetto. Will you buy? It costs only $1 a copy. You will not buy? Well, then, you can at least pay for the poet's drink. That does not cost so much, and the poet is just as well pleased.

Behold an old-time popular comedian, a pioneer of the Yiddish stage, whom a cruel fate has now relegated to a New-Jersey farm. But even fate can be overcome. The season of theatrical politics always finds him on the Rialto. The farm is deserted or left to the care of the family. Whether the work there is done or not, the comedian of the days that have been wanders about the Rialto, not knowing exactly why, mingles with the throng, and perhaps hopes against hope for some opportunity to return to the stage. There is pathos in his loiterings and sadness in his passing.

Yonder tall, thin, pallid-faced, bearded man, he, too, can tell you tales of past glories. He was once the leading tenor of the Yiddish stage, singing to great applause in all favorite operettas. Times have changed. Now he is the cantor of a little congregation in Harlem. He sits in the café with his back to the street. Some member of the congregation might happen along the Jewish Broadway, and he would rather not be seen here. But come to the Rialto during these days he must. Only his past is present to him. Nothing else exists.

There goes one of the ghosts of the Rialto, a somber shadow of his former self. Only a year ago he was still young: he was the wealthy domineering impresario of his own theatre, enjoying the success of half a hundred plays of his own making, rioting in luxuries. But an ill wind blew by, and now he is penniless, broken in health and spirits and mentally a child again. Though it is said he never pitied anyone in his great days, the playfolk sigh and grieve as they see him now.

The jester still tells stories. The champion liar swears by the soul of his dead grandfather--who was a rabbi--that every word he utters is solemn truth. The playwright recites the plot of his new play and praises his wares. the Yiddish journalist waxes warm over his literary ambitions. The cynic berates everybody and laughs at the world. And so the motley throng passes in processional before us. But the great land of Bohemia need not be ashamed of its faraway dislocated colony in the strange little world east of the Bowery.


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