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ABOUT YIDDISH THEATRE
From the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, June 11, 1952
2d. Avenue Paged Brooklyn Singer and Milan's La Scala
by Louis Sheaffer
"Till now in the Jewish theater," Irving Jacobson said, "the author has been like a tailor. He would have four yards of material, let's say, and the star would get two-and-a-half yards and the rest'd be divided among the featured players and others. The author didn't just sit down and write a play from his mind; he was putting together something that would fit the personalities of the players, the lead players, something that would give them plenty of chances to do their specialties, get them out to tell a joke, sing, clown around, you know."
But all that, he went on, is going to be changed, and he is in a position to do it. Mr. Jacobson and Edmund Zayenda, actor-managers of the Second Avenue Theater, the town's leading Yiddish playhouse, plan a number of major changes for their new season, which opens Sept. 29 with "My Lucky Day," a new Yiddish-American musical by Joseph Rumshinsky and Louis Freiman. They plan to operate like Broadway, first the script, then the best available players. They figure the audience in the Jewish theater has changed and wants to see a good story, not just a star vehicle.
Once they got their script from Mr. Freiman, Jacobson and Zayenda began looking for an opera singer, who was to be co-starred with them in "My Lucky Day." They auditioned a number of singers sent by the talent agencies but kept returning to someone's suggestion of Selma Kaye, the Brooklyn girl who made her debut as soloist at Radio City Music Hall and went on to leading operatic roles in Chicago, Cincinnati and San Francisco.
"Miss Kaye is abroad now, singing at La Scala in Milan, and we started calling Italy," Mr. Jacobson said. "Cablegrams flew back and forth, and it was finally settled. Next, after La Scala, she sings at Covent Gardens in London and then returns here for rehearsals. Her parents are orthodox, very religious, and when she was a young girl they wanted her to be an actress in the Jewish theater, but she had that beautiful voice and went into music. Now that she's joining us, her mother is the happiest woman in town. She told me, 'If Selma wants too much money, it'll work out all right. I'll make her take the job.'"
The Second Ave. Theater's policy about directors is also new, according to Mr. Zayenda, who once sang with the leading, state-subsidized opera house in Poland. Instead of one of the actor-producers attending to the direction, they are negotiating with several Broadway names to handle the job. They want it done carefully this time, no more of the former setup in which stars were allowed, more or less, to go their own way.
"My teacher in Poland," Mr. Zayenda said, "once gave me some advice that was given her by Helene Modjeska, the great Polish actress. Modjeska told her that you can't direct yourself. It's not too bad if you have a minor part, but you can't do it when you're the star. You can't watch your own facial expressions and gestures and movements."
The other major change is that there will be a greater use of English, than formerly, in "My Lucky Day." Mr. Jacobson tells about the time he spoke at an actors' meeting and one of them said, "You kept drifting into English, but I didn't realize it until afterwards," and Mr. Jacobson adds that this is exactly what they plan to do in their show--drift into English so the audience won't be aware of any transition.
The actor-manager, who looks somewhat like a younger, rounded edition of Eddie Cantor, denies that the Jewish theater is dying, as some believe, and points out that its shrinkage corresponds with what has happened to Broadway. "Times have changed and we're changed with them. Theater parties, for instance, form about 60 percent of our business today, and so we keep the box-office open all Summer to book them. One way or another, we keep going. That's why we're making the new changes."
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Note from the Museum of the Yiddish Theatre editor: The play, "My Lucky Day," opened the Second Avenue Theatre's 1952-53 season on September 11, 1952. The cast included (in alphabetical order): Gustave Berger, Lucy German, Irving Jacobson, Selma Kaye, Miriam Kressyn, Dave Lubritsky, Esta Salzman, Ben Zion Schoenfeld, Mae Schoenfeld, Edmund Zayenda and Yetta Zwerling.
Photographs courtesy of the Yiddish Theatrical Alliance Archives.
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