by William Glover, AP Drama Writer
The Morning Call, Allentown, PA, 24 Jan 1971

EDITOR’S NOTE – Yiddish theatre has outgrown its Lower East Side home and can be seen nearly anywhere nowadays. One of the reasons is Ben Bonus, producer, singer, director, actor – and Jewish.

New York (AP) –  Downtown, uptown and across a couple of continents, Ben Bonus works at his special theatrical imperative.

“It’s not particularly for a living,” he declares, “But because the people need it. I’m doing my best to keep a valuable tradition alive.”

Bonus is a stocky, grizzled producer-singer-director-actor of Yiddish dramatics, one of the few remaining quality craftsmen in that once-flourishing entertainment zone. At 49, he sternly pooh-poohs the suggestion that such folk art must join the dodo in extinction.

Lest anyone think he’s just off on some fantasy trip, Bonus the businessman offers statistical support. In New York City $40,000 per week was grossed recently on a spate of Yiddish shows, and capacity audiences attend his perennial visitations to 70 American cities. Latin-American trips testify further in widespread interest in colloquial wares…. “Yiddish is Yiddish everywhere,” he says……Bonus admits that during the past few years there has been a disastrous apparently contradictory, shrinkage of sustained professional activity on New York’s Lower East Side, the former shrine of idiomatic stagecraft.

“It’s not a question of deterioration of ethnic interest among the young that everyone claims,” Bonus says. “Many of the young are still interested in their heritage.

“We were driven off Second Avenue because landlords got greedy and wanted higher rent than we could pay.” One playhouse became that citadel of rock culture, Fillmore East. Others were booked for off-Broadway shows that scaled box offices at higher rates.

“Another thing the Yiddish Theater didn’t look ahead. Young people should have been coming into it to perform, but the elders in the profession wouldn’t let them in. Years ago they threw Danny Kaye out, they didn’t want competition. And the plays they did—soap opera is art in comparison, in my opinion.”

Not Art

Bonus feels too that the non-Semitic public has a distorted notion, based on comic night club exaggeration, of what his kind of theater really is – “that kind of thing is all right for the Catskill honeymoon trade, but it’s not Yiddish art.”

The material worth keeping is “that marvelously rich literature of folk humor and ideals, some of it hundreds of years old, so adaptable to the stage.”

As part of his campaign to keep group theater tradition alive “with decency, so we shouldn’t be ashamed,” Bonus brought his company to Broadway this season with “Light, Lively and Yiddish,” a variety showcase of songs and narrative which already has been invited to play next spring in Israel, a performing area Bonus has somehow previously missed. For his actress-wife, Mina Bern, the tour would be a homecoming, for she has sung to frontline troops there.

Bonus has been engrossed in folk art since shortly after arriving here from Poland in 1939, a refugee from the Nazi holocaust, in which his parents, four brothers and two sisters died.

“I come by my theatrical interest naturally,” because a cousin, Alexander Granach, was a confrere of Max Reinhardt and the main stage rival in Germany of Emil Jannings.

“The trouble was I had a voice,” Bonus goes on, “and for several years concentrated on folk singing on the radio.” In 1943 he made his acting debut with Jacob Ben-Ami, two years later went on for another downtown luminary, Maurice Schwartz.


BEN BONUS is a producer-singer-director-actor of Yiddish dramatics, one of the few remaining quality craftsmen in that once flourishing entertainment zone. Here, in his backstage dressing room at a New York theater, he wears beard and mustache make-up and a favorite old hat, which he says has been through nearly 900 performances with him since he got it in Argentina 10 years ago.

Looking ahead, Bonus talks of an annual 20-week Broadway stand with a dramatic repertory – “We have so much original material, and it should be shown.

“Eventually some might be done in translation. I’ve got nothing against English, but the language is such an important part of such work that doing it in a different tongue poses difficulties. Subtleties, poetic beauty get lost, a certain flavor that’s untranslatable.

“Like opera. People sit for hours listening to opera in Italian or Russian, without understanding a single word. Why? Because the sheer beauty comes through anyhow. It is the same with Yiddish theater.”




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