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       the yiddish world


Newark's 3rd Ward Yiddish Theatre

by Nat Bodian

       From 1922 to 1944, New York City's thriving Second Avenue Yiddish theatre had its counterpart on a Newark Third Ward street in the heart of the city's vibrant and thickly populated Jewish community.

        It was Elving's Metropolitan Theatre at 117 Montgomery Street, corner of Charlton Street, just a block up from the Prince Street Jewish shopping mecca.  It was the street on which I grew up.

Bernard Elving
bef 1927

        The theatre was built and operated by the Elving Brothers, Bernard and Israel, both Polish-born, and both veterans of the New York City Yiddish theatre.

        Bernard was the lead actor in a majority of the plays, frequently playing opposite his wife, Rose, who not only acted, but also co-wrote many of the plays with her husband.

        Israel was the theatre manager and operator.  It was he who ensured that all the facets of a successful theatre operation, which Elving's was, were meticulously attended to.

        The theatre opened in 1922 when Newark's Jewish community was already large and growing.  It boasted a large and expanding population of Eastern-European Yiddish-speaking immigrants, for whom Yiddish was the "mamaloshen" (mother-tongue) and the language spoken in the home.

        For Newark's immigrant community, the theatre served a critical role and was their favorite place to go for Yiddish plays and operettas.

        For the immigrants, just short years from their Eastern European roots, the plays reflected the problems faced by their audience -- adapting to life in America ... broken romances ... ungrateful and rebellious children ... intermarriage ... and bringing the whole family to America from the shtetl (European home village).

       Elving's performances featured many 'greats' of the Yiddish stage, such as Menashe Skolnik, Moishe Oysher, Aaron Lebedof, and even such "name" actors as Paul Muni and Molly Picon, who went on to fame on the American stage and in Hollywood.

Theatre Building Details

        The theatre building was a brick structure with accommodations for 1,200 - 1,400.  As you entered the lobby from Montgomery Street, there were two sets of double doors that led into the theatre.  To the left of the doors was an alcove with a candy stand.

        The lobby candy stand was run by Louis and Rosie Zlotin.  They did a good business during intermissions.  They also employed a candy butcher, a pre-teen from the neighborhood to hawk candy up and down the aisles between acts.

Recollections of a Candy Butcher

        Seymour Pierce, 83, a retired Newark Post Office employee, recalls working at Elving's as a candy butcher "when I was 11 or 12 in the 1930s, I sold candy through the aisles.  I was able to watch the performances from the back of the theatre.

        "Some shows that I especially remember at Elving's were Greene Cousine ... Yankele ... Yiddishe Mamme ... and a Brevele der Mamme."

Bernard Elving -- the Lead Actor

        Aaron Elving, son of theatre manage Israel Elving, recalled to me that Bernard Elving was a powerful stage presence in drama and tragedy, equaled only on the American stage by John Barrymore.

        Before a performance, he told me, the actor would talk into a full-length mirror for 15 to 25 minutes to work himself into the mood of the play before going on stage.

        Bernard Elving's daughter, Eleanor, used to watch her father perform from the box adjacent to the stage.  Sometimes, I was told, her father's performance was so powerful that his daughter would dash out of the theatre in tears during the performance.

Show Schedule and Ticket Pricing

        Shows at Elving's took place on Saturday nights, and matinees and evenings on Sunday.  Israel Elving's son recalled for me that when he was a young teenager, orchestra seats went for four or five dollars and balcony seats were a dollar to a dollar and a half.

        Even in the worst of the Depression years, Saturday night performances were always sell-outs.

        The orchestra patrons, he recalled came 'dressed to kill' -- the men in business suits, shirts and ties, and all wearing a hat.  There were wire hat-holders under the fold-up seats.

        The ladies with them were also in their best dresses and many wore furs and fur wraps.

        Continuing, Aaron Elving said "I remember hearing President Roosevelt on the radio telling the radio audience how bad the economy was, and its so surprising to me to see such luxury displayed during a depression time."

Zwillman's Act of Generosity

        One of Aaron Elving's further recollections involved the Third Ward crime boss (and leading Prohibition-era rum runner), Longy Zwillman.

         He recalled that periodically, Zwillman would drop by the theatre to see my father (Israel Elving) and give him money for an entire row of choice orchestra seats.  He would then tell "my father" to take the tickets up to the balcony where the poor patrons sat and to distribute them so that people in the balcony who appeared to be needy could enjoy the show from up-front orchestra seats, usually in the second or third row.

Another Preferential Patron

        Another Elving patron who always got a seat for shows first row center was Rebecca Bedrock from Newark's Clinton Hill section.  she was an Elving regular.  She owned a fleet of about 15 Brown and White cabs, and her brother owned five more Brown and Whites.

        On Elving show nights, her cabs would line up at the Montgomery Street curb in a line stretching up to Belmont Avenue, starting around 10:30 PM, and await the departing theatergoers to take them to their home in Clinton Hill or the Weequahic section.

        Cab fares in those days, Aaron Elving recalled, usually ran 50 cents to a dollar.1

Elving Orchestra and Chorus

        The Elving's orchestra consisted of six or seven pieces, led by Sam Grossman, who was also the violinist.  He held that position during the entire lifetime of Elving's theatre.

        The Grossman orchestra played not only for the stage shows, but also provided light Yiddish music while the incoming guests were being seated,  and at the end of the show, while they were departing, until the theatre was empty.

        Elvings also had a chorus of six girls who were available for those types of plays that called for their services.  Although they sang in Yiddish, only two of the six were actually Jewish.

Elving Recollection of a Pre-Teen Patron

        When I spoke with Bernice Kessler of Union, a former journalist with the Elizabeth Daily Journal, and told her of plans to write about Elvings, she recalled for me her early childhood visits to Elvings in the early 1930s.

        "Elvings was one of my favorite places.  On Sundays, when my brother and I were taken from our farm in Mountainside for visits with my grandparents on Aldine Street in Newark, we were given a choice of either going to a neighborhood movie with my cousins, or to the Yiddish theatre with Buba and Zaida (Grandmother and Grandfather).  I always chose Elvings.  I was about 8 or 9 at the time.

        "And I vividly recall a number of the shows.  They were so melodramatic -- the soap operas of the day.  One, I believe, was a Yiddish version of Stella Dallas, about a mother who gave up her baby and near the finale was standing outside the window tearfully watching the marriage of this now adult child.  I can still hear the brokenhearted woman singing."

Another "Patron" Recollection

        I also mentioned working on this 'Memory' to Arthur Herberg, 89, a retired Newark pharmacist.  I asked him if he had ever gone to Elving's.

        "No," he told me, even though I lived only a few blocks away at 74 Barclay Street.  But my mother did.

        "She told me one day, when I came home from school, that she was going to Elvings because Molly Picon was playing there and Molly was from her home town in Europe -- Warsaw."2

How Elving's Advertised

        Israel Elving reached potential audiences before each new show with advertisements in the Jewish Chronicle, an English-language weekly published for Newark's Jewish community, and in the Newark Edition of the Jewish Daily Forward, printed in Yiddish.

        But the most effective way he targeted Elvings prime audience was with colorful window posters, printed at the West Side Printing House, and placed in the windows of kosher butcher shops in Newark, and in outlying communities in Passaic and Union counties with sizeable Jewish populations.

        Each shopkeeper received two free passes for displaying the poster in his window.

Elving's Building Sold in Changed Neighborhood

        The twenty-two year run of Elving's Metropolitan Theatre at 117 Montgomery Street ended in 1944 when the building was sold to Father Divine, founder and director of the Peace Mission Movement.3

        By the time of the sale in 1944, Newark's large Jewish population had already moved away from the once heavily-Jewish Third Ward, where Elvings had a large walk-in attendance, and their more prosperous orchestra patrons had moved to the outlying suburbs and would no longer come into that Newark neighborhood4.

Israel Elving's Death

        When Elving's general manager, Israel Elving, died in 1947, funeral services were held in New York City and his son, Aaron recalled for me that the mourners at the service were a veritable "Who's Who" of the Yiddish theatre.

        Many had played on Elvings stage in its early years when road companies from New York's Yiddish Art Theatre were booked for Newark performances.

        A few of those in attendance, he recalled, were Moishe Oysher, Aaron Lebedof, and Mickey Katz., father of Joel Gray.

    Israel Elving is buried in Elmont, Long Island.

Molly Picon Remembers

        In late 1963, Molly Picon, who reigned as the Yiddish Theatre's "Sweetheart of Second Avenue," during the 1920s and 1930s, was starring in the stage production "Milk and Honey" at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn.

        Aaron Elving, then 40, decided to pay a courtesy call on Miss Picon, in appreciation for her earlier appearances at Elvings.  While attending a performance, he stopped by her dressing room and after introducing himself, was warmly received.

        He recalls her calling to her husband, Jacob Kalich, and informing him of her visitor "It's an Elving!"

        Then she turned to Israel Elving's son and asked "Tell me -- Is the schvitz still across the street?"

        By that time, Elvings Theatre was no more, nor was the old Charlton Baths on Charlton Street.

The Elving Children

        Bernard Elving's son, Philip, attended Princeton, became a leading authority on analytical chemistry.  He had been a professor for decades at the University of Michigan.  Bernard's daughter, Eleanor, made a career in library science and retired as a professor at Kean University in the early 1980s.

        Israel Elving's son, Aaron, graduated from South Side High School, and enjoyed a long career as a sales representative in the electronics industry, from which he is retired and living in Florida.

The above article appears on the Old Newark Memories  website and is reprinted with permission of its author.


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