In 1923, a young, brilliant but
inexperienced stage designer named Boris Aronson arrived in America with
little English at his command and less money. Born in Russia, the son
of the chief rabbi of Kiev, he'd happily left behind
straightjacket of a post-revolutionary Moscow Theatre, to study first in
Berlin, then in Paris, before moving on to New York, where he rose
steadily over the next four decades, becoming an outstanding stage and
lighting designer for such mainstream Broadway productions as Fiddler
on the Roof, Cabaret, and The Diary of Anne Frank.
Aronson couldn't have come during a more
propitious time. Yiddish theatre was thriving, in its second golden
age, at some 17 playhouses that offered both the sentimental melodramas
and gaudy musicals known collectively and pejoratively as shund
(trash), and the more high-minded fare called art theatre, written by
the finest Yiddish and non-Yiddish playwrights.
For the more sophisticated productions -- at
a mere handful of playhouses scattered over lower Manhattan, Brooklyn
and the Bronx -- the Twenties was an especially bountiful era,
dominated by Maurice Schwartz's Yiddish Art Theatre, Jacob Ben-Ami's
Jewish Art Theatre (though it lasted but two seasons, from 1919 to
1921), the Folksbiene (started by The Workmen's Circle in 1915), and a
few repertory companies in Brooklyn, and the Bronx, struggling for
existence so far from Second Avenue, the Yiddish Theatre's equivalent of
Nevertheless, the art theatres were blessed
by the astonishing fact that many of the greatest Yiddish playwrights
were very much alive and active and close at hand. Among these giants
was Perez Hirshbein, whose play A Forsaken Nook (A Farvorfen
Vinkl) had, in 1915, boosted Schwartz's sagging career and proved to
be a turning point for Yiddish Art Theatre in America.
On the scene too was David Pinski (King
David and His Women, The Treasure, and Yankel the
Blacksmith). And Ossip Dymov (The Bronx Express, Hear, Oh
Israel), not to mention Sholom Asch and his large body of theatre
creations, which often found their way onto the English-speaking stage.
Within a year of Boris Aronson's
less-than-auspicious arrival in New York, his first job was with one of
those small art theatre groups in the Bronx, a recently formed avant-garde repertory company that self-consciously called itself Unser Teater
(Our Theatre). Aronson was given a blank check to try out his highly
original ideas about costumes, lighting and set design. "I did my most
experimental work [at Unser], which I haven't topped yet," he said in a
This cutting edge ensemble at Unser was the
realized dream of a tiny select circle of left-leaning Yiddish
playwrights and theatre intellectuals called the Jewish Theatre
Society. Two years earlier, disgusted with Second Avenue shund
and dissatisfied with many of Schwartz's recent plays of little
substance that nonetheless showcased himself, the Society decided to
establish its own theatre, modeled after the great repertory troupes of
Moscow and Vilna, where emphasis was placed on substantive material and
not the star players.
On Unser's Board of Directors was David
Pinski and Perez Hirshbein, and two of the most ubiquitous Yiddish
theatre intelligentsia: Jacob Mestel and Mendl Elkin, each brilliant at
directing and producing plays, and at writing theatre history and
This disgruntled and distinguished body
approached Sidney Stavrov, an enterprising former actor on the Russian
stage and veteran of the English music halls. Stavrov had already
rented the old Booth silent film movie house at 2135 Boston Road and E.
180th Street in the east Bronx. He was in the process of transforming
it into a 285-seat theatre, and studio on the floor above for his wife
Beatrice Stavrova, a ballet teacher and performer.
To the Board, the location seemed excellent
if not ideal: at the foot of the East Tremont Avenue elevated line,
within eyeshot of Bronx Park, and surrounded by myriads of working- and
middle-class Jews, who not that long ago had deserted ghettoish lower
Manhattan for the fresh air and relative openness of the Bronx.
Stavrov had named the reconverted movie
house The Bronx Art Theatre, and was so taken with Unser's goals that he
not only welcomed the fledgling group as a subtenant, he also
volunteered his and Beatrice's services as performers.
Boris Aronson was similarly affected, and
with great élan he designed the murals for Unser's auditorium, of joyous
chasids dancing and fiddles playing and brides radiant in full wedding
For the opening production David Pinski wanted to use one of his own
plays -- he had more than fifty to chose from
-- but Hirshbein cautioned against it. "How would it look," he asked
Pinski, "if we open a theatre with ourselves as directors to have our
own plays done?"
Wisely, Pinski reconsidered and together
they selected S. Ansky's Day and Night as the opener, a dramatic
poem fashioned for the stage in three acts by Pinski and Elkin. Ansky,
who died in 1920, had achieved worldwide fame ten years earlier with
Among the actors employed by Unser for the
premiere and for the other plays to follow, were Egon Brecher of
European fame and David Vardi from the original Habima Theatre of
Moscow. By contrast, Aronson was a complete novice, but he eagerly
threw himself into the project. "Nobody knew for sure if they would be
paid or not," recalled Aronson. "But they [Unser's board] had an
adventurous spirit...and I happened to arrive at the right time. They
were willing to do unusual things."
According to the Jewish Theatrical News,
reporting on the debut of Day and Night, on December 9, 1924, "to
judge by the enthusiasm of that evening, the play is assured of a long
run." In actuality, the play ran for 79 performances.
The next Unser offering was The Final
Balance, a four-act tragicomedy about the problems of a prosperous
flour merchant. It was written by David Pinski, who apparently overcame
Hirshbein's reluctance to present their own creations. Again Aronson
did the lighting, the scenery and the costumes, continuing to improve
and gain confidence.
Location after all being everything, perhaps
the Bronx Art Theatre was too far from Second Avenue. Or perhaps
Unser's agenda was too leading edge, too intellectual for
Yiddish-Americans used to spectacle and star-driven vehicles. After
less than a year of operation, the brave little troupe folded, its many
talented individuals moving swiftly along to other enterprises.
Early in 1925, Sidney Stavrov, who'd
remained behind, assembled a company of English-speaking players and
formed his own group. He slightly altered the premises to allow better
access to Madame Stavrova's dance studio on the second floor, and had
erected a ten-by-eighteen foot electric sign that read: The Intimate
Playhouse. It reopened in April, 1925, with The Enchanted Prince,
a musical based on an old Russian folktale. Beatrice Stavrova's ballet
company provided the dancing. Ticket prices ranged from 50 cents for
the cheap seats to $1.50 for the front row.
Other Intimate Playhouse evenings included
Luigi Pirandello's Sicilian Limes, The Model (a play by
Stavrov himself), and a ballet recital by Stavrova and company.
But despite the appeal to a wider audience,
this second attempt at theatre also failed after a single season.
However, Joseph Schildkraut, the popular star of Yiddish theatre,
Broadway and Hollywood, subleased the Bronx Art Theatre from Stavrov for
five years, as a sixtieth birthday present for his father Rudolph, whose
fame on the Yiddish stage was greater than his son's though a stranger
to the general audience. About the Bronx location, Joseph wrote, "Its
distance from the heart of the theatre district did not deter Father's
admirers -- and they were numerous. Here they could see him once more
in his whole repertory, from Shakespeare to modern farces."
In September, 1925, the Schildkraut Theatre
opened with Ossip Dymov's The Singer of His Sorrows, starring
Rudolph and directed by Joseph. At the time the play was a great
success in Bucharest, Rumania, where it was well-adapted and directed by
Joseph Buloff for his Vilna Troupe, and ran for over three hundred performances, Buloff in the lead role.
Financially though, the greatest triumph for
the Schildkrauts at the Bronx Art Theatre was Dymov's Bronx Express,
which ran for a year before going on tour. Rudolph played an overworked
button maker who falls asleep on the subway after a hard day's work in
the factory, and dreams he's rich and on vacation in Florida.
The Schildkrauts had the good fortune to use
Boris Aronson for costumes, lighting and set design. So involved was
Aronson with the overall production that he is credited as co-director.
According to Joseph Schildkraut their most
favorite play was August Strindberg's Sheet Lightning, which he
directed, influenced by having seen the legendary Max Rheinhardt's
version in Berlin.
Once again however the Bronx Art Theatre
went dark, soon after the following notice appeared in the Jewish
Theatrical News of March 23, 1926:
Schildkrauts To Close Theatre
Rudolph and Joseph Schildkraut, father and
close the Schildkraut Theatre, 2135 Boston
April 19, 1926, and go to Hollywood,
where they will perform together in Young
motion picture to be produced by Cecil B.
The Schildkraut Theatre may not reopen in
Once more Boris Aronson was at liberty, but
he soon joined Maurice Schwartz's Yiddish Art Theatre at its new home on
Second Avenue and E. 12th Street. Aronson designed the sets and
costumes for its maiden performance on November 18, 1926 of Abraham
Goldfadden's The Tenth Commandment. The association didn't last
long as Aronson then went to work for Eva LeGallienne at the Civic
Repertory, his next step up the ladder.
But the Stavrovs never lost heart. In May
1927, with an optimism almost ludicrous given the Bronx Art Theatre's
track record, they signed a long term lease with Elizabeth Steinmetz,
the building's owner, that would expire in September, 1944. Their faith
was rewarded as Joseph Buloff and the American branch of the Vilna
Troupe became, in 1929, the theatre's next subtenant. This proved to be
a bitter experience for the Vilna and for Buloff personally, according
to a New York Times story a year later. "Last season, he [Buloff]
directed a small theatre in the Bronx, obscure so far as the general
public and even most of the cognoscenti were concerned. From it,
however, several individuals brought back glowing accounts." One of
those individuals was Maurice Schwartz, who'd first invited Buloff to
New York in 1926. Viewing his work at the Bronx Art Theatre, the great
Maurice returned to Second Avenue duly impressed.
Distance and obscurity weren't the only
handicaps Joseph Buloff had to endure. The Vilna Troupe couldn't afford
union help and tried to function with non-union stagehands. Stench
bombs were tossed on stage during the performances. Buloff would open
all the doors to air out the theatre, but this discouraged the sale of
tickets. With so much against them, the Vilna folded. For the 1930
season, Joseph Buloff worked for Schwartz and received rave notices in
Uncle Moses and The Witch of Castile.
In the theatrical season of 1930-1931, the
first full year of The Great Depression, Mark Schweid attempted to
breathe life once more back into the Bronx Art Theatre. A graduate of
the Polish Dramatic Society, Schweid worked primarily in the Yiddish
theatre during the Twenties as an actor and a director. He also wrote
plays and poetry. A decade later he went on to play leading roles on
Broadway. During World War Two, he was employed by the OWI (the Office
of War Information) and was in charge of the German press at the
Nuremberg war crimes trials.
Among the actors he assembled for his Bronx
company were Eli Mintz (later part of the The Goldbergs radio
serial), Zvi Scooler (the future voice of radio station WEVD), Gershon
Rubin, and Helen Zelinska -- all veterans of both Schwartz's and
Not only was Schweid director and producer
of the plays presented at the theatre in the Bronx, he also did the hat
trick of acting in them. Such plays as Sholom Asch's The Electric
Chair and Chono Gottesfeld's God's Thieves. About the
latter, the New York Times wrote of Mark Schweid: "He has put on one of
the many good things Jewish theatre should have to offer and generally
Despite the good notices and fine actors,
Schweid's efforts were in vain. After one season he too had to close
The widening Depression and the shrinking
Yiddish-speaking, Yiddish-oriented audience chased almost every art
theatre from the scene. Except for Maurice Schwartz's Yiddish Art
Theatre. He survived by perseverance, determination and force of
personality, and by mixing high art and shund. In those lean
times, many Yiddish actors, directors and playwrights were forced to try
their hands at the Broadway stage and in films. Occasionally a
sprinkling of serious art theatre would surface and like bubbles quickly
dissolve into nothing.
At the Bronx Art Theatre during these arid
and hazardous days, the husband and wife team of Jacob and Annie
Cherniak tried to survive as Schwartz was doing on Second Avenue, by
offering a varied bill. Jacob was a businessman and functioned as
producer, while Annie, formerly with Oscar Green's company at the
Hopkinson Theatre in Brooklyn, was an actress who could play serious
roles as well as those requiring the talents needed to squeeze tears and
soulful sighs from an audience seeking respite from the dreary days of
By the latter half of the '30's, the
Cherniaks had given up, passing the torch to the Dubrovinsky family.
Mrs. Dubrovinsky was a versatile actress and not only emoted grandly but
often wrote her own material, mostly over-the-top melodramas ending in a
wedding scene. Ironically, it was precisely the genre that drove
Hirshbein and Pinski to open Unser Theatre.
The two Dubrovinsky daughters, Esther and
Vity Dubrow, carried on the family tradition, often appearing together
in Yiddish-American farces on Second Avenue in the 1960's.
With the Second World War came the demise of
the Bronx Art Theatre. The building was sold to a Nicholas Kritikos,
who leased the premises for a combination luncheonette and stationery
In 1966, the City of New York condemned the
entire block and razed its buildings to the ground. Five years later,
construction of the Lambert Houses, a public housing development, was
begun. Gone as well was the surrounding of bustling stores and the
vibrant Jewish community they served. Today nothing remains to indicate
that here was once superlative Yiddish theatre of all types, and the
legendary figures who once made it thrive, both providing not merely
entertainment to its audience, but ample evidence of a talented people,
transplanted in bits and pieces to a hospitable new world, lighting up the
sky like a comet, if only for a very brief moment in time.