Sign in or register
for additional privileges

Recovering Yiddish Culture in Los Angeles

Caroline Luce, Author

You appear to be using an older verion of Internet Explorer. For the best experience please upgrade your IE version or switch to a another web browser.

P. L. Alkon: Hollywood and Second Avenue

“Hollywood and Second Avenue, or The Tragedy of Yiddish Theater (a tragedy in three acts with a prologue that was, and an epilogue that is yet to come)” by Y. Alkon (pseud. of Pinkhas Leyb Alkon)
As appears in Kheshbn (The Reckoning), vol. 1 (1946): 69-74.
Translated by Mark L. Smith.
[Translator’s note: words underlined were written in English, but with Yiddish letters; names of well-known persons are spelled as they usually appear in English.]


Years and years ago, in the district known as Second Avenue, in the great city of New York, the Yiddish theater began to grow and flourish. (More precise information on this subject, with all the details, you can find written in the tens of books that are gathering dust somewhere on library bookshelves.)
These are the words of an actor who still remembers the festiveness that prevailed in and around the Yiddish theater in those golden days:
— True, — he says — the stage sets were old, thrown together from pieces of wood and held together with paper, not — pardon the comparison — like a set in the theater today, but the festivity, the celebration that prevailed in the theater, or in the lobby between acts, you won’t see in today’s theaters with their fine sets.
Here, my hero becomes ecstatic:
— It was truly “with trumpets and the sound of the horn!”1 “Gladness and joy!”2 Somewhere in a Jewish book it says, “Whoever has not seen the celebration of the place of the water-drawing [during the holiday of Sukkot] has not witnessed real joy,”3 and I say, “Whoever has not been in the “Thalia or Liptzin Theatre” has never seen enthusiasm for the Yiddish actor and theater. When I recall what used to be and what there is now, I need to be stronger than iron to keep on living! If you had seen the people who came to the theater, poor, with overgrown faces, trousers rumpled, torn — but the ecstasy, the enthusiasm that flashed from their eyes; the shekhine [divine presence] nevertheless rested on their faces! He looked like a prince, and his companion like a princess. Today one goes to the theater as if it’s an obligation, to see a countryman, or because someone forced a theater ticket on him; he goes to relieve his boredom. At one time, people went to the theater because they couldn’t live without theater, because theater was a part of them. But what is there to say today about what was . . .

First Act:
Three Thousand Miles Away.

Somewhere far off in the desert, a city with the name Los Angeles began to be built. In this city, a couple of tailors and fur-stitchers were engaged in a new industry, called “moving pictures.” You ask, what connection does this have with Yiddish theater? Indeed, you will see.
Making the above-mentioned “moving pictures,” here and there one had to portray a Jewish type, and as the Hollywood directors are very realistic, there can be nothing more realistic than a Jew in a Jewish role.
(At that time, our Jewish “moving picture” maker was not yet ashamed to have Jewish types or Jewish themes in their “pictures.”)
If I am not mistaken, the first appearance by one of those who take part “according to their appearance” was Rudolph Schildkraut.
At that time, there were other Jewish English-speaking actors who played in the movies like: Vera Gordon, Joseph Schildkraut, Belle Baker, and others, but as they had no direct connection with the Yiddish theater, the honor of the “first appearance” belongs after all to Rudolph Schildkraut.
It’s unknown to me how Schildkraut made his way to Hollywood, but in an interview I had with him, when he was playing the role of Caiaphas in the film King of Kings, in such a way that could awaken hatred of Jews, he answered me:
— The Jews of the Bronx were responsible for that.
He had a small theater somewhere in the Bronx, and audiences did not come to his performances like he expected; he had spent $18,000. The money, it appears, wasn’t his. (How could an actor who plays on the Yiddish stage have his own $18,000?) So he came to Hollywood to earn the money to pay his debts.
Perhaps Schildkraut exaggerated his explanation, but there was a bit of truth in it. Making one picture in Hollywood, one can indeed earn enough to pay off an $18,000 debt, and one can still have a nice fortune left over; and if there are skeptics who don’t believe in the huge Hollywood earnings, more living examples quickly arrive — Muni Weisenfreund [Paul Muni], Elihu Tenenholts (perhaps not so much Elihu as his Buick], and others.
So falls the curtain at the end of the first act of the Jewish tragedy, although there is very little that’s tragic, but where have you seen the tragedy at the very start?

Second Act:
Back in New York.

Second Avenue is nervous. People sit in the Café Royal [the chief meeting place for Yiddish actors], and instead of studying roles, they study geography; instead of talking about colleagues, people talk about Hollywood; instead of envying the New Yorkers, people envy the Hollywooders. Enemies make up; who knows if he might need a favor from him one day in Hollywood? For years and years, they slept all day and spent their nights at the café; suddenly they’ve begun talking about the climate and longing for the sun. Taking the ferry to Newark was for them [as easy as Moses’] splitting the Red Sea, and traveling three thousand miles to Hollywood was for them like drinking a pot of coffee. In a word, it became “heaven and earth and Hollywood.”
The directors (the better ones) came to their aid. They began to seek pieces a bit removed from Jewish life, dressed in Gentile clothing, gave more attention to performance, and looked constantly to see what the Gentile newspapers said about their acting; what the Yiddish press had to say already no longer mattered to them.
In this manner they played out a season or two. The income was small but the hope great: perhaps someone from Hollywood would happen to come by and snatch them up. But when no one came, they went a step further (or closer) to Hollywood. They left for Broadway; as great strategists, they figured that from Broadway it’s closer to Hollywood than from Second Avenue.
Broadway, I want you to know, is — pardon the comparison — like Second Avenue, no more. There, they act for the sake of acting; certainly, they, too, dream of Hollywood, but they are not as naïve as their Second Avenue colleagues. They know that first one must distinguish oneself in the role they are playing — acting with heart, with their whole being, without casting side glances at an expectant audience while playing, and if a scene calls forth laughter, playing it through without milking it to the point of nausea. The producers and directors know that a theater is a business, but a business of art needs to be artistic; it must have a broad scope: They don’t ask you for any favors; it’s good that you come to the theater, and if not, no one would insult you. If they lose money, they seal their lips and remain silent, without accusing the critics of wanting to close down the theater if they write something negative about them. As for the actors, they know very well that the script is just as responsible for success as the acting — and as the directing; so that the author is not an orphan like on Second Avenue. It makes no difference whether this is his first or tenth play, and the director has one task: directing; for writing, there are writers. In a word, what is done there is the opposite of Second Avenue.
Would you, therefore, think that Second Avenue took a lesson from Broadway? They brought exactly the same to Broadway, but instead of Yiddish there was English, and, in addition, they also lost the Yiddish charm.
So they returned to Second Avenue, admitted their mistake, and this time took up presenting spectacles. But if the directors had given up on Broadway and Hollywood, the actors remain intoxicated; putting on makeup in front of the mirror for Yoshe Kalb [the title role in a famous work by I.J. Singer], they racked their brains over how to paste something into their beard and peyes [sidelocks] that would attract the attention of someone who knew someone, who had a connection to Hollywood.
At the end of the second act, our hero, “the Yiddish theater,” is already bloodless, lying on the stage like a fallen giant, singing a little song from Goldfaden’s time with a sad, hoarse voice, and when the curtain falls, we see with our own eyes how he is selling himself to the “sons of Podunk” for a benefit performance.

Third Act

As it is to be expected in a third act of a tragedy, chaos reigns; directors don’t care about hiring actors, and the actors don’t care about being hired; all are waiting for the miracle of Hollywood. When the miracle doesn’t come, they decide to grab the miracle by the horns and drop in personally on Hollywood. But they couldn’t just cut and run, so they would say:
— Enough playing Yiddish theater! I will rest for a season.
The result is that one fine early morning you could find half of Second Avenue at Hollywood and Vine Street.
You have probably never had occasion to see the Yiddish actor in his home on Second Avenue. No matter his rank, he walks proudly with his head held high, and if you had the good fortune to speak with him, he would answer you with measured words, “yes or no.” Here, he is “pani brat” [Polish: a pal, literally “your brother”] to everyone; at parties, he recites unasked, and if in New York he would have avoided you, here he comes up to you:
— How are you? Been here long?
And it’s all because you might know someone from there, from Hollywood. All of this refers to when you’re seeing him, but you wouldn’t know how he is suffering when you don’t see him, staying whole days by the telephone in case a studio calls.
And the miracle happens; the telephone rings:
— He should come at once to the studio.
The few minutes that it takes him to get ready, and the ride to the studio, Second Avenue flies away to the far-off infinitude as if on wings; he already doesn’t even remember that he had a connection to “Second Avenue.” He sees his name in a thousand electric lights on Broadway. Maybe he should drop in on the Café Royal? Yes, let them explode! And maybe not — who needs them! If only he could come here for ten years, for twenty years! And counting his years thusly, a strange thought begins to gnaw at him. True, he has dyed the gray in his hair, but he still knows his true age; only so many years remain for him to enjoy the fame that he is now about to receive. Jews? Such people! They didn’t appreciate his talent, did they? He always knew that Jewish art was too limiting; how many people saw him performing among Jews? But in the movie theater he will be seen by Germans, French, Chinese, Russian, yes Russians — the Russian government will send him a special invitation, and when he shows himself on the streets of Moscow, people will point him out with their finger:
There he goes . . . .
Despite their having sent for him from the studio, when he arrives there, no great fuss was made. He had indeed attracted attention, not, God forbid, because he was such a great talent, but because he had a hoarse voice, and his neck was shorter than average. But afterward, they decided that no great talent lay in his hoarse voice, and he was left with only his inborn talent and his short neck; and when he saw the picture on the screen, he couldn’t find himself at all.
On Vine Street and Hollywood Boulevard, the sun is shining. The California sun is not stingy with its warmth, whether in May or December, but the Yiddish actor from Second Avenue is sitting somewhere in his dark little room, his eyes fixed on the telephone with ears raised, in case his agent should call.
The prince himself undertakes to celebrate goles [exile], and he does not want to be delivered.
Ladies and gentlemen!
As I said to you in the beginning, the epilogue has yet to be written.
Thank you.

Psalms 98:6.
Esther 8:16.
The holiday of Simkhat Beit Hashoevah, Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sukkah 51a.
Comment on this page

Discussion of "P. L. Alkon: Hollywood and Second Avenue"

Add your voice to this discussion.

Checking your signed in status ...

Previous page on path Khesbn (Reckoning), page 22 of 31 Next page on path