by JULIO MARTINEZ
[dropcap]In[/dropcap] the 1850s, eight newly arrived Jewish merchants spoke the first words of mamaloshen (Yiddish mother tongue) in the City of Angels. Fifty years later, the Jewish population of LA increased considerably when the forward-thinking Pioneer Lot Association subdivided lots in Boyle Heights and adjacent City Terrace, coming up with the then-revolutionary concept of selling these inexpensive properties on the installment plan. Pioneer printed up thousands of advertising flyers and had them distributed in New York City and Chicago. The response was almost overwhelming. A sea of Middle European Jewish immigrant families flowed into East Los Angeles, bringing their Yiddishkayt (Yiddish culture) with them, and that included a vibrant Yiddish theater scene.
By the 1930s, this area east of Downtown LA had over 75,000 Jewish residents. The works of Sholem Aleichem, Sholem Asch and Sholem An-Ski were produced to sold-out houses at such venues as the Wilshire Ebell and the Assistance League Playhouse. From 1935 to 1939, Musart Theatre, located at 1320 S. Figueroa Street, was home to the Federal Theatre Project’s (FTP) Yiddish Theatre Group of Los Angeles, which also operated at Figueroa Theatre (at 940 S. Figueroa). Under the direction of Yiddish theater pioneer Adolph Freeman, the company performed Yiddish plays in English and, on alternate nights, in Yiddish. Acclaimed writer Dale Wasserman—then a 21-year-old assistant stage manager—recalled in a 2006 interview, “We did the English versions to attract a younger audience, and it worked.” Produced works included Professor Mamlock by Friedrich Wolf, The Treasure by David Pinsky, and Clifford Odets’ Awake and Sing (in Yiddish and English).
The post-World War II years saw a steady migration of LA’s Jewish citizenry to the Westside, particularly the Fairfax area, where two Jewish-oriented cabarets, Billy Gray’s Bandbox and Slapsie Maxie’s, became the outlets for a plethora of Jewish comics and novelty acts that performed in English and Yiddish. The Bandbox (1936-65) on Fairfax often featured manic Yiddish musician Mickey Katz (father of Joel Grey), who became famous for his “Yinglish” parodies of popular songs, including Knish Doctor (Witch Doctor), Old Black Smidgick (Old Black Magic), and Max the Messer (Mack the Knife). Club owner Gray would often perform in such Yinglish musical revue send-ups of popular films as My Fairfax Lady and The Cohen Mutiny. Among the slew of comics who got their start there were Buddy Hackett, Alan King, Billy Barty, Don Rickles, Jackie Gleason, Joey Bishop, and Phil Ford.
Owned by boxer-turned-actor Maxie Rosenbloom, Slapsie Maxie’s (1943-50), at 7165 Beverly Boulevard, gets credit for the LA debut of Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis, as well as Phil Silvers, who worked there as an emcee. When the club closed, it was converted into The New Globe, dedicated to the revival of Yiddish Theater. In 1951, it premiered a translation of J.B. Priestley’s They Came to a City, but closed after one season. By 1978, after a number of transformations, the space became the home of The New Beverly Cinema.
Back in 1950, there also was an effort to pass on an appreciation of Yiddish theater to a younger generation of LA’s Jewish population when actor/teacher Than Wyenn (grandfather of director/choreographer Diana Wyenn) co-founded Yiddish Kinder Theater. With solid support from parents and the local Jewish arts community, this youthful Yiddishkayt ensemble performed annually at such venues as Wilshire Ebell Theatre until the core ensemble aged out by 1955.
By the mid-50s, Yiddish theatre had disappeared in LA, except for the occasional touring show out of New York. Some remnants did remain. In 1958, Paul Muni, acclaimed star of film and stage, demonstrated his Yiddish theater roots when performing in the musical At The Grand with LA Civic Light Opera. In 1976, writer/director Armand Volkas formed The New Artef Players, modeled on the philosophies of 1930s’ workers theater group Artef. It disbanded in 1982. Today, efforts to preserve and promote the legacy of Yiddish Theater in LA continue through the efforts of YiddishkaytLA.