Commentary Magazine


Boris & the 2nd Avenue Muse
A Memoir

When Boris called me in the summer of 1952, it had been a full three years since I had last heard from him; yet he launched into his proposition with only the most peremptory greeting.

“How would you like to play General MacArthur?”

“Play who?”

“General MacArthur! It’s a fat role, I promise you, and you’re perfect for it.”

“What have you got going now,” I asked, “a war play?”

“A Jolson play,” he answered. “But the general is a very important character.”

“I think you should know that MacArthur is not one of my favorite people,” I replied.

“Who wants you to love him?” asked Boris with exasperation. “I only want you to play him.”

“Is this for money?”

“Certainly. You get paid by the performance plus four days rehearsal pay. We rehearse beginning of the week and do the show on the weekend: once Friday, and three a day Saturday and Sunday—seven times in all.”

“I see, I see,” I said, trying to combat my temptation to accept, “so you’re working off Broadway now.”

“Hell, no. Second Avenue,” replied Boris, triumphantly. “You’re talking to the new sweetheart of the Yiddish theater.”

“Yiddish theater,” I repeated, in a panic, “since when am I supposed to speak Yiddish?”

“You’re going to speak English,” said Boris impatiently. “Whoever heard of a Yiddish General MacArthur? Don’t worry, you’ll be a sensation. On Second Avenue they love well-bred Jewish boys who speak good English. Anyway,” he added, “I’m the only one has to be bilingual. We got pros for the Yiddish parts and for the English roles I’m lining up all my goyishe friends—like you.”

This was altogether typical of the shafts Boris used to aim in my direction when we were students together at the Yale Drama School. What Boris was doing at Yale I have never been able to determine, but it was clear that the place baffled him and that third-generation Jews like myself baffled him even more. To me, on the other hand, it was he that always seemed the outlander. A thickly set tatterdemalion with Slavic features, drowsy lids, corpulent lips, and an enormous number of teeth, he had been born in Russia and emigrated to Detroit as a child. He was a bit older than the rest of us, having matured in depression America, and the depression still clung to him even when we first met in 1948. Boris was devoted to talk, speaking English, Yiddish, and Russian with equal volubility, and I suspect he originally turned to the theater to indulge his compulsive oratorical strain. Anyway, he’d had some success before coming to Yale, having toured with Maurice Schwartz and played bits with the Group Theatre.

My relation to Boris at that time was rather equivocal. He had enormous charisma, but I was fresh from Amherst, valued detachment, and often found Boris too truculent and engaged. We shared a certain contempt for the mushy pabulum ground out by the student playwrights at Yale, but my own stage heroes were from the Old Vic company, and my style of acting was better suited to the classics of dramatic literature than to the realistic plays that Boris favored. Nevertheless, I soon found myself drafted into the Odets group, a coterie that Boris had formed in opposition to prevailing Yale methods. Admission was simple, all you needed were three qualifications: a respect for the reforms of the defunct Group Theatre, an infinite capacity for argument, and a willingness to lend money to Boris. The loans were most crucial. Debt was Boris’s natural condition, his connection with the social world. By the time the year was over I had socialized with him to the limit of my bank account.

When I met him on Houston Street a few days after his call, I noticed that he had grown more prosperous looking, but he was still stone broke. He had recruited most of the Odets group for this venture and was hauling them into a café one by one, ostensibly for individual instructions but actually to touch each individual for something to eat. When my turn came, he explained that he had decided to give the part of MacArthur to another actor. “Since you say you don’t like him, I got you a better part. You’ll be playing Jolson’s announcer and arranger. It’s a part with a lot of character, you’ll love it.” He ordered a second glass of tea (at my expense) and went into detail.

“You see, since Jolson’s just died, Finegold’s decided to exploit his popularity with the Yiddish audiences. Finegold’s the manager of the theater. He’s so crazy about the idea that he stayed up one night and tossed off the script himself. Frankly, it stinks. But it will only run a half hour between the other acts.”

“What kind of theater does this Finegold run?” I asked.

“Difficult to describe now,” said Boris. “But it’s had a distinguished history. A long time ago it was a burlesque house. Then it did legitimate shows. Then it turned vaudeville. And now that the Yiddish audience is disappearing it’s slowly going over to films. I guess you could say the house is in transition. In a typical program, Finegold gives the customers three movies and eight vaudeville acts—the Jolson bit will be an extra added attraction. It’s a long program all right. In a theater like this, you don’t attend a show, you enlist in it.”

“You’re playing Jolson?”

“Naturally.”

“And MacArthur? How does he work into the story?”

“Another stroke of Finegold’s,” answered Boris. “MacArthur’s a great hero on Second Avenue and Finegold suddenly remembered that the general had met Jolson once when he was entertaining the troops in Korea. He’d really like to work Roosevelt into it, too, but he figures he can’t be too cavalier with history.”

I squirmed in my chair.

“Now look,” said Boris uneasily, “don’t give me a hard time about the script. Just play your part with conviction and you’ll be surprised—the audience will eat it up. C’mon now, I’ll show you around, and then I’ll introduce you to Finegold.” Boris scrambled out of his chair, pocketing fifteen cents of the twenty-cent tip I left on the table.

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Before entering the theater, Boris called my attention to a large blowup of his face, spread from ear to ear in a huge smile. Underneath the picture, printed in block letters on the plasterboard, were his name and the appelation: Wunderkind. “A wonderchild in the Yiddish theater,” explained Boris, who was still bitter about his perennial failure to get into the Yiddish Actors Union, “is anyone under forty-five years of age.” He was very vain about his billing, but once we got inside the empty theater he lost some of his cockiness. The house dwarfed him. From the balcony we gazed down on an estate of 2,000 seats and a stage the size of the Music Hall. You could understand how much the declamatory style of Yiddish acting owed to these enormous theaters. “Twenty years ago,” said Boris impressively, his voice hollow and reverent in the empty house, “Boris Thomashefsky was the idol of this stage. And when he died, they laid him out on the apron and charged admission to see the corpse. They say there were lines, three deep, right up to 14th Street.”

We padded down the carpeted steps from the balcony. “I’ll get the others together and we’ll meet Finegold,” Boris said. “I ask only one thing—restrain yourself when you see the script. Finegold has had a few successes in the legitimate theater and he’s very sensitive about his writing. If you want to help me keep my job, don’t hurt his feelings.”

To confirm Boris’s characterization of him, Finegold—a diminutive man with a pinched face, an autocratic manner, and a bad case of the sniffles—opened up the meeting with a long discussion of his career. In an oratorical voice, he affirmed that he was a misunderstood artist whose literary powers were drying up in this vulgar vaudeville atmosphere, and that only in masterworks like The Jolson Story (which, not unexpectedly, turned out to be the title of the skit) were his talents fully expressed. Handing around the scripts with extreme solemnity, he warned us not to deviate from the text, but rather to enrich its meanings with our most powerful performances. With Boris nodding in mock-serious agreement, we proceeded to the first reading.

The role of MacArthur had been assumed by a stiff, slightly pompous actor named Harry Steinbeck, one of the two Gentiles in the cast. The other was Marta Guardino, a tiny but fierce Italian girl with beautiful skin and night-black hair. Marta had been cast in a non-speaking Jewish role: she was to carry an Israeli flag across the stage, crossing it with an American flag carried by another actor while Jolson sang “Hatikvah”—a tableau effect of the kind that Finegold often used.

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Finegold had decided to improve on the Jolson movies. We too were going to use a Jolson soundtrack (we had his voice on records), but our Larry Parks was to be a split personality: Boris playing Jolson, the dramatic character, and an impersonator named Sammy imitating Jolson singing in blackface. As Jolson’s announcer, I was expected to do a Smith and Dale routine with Jolson’s manager, played by a laconic designer from Yale named Al Hurwitz. Our problem, with Finegold impatiently vetoing all suggestions for substitutions, was to make something funny out of the most ancient wheezes in the business.

Boris, who was giving us secret instructions about how to play to a Yiddish audience, tried to help us here, but he encountered a lot of resistance from me. He had hired me despite my skepticism and despite my lack of training in his kind of theater because I was a Jew—he thought he could burrow his way back to this essential fact. He had to cut through my standard stage diction, my trilled r’s, my classical stances, and my critical detachment to the actor he hoped was underneath. “Play it true! Play it true!” he would scream at me in rehearsals. “Stop commenting on your role. You’re crucifying me with your ironic readings. Don’t you know I have a reputation to uphold?”

He tried to get results, the way he borrowed money, by holding me personally responsible for the advancement of his career. When this didn’t work, he started to lecture me on “truth in the theater” and how this depended less on Finegold’s lines than on my honest portrayal of character. This idea, which he had inherited from the Group Theatre, was blasphemy to me, an open invitation for the playwright to write badly. He countered that I was overeducated. I replied that he had an affection for clumsy plays. He spoke about visceral emotion. I talked about ideas. It was a debate that continued past the rehearsal hours, an argument that went on late into the night.

During the rehearsal period, we got to see a lot of Yiddish vaudeville, most of which was heavily influenced by TV variety shows. But one exceptional artist appeared on the program—an old-timer named Aaron Lebedoff, in whose work there was substantial evidence that Yiddish vaudeville had once had its own special style and genius. His record, “Rumania, Rumania,” was a great favorite in the Yiddish community; and when he sang the song in the theater, you could tell that he had been an important influence on Danny Kaye. He was aging then, but his mighty talent was still intact. With his face absolutely impassive, except for his expressive eyebrows, he wrapped his voice around his listeners and almost literally squeezed a response out of them. He put all his dissatisfaction with life and experience into his singing, and the audience went with him all the way. He sobbed with the song and they sobbed with him—oh, how they loved to cry. And when, after innumerable encores, he finally bore his shaking figure off the stage, he snapped out of the mood immediately—like Garrick winking at a lady in a box after a supremely tragic moment—and aimed a good-hearted goose at Marta Guardino, watching admiringly from the wings.

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On the day of our first performance, we sat through the three movies as well, to which the audience paid no attention at all. Local conversations were bursting out all over the house. Almost everyone had a basket of food on his lap and, though it was barely 3 P.M., some were already eating. A woman to my left had put her feet over the seat in front of her and gone off to sleep; a man behind me was calling in loud stage whispers to someone he recognized in front. I felt my usual opening night jitters enlarging into a full-scale panic.

For, with the exception of the Jolson records, none of our show was amplified, and, considering all the noise in the audience, I hadn’t the vaguest idea of how we were going to be heard. As it was, the theater was so large that every line had to be shouted. No modern actor likes to look into the house any more than necessary; yet we had no choice but to stare the audience down on every speech. The technique was to start off a line, directing it at the character we were addressing—“Hymie!”—then to swivel around, front the audience, and bellow the rest toward the gallery: “this is what I want to tell you!” Direct address, we were told, was a convention the audience willingly accepted, but it played havoc with our notions of the fourth wall.

Backstage, Boris explained the audience and what seemed to us its rather bizarre behavior. “These spectators are the most demanding you’ll ever face. They come in for half price—it’s Friday and they have to see the entire show before sundown. All that eating is going to continue right through your performance. Don’t worry about it, it’s traditional. This bunch has been coming here regularly for years. They’re very skeptical, but at the same time they’re easily moved. Nothing is really going to upset them except a phony performance. Don’t worry about the script; they’re not here to judge literary values. If the situation is one they can recognize, they’ll buy it. What they like best though is powerful acting. So play it true, project a lot of warmth, and, if you can manage it, give them a good cry.”

Not very heartened, I went up to my “dressing room,” which was really the men’s John, hastily converted to accommodate some of the extra cast. I sat next to Sammy, the Jolson impersonator, and watched him apply the complex facial paraphernalia of the black-faced minstrel man. Under the cork, his eyes and teeth became very white, and, making mouths in the mirror, he suddenly erupted into one of those extended sheep noises which are the stock-in-trade of everyone who imitates Jolson, waving his white-gloved hands beside his face. Well, he had a character, but Finegold had neglected to write a character for me, so I decided to play myself with whatever conviction I could muster, and I made up my face accordingly.

A few minutes later, we all took our places behind the curtain. The technicians were still setting the lights. We had never had a dress rehearsal and had never worked with props; but considering the improvisational nature of the whole affair, I guess we were lucky even to have written lines. During the hiatus, Finegold was making a speech out front and even getting a few laughs. When this was over, the houselights went down, the curtain rose, and we found ourselves staring into a couple of thousand expectant faces.

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The opening scene was located “somewhere in Korea,” the Korean atmosphere signified by a paper moon, a cut-out palm tree, General MacArthur, and a few extras in khaki shirts. Center stage was Sammy in blackface, gesticulating wildly into a dead microphone in synchronization with a record of Jolson singing “Sewanee.” The song over, Sammy bowed and exited, and Finegold cut in with the applause record. This was my cue. Leaping from my seat, I grabbed the dummy microphone and waved for silence from the audience. The applause record died suddenly—Finegold was very heavy with the sound effects. At the top of my lungs I proceeded with a short harangue about how great Al feels to be out here in Korea, entertaining the troops and doing his duty as an American—and in tribute to the exuberance of the reception, he was going to sing another song. The applause was again put on the turntable, after which Sammy gestured through “Sonny Boy,” a record which had an unfortunate tic from the rim to the label. As the music jumped a couple of bars with each revolution of the disc, Sammy’s eyes grew desperate, and I found myself getting more and more nervous.

After the song, Sammy made an over-hurried dash for the wings while I announced that Jolson was now going to honor the audience with a speech. This was the cue for Boris’s entrance. He emerged from the wings where Sammy had exited, wiping his face with a towel as if he were just removing the last trace of cork. He grabbed the mike with an assurance that I envied, showed his teeth to the audience in a broad smile, and began lecturing the spectators as if they were Korean soldiers.

“General MacArthur and fellows. I just want to take a few minutes to tell you what a great and wonderful honor it is for me to be here among you wonderful fellows who are every day shedding your blood for democracy. At times like this, I feel proud—proud to be an American Jew. Like you fellows here, I am ready to give every drop of my Jewish blood to help win this war. I was just talking with your general here, and that talk brought back memories to me which have gone deep in my heart. I mean the days when I was a poor Jew living in the Bronx.” (Finegold, who prided himself on being a shrewd psychologist of Yiddish audiences, was certain that the success of his script was largely dependent on the number of times it mentioned the word Jew.) “That talk,” Boris continued, “brought back memories of my Jewish Mama and Papa and how they wanted, with all their hearts, I should become a chazan in the synagogue. I remember those poor dead parents of mine, may their souls rest in peace, like it was yesterday. And I remember the fights we used to have over me becoming a jazz singer. Yes, I remember them well. . . .”

_____________

 

The lights, which had begun to fade during Boris’s speech, now blacked out completely, and we groped our way offstage in darkness while the set was changed. After having seen a few of his own movies, Finegold had discovered the flashback technique, and he was now introducing it into the Yiddish theater with experimental fervor. The lights came up on what was supposed to be Jolson’s home in the Bronx, forty or fifty years before the Korean action. Finegold gave us a rest here and brought in the Yiddish-speaking professionals; and, at last, the audience began to show signs of consciousness.

There were three people on stage: Mama, Papa, and a comic named Yankele who was supposed to be an uncle (I later learned there is always a character named Yankele who is supposed to be an uncle—he is a stock figure like Sganerelle and Harlequin). Papa and Yankele began adlibbing gags which, so far as I could tell, were irrelevant to the plot, but which drew explosive laughs from the audience. When they felt the audience slacken, their conversation turned to Asa. He was giving his father great tsores with his meshuggeneh, notions about being a teaterzinger. Mama defended Asa, but Papa indignantly told her to shut up and mind her own business. His face reddening, Papa proclaimed that if this geschmatter yid ever showed his face in the house again he would throw him straight into the garbage. Enter Boris, with his shirt sleeves rolled up (a touch intended to make him look forty years younger).

Mama, with a bone-crushing hug, indicated that she at least still loved him in spite of his renegade profession. But when he held out his hand to Papa, it was vigorously slapped down. A short duet followed between Boris and Papa: Boris pleading, meek, and respectful; Papa autocratic and unyielding.

Throughout the latter part of this scene, I had become aware of another voice on stage, gabbling through the actors’ speeches, which was growing in volume and vigor as the scene progressed. But it took me a little time to discover its source. It was coming from the prompter, a dome-headed little man in an open shirt, who was sitting serenely in his cubicle, declaiming every line of the script with histrionic flourishes of his arms as if he were the only person on stage. When Boris, after a tearful exit, came into the wings, I pressed him urgently for an explanation.

“Don’t worry about him,” he said, wiping away his sweat and powdering his make-up. “He’s your insurance policy. He reads the script aloud at the same pace you do, and if you ever blow a line, you pick it up from him as you go along.”

“Look, wonderboy,” I growled, with some rancor, “I’m having enough trouble with these lines. I’ll be sure to dry up altogether if he doesn’t keep quiet.”

“Please, don’t give me a hard time,” answered Boris. “He doesn’t prompt in English. Anyway,” he added impatiently, “you should learn how to adjust to the conditions you work in. What kind of actor are you?”

Digesting his rebuke, I turned my attention back to the stage. Mama, Papa, and the prompter were having a debate: Mama conciliatory, Papa adamant, the prompter alternately conciliatory and adamant. Papa and the prompter absolutely refused to have any teaterzingers in the house and that was their last word. Mama and the prompter wanted Papa to stop being stiff-necked and give Asa one more chance. Boris made another entrance to pick up his luggage, and Mama again planted a kiss on his mouth. At Mama’s secret signal, Boris held out his hand once more to Papa, who once more refused it, though with somewhat less conviction. Boris walked sadly and melodramatically to the door, opened it, and gave one last tearful look at Papa. Suddenly, Papa threw out his arms and let out a heartrending cry: Asa! With two tons of water cascading from his voice, Boris yelped, Papa! and the two rushed center stage to embrace. While they groped each other like two wrestling bears, the audience let out an audible gasp of approval, and the prompter wiped his brow. Reconciliation between father and son. Blackout.

_____________

 

During the set change, Finegold’s tableau of Israeli and American flags passed irrelevantly in front of the curtain, the audience applauding right through Jolson’s rendering of “Hatikvah.”

The next scene was a flash forward to New York, forty years later, right after the Korean expedition. It was a moment that Al Hurwitz and I had been dreading for four days, for the two of us were alone on stage with Finegold’s jokes.

“Hymie, I could use a drink,” I said, brightly and loudly.

“Yeah,” answered Al, “was there ever a time when you couldn’t use a drink?”

“Sure,” I answered, shrinking inwardly, “when I’m asleep.”

Silence from the house. We picked up on it again.

“Let’s play some rummy,” said Al.

“You’re always playing rummy,” said I.

“Yeah? Well, better to play rummy than be a rummy,” said Al.

The audience let that one ride too.

After a few more side-splitters of this type, we turned back, with relief, to the plot and discussed Jolson’s failing health. We both agreed that he looked exceedingly pale and ought to get a check-up.

“You know, Hymie,” I offered, to emphasize my concern, “every time I look at Al, I shiver in the kishkes.” There was a lone hoot from somewhere in the fourth row.

Boris entered and we both told him he ought to visit a doctor. “No, boys,” he answered bravely, “you wouldn’t want me to let down those Jewish boys over there in Korea or those Jewish folks at home who are expecting me to give everything I got for the war effort?” He did admit, however, that he wasn’t feeling too good, and a blackout prepared us for Boris’s big scene.

He was seated in a chair, full front, with his collar open, Al and I supporting him on both sides.

“I’m goin’ boys,” said Boris, gasping for breath, “I’m goin’ fast.” It was a death scene, but in trying to illustrate his agony, Boris had bared his countless teeth in what looked like a fulsome, jovial smile. I felt a bubble of laughter beginning to form in my throat. “I’m remembering my life,” continued Boris. “They say when you’re dying, you begin to see your life parade before you.” Actually, Boris’s life was beginning to parade behind him, in single file in back of his chair. “Hey, there’s Mama,” said Boris, suddenly sitting up straight. “And Papa, too. Look, there’s poor dead Papa. Hey, Mama, Papa, look here, don’t you recognize me? I’m your son, Asa. Remember when I sang for you ‘The Anniversary Song’ and you waltzed together in the new house I bought for you?” The record played as Boris proceeded to die some more; then it faded under. “And look! There’s General MacArthur.” Harry Steinbeck, wearing a faded private’s shirt with five stars painted on the shoulders, appeared behind the chair, compressing his lips around his corncob in sorrow. “Ah, General MacArthur. With President Truman he only spent an hour—but with me he spent two!”

Boris was going into his death rattle. The closer to death he came, the wider grew his grin. Now it looked to me as if it were going to swallow up his face. “I’m goin’ boys, I can feel myself goin’.” He was gripping the arms of the chair and pumping himself up and down in it. “No, Al,” we cried in unison, “you can’t go. We need you too much. The country needs you.”

“This is it,” Boris concluded. “I—got—no—pulse.” His head was now over the back of the chair and he was pumping harder than ever. The bubble that had been forming in me finally burst and I let out a huge cough in a last effort to quell it.

But it was careening around in my throat, ripping out of my nose. I was trying desperately to glaze my eyes because I couldn’t look anywhere without busting up entirely, neither at Al Hurwitz, who was having trouble himself, nor at Boris who lay on the chair—dead—with a grotesque smile splitting his face from ear to ear. It suddenly occurred to me that my only chance was to bury my head on Boris’s corpse and stifle my painful gasps on his shoulder. Boris shifted uncomfortably under my weight, twisted his mouth around, and began to whisper fiercely in my ear. “What in hell you doing? Stop screwing up the death scene!” I burrowed my head even further into his arms and struggled for control.

All this time, MacArthur was delivering a eulogy: “Al Jolson, you are gone. You were a great American, a true soldier, and an honor to the Jews.” When I felt Al Hurwitz bring his head down on Boris’s other shoulder, I knew that we both were done for. Tears of laughter had swarmed into my eyes—and then it suddenly occurred to me how I might salvage the situation. Tears, after all, were tears, no matter how they were inspired, and it was not too fantastic, considering the magnitude of Yiddish stage emotions, that my heaving on Boris’s shoulder might have been interpreted as sobs of grief. When I finally got control of myself, I tested this theory by presenting my tear-stained face to the audience, and was rewarded by a little gasp from that part of the house near enough to see me. Even Boris was stirred. “That part was pretty good,” he told me, after we had squeezed two curtain calls out of the audience, “but don’t try to run off with the scene.” He punched me affectionately on the arm. “What did I tell you? Even this junk carries if you play it with the proper spirit.”

I was never able, in the six shows that followed, to repeat this singular triumph, but I am sure my performance improved. For I began to play my part with a greater degree of seriousness and intensity—not much, I confess, but more than I had ever been able to lavish on such a role before. In my inner ear, I was hearing Boris shout again, “Play it true! Play it true!” and there was still enough shame in me to see the justice of his demand. Though my skepticism never completely left me, I held it for a while in partial suspension, in homage to something which had brushed by from another world—the Second Avenue Muse, then growing rapidly more shabby and déclassée, but still hovering hopefully over the stage. Around Boris, the Muse still lived, and I watched with grudging admiration, amusement, and a little envy as he wrapped himself snugly in the folds of its gown.

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