Yiddish Theater District
|Yiddish Theater District|
poster for The Yiddish King Lear
The Yiddish Theater District, also called the Jewish Rialto and the Yiddish Realto, was the center of New York City's Yiddish theatre scene in the early 20th century. It was located primarily on Second Avenue, though it extended to Avenue B, between Houston Street and East 14th Street on the Lower East Side and East Village in Manhattan. The District hosted performances in Yiddish of Jewish, Shakespearean, classic, and original plays, comedies, operettas, and dramas, as well as vaudeville, burlesque, and musical shows.
By World War I, the Yiddish Theater District was a rival of Broadway in scale and quality, cited by journalists Lincoln Steffens, Norman Hapgood, and others as the best in the city. It was also the leading Yiddish theater district in the world. The District's theaters hosted as many as 20 to 30 shows a night.
After World War II, however, Yiddish theater began to die out. As the Yiddish-speaking population grew older, Yiddish theaters disappeared, and by the mid-1950s few theaters were left in the District.
In 1903, New York's first Yiddish theater was built, the Grand Theater. It hosted performances of vaudeville acts and movies, original plays, musicals, adaptations of Sholem Aleichem, and translations of Shakespeare, Ibsen, Tolstoy, and George Bernard Shaw.
In addition to Yiddish theaters, the District had related music stores, photography studios, flower shops, restaurants, and cafes (including Cafe Royal, on East 12th Street and Second Avenue). A high percentage of the Yiddish and Hebrew sheet music, including Yiddish theater hits, was published by Metro Music, on Second Avenue in the District. Metro Music went out of business in the 1970s. The building at 31 East 7th Street in the District is owned by the Hebrew Actors Union, the first theatrical union in the US.
The childhood home of composer and pianist George Gershwin (born Jacob Gershvin) and his brother lyricist Ira Gershwin (born Israel Gershowitz) was in the center of the Yiddish Theater District, on the second floor at 91 Second Avenue, between East 5th Street and East 6th Street. They frequented the local Yiddish theaters, with George running errands for members and appearing onstage as an extra. Composer and lyricist Irving Berlin (born Israel Baline) also grew up in the District, in a Yiddish-speaking home. Actor John Garfield (born Jacob Garfinkle) grew up in the heart of the Yiddish Theater District. Walter Matthau had a brief career as a Yiddish Theater District concessions stand cashier.
Among those who began their careers in the Yiddish Theater District were actors Edward G. Robinson and Paul Muni, and actress, lyricist, and dramatic storyteller Molly Picon (born Małka Opiekun). Picon performed in plays in the District for seven years. Another who started in the District was actor Jacob Adler (father of actress and acting teacher Stella Adler), who played the title role in Der Yiddisher King Lear (The Yiddish King Lear), before playing on Broadway in The Merchant of Venice.
The Second Avenue Deli, opened in 1954 by which time most of the Yiddish theaters had disappeared, thrived on the corner of Second Avenue and East 10th Street in the District, but it has since moved to different locations. The Yiddish Walk of Fame is on the sidewalk outside of its original location, honoring stars of the Yiddish era such as Molly Picon, actor Menasha Skulnik, singer and actor Boris Thomashevsky (grandfather of conductor, pianist, and composer Michael Tilson-Thomas), and Fyvush Finkel (born Philip Finkel).
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