Tilson Thomas’ Yiddishe bubbe and zayde are back on stage
North Hollywood in the 1950s was dotted with orange groves and squat, modern apartment buildings.
But for Michael Tilson Thomas — now music director of the San Francisco Symphony — the North Hollywood apartment of his grandmother Bessie was a window onto a vanished world: the world of the Yiddish theater.
Bessie Thomashefsky was a turn-of-the-century superstar. She and her husband, Boris Thomashefsky, both Jewish immigrants, were the Richard Burton and Liz Taylor of the Lower East Side, pioneers of a tradition that evolved into the Broadway musical.
In her little apartment, five decades after her heyday, Bessie would sing the old Yiddish songs while young Thomas’ father, Ted, or his Uncle Harry accompanied on the piano. The boy absorbed it all, taking note of the nuances, cadences and wry inflections of the music.
Fifty years later, his attention paid off. As a tribute to his grandparents, Tilson Thomas has created a staged performance, now called, “The Thomashefskys,” which was a hit in San Francisco and at Carnegie Hall and will debut in Los Angeles Dec. 18 to 20 at Disney Hall.
The Disney Hall production will blend live music by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and singers (including Neal Benari as Boris and Judy Blazer as Bessie), with vintage recordings, film clips and projections of archival photos — all hosted by Tilson Thomas.
For most of the show, the conductor’s personal anecdotes and memories remain front and center.
“[This project has] totally taken over my life, partially because it’s turning out to be a much bigger topic than I ever imagined,” the conductor said after the show premiered in 2005. “I was talking to [Broadway producer] Hal Prince about it, and he said to me: ‘It’s not a show. It’s a miniseries.'”
When Tilson Thomas first conceived the project years ago, he began sifting through Bessie’s memorabilia, from old props and costumes to scripts, full scores and crumbling fragments of music that had not been played for decades.
He knew he had a treasure on his hands.
“This all goes back to my childhood,” he said. “My father over many years wanted to do some kind of evening about the Yiddish theater and Boris and Bessie. I was always delighted by the music and stories, but I didn’t appreciate it as a kid.”
Instead, he pursued classical music, studying piano and conducting at USC — and by the age of 19 was named music director of the Young Musicians Foundation Debut Orchestra in Los Angeles. Tilson Thomas went on to work with composers such as Stravinsky, Boulez and Copland on premieres of their works at Los Angeles’ famed Monday Evening Concerts and, at age 24, was appointed assistant conductor of the Boston Symphony. Ten days later, he burst onto the international scene after a performance with that orchestra at Lincoln Center in New York.
Since then, Tilson Thomas has toured the world with the London Symphony, of which he became principal conductor in 1988, and has served as a principal guest conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, among other appointments.
He arrived at the San Francisco Symphony in 1995, and, three years later, turned his attention to his grandparents when he launched his foundation, the Thomashefsky Project.
Its goals extended far beyond a single evening’s entertainment. Tilson Thomas hoped to research the dusty archives of Yiddish theater and to collect and curate Thomashefsky artifacts wherever he could find them.
To date the project has discovered more than 1,000 items.
“Some of the material was in my family’s collection,” Tilson Thomas said. “Some was from the YIVO Institute of Jewish Research and the New York Public Library. We’ve had great cooperation.”
Scholars involved with the Thomashefsky Project have been impressed with the materials. “Without a doubt, among the most important producers of popular Yiddish culture in North America were the Thomashefskys,” Steven Zipperstein, Stanford history professor and member of the project’s academic advisory committee, said before the show’s San Francisco premiere. “The material that Michael Tilson Thomas has in his possession chronicles some of the most critical moments in the production, dissemination and the reception of Yiddish culture in the last century.”
During performances of “The Thomashefskys,” Tilson Thomas wants audiences to be as entertained as any Broadway crowd. The music, painstakingly reconstructed by the conductor, reflects an orchestral sound not heard since dapper Jimmy Walker was mayor of New York.
“The oldest of the repertoire is about 120 years old,” the conductor said. “The process I followed took me back to the original materials, even the orchestrations from musicians in the pit. When you look at the parts, you have some idea of what was done, but the musicians played around a lot with those numbers. So I had to invent musical business that in an earlier era may have been improvised.”
Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky came to America from Ukrainian villages before the turn of the 20th century. In 1882, while still in his teens, Boris starred in his first American theatrical production. While on tour in Baltimore, he met 14-year-old Bessie, and soon they were twin icons of the stage.
They very quickly began creating a Yiddish theater scene for New York’s burgeoning Jewish immigrant population hungry for entertainment. They brought to America the finest Jewish composers, playwrights and performers, greatly enriching the artistic scene of old New York. It was as if the talented pair took to heart an old adage of free enterprise: Find a need and fill it.
To great acclaim, they staged original dramas, comedies, their own Yiddish translations of Ibsen and Shakespeare (some advertised as “improvements” on the original), and, above all, music. So pliant was his voice, sometimes Boris would play women’s roles. Bessie, too, was known for doing “trouser roles,” women playing young men.
Boris (who died in 1939) proved one of the most flamboyant figures in New York society. He amassed a fortune, but spent it. The couple and their three children lived in a Brooklyn mansion with servants and fancy cars at their disposal. Boris was also a notorious womanizer, which led to his 1911 separation from Bessie, though they never divorced.
Bessie went on to become something of a proto-feminist, running her own businesses and opening her own theater (the Bessie Thomashefsky People’s Theater in the Bowery).
“She was a real pioneer in understanding how independent and enterprising a woman could be,” Tilson Thomas said. “As a manager of her own company, as someone commissioning new work. For her entire life she had a very realistic sense of what she thought was dignified or appropriate.”
Bessie Thomashefsky moved to California in the late 1930s to be with her children and grandchildren. She died in 1962, but by then her influence had been felt far and wide, even if the Thomashefsky name had largely faded from memory.
“The real purpose [of Yiddish theater] was to create an entertainment around controversial social issues,” Tilson Thomas said. “It was a reflection of the concerns of Yiddishkayt, which of course had very much to do with social transformation. When you look at plays like ‘Death of a Salesman,’ ‘Inherit the Wind’ or even ‘West Side Story,’ these are all very entertaining evenings with underlying social messages. That’s very much the tradition of the Yiddish theater.”
Dan Pine is a staff writer at j., the Jewish news weekly of Northern California. This story is reprinted and updated with permission from the j.
Naomi Pfefferman, Arts and Entertainment Editor for The Jewish Journal, contributed to this story.