November 15, 2019

Theater à la Second Avenue

With the revival of his musical about a Jewish cabaret comedian, writer-director Pavel Cerny feels he is giving the current generation of Los Angeles audiences a taste, in English, of the kind of Yiddish theater that flourished a century ago on Second Avenue in New York. 

The story tells of a man who finds fame and fortune traveling the capitals of Europe and ultimately makes his way to the stages of America. “It’s a little bit sentimental; it’s a little bit funny; it’s a little bit of laughter, then tears, and the whole life story goes through lots of emotions,” Cerny explained. “It’s not Beckett, but the audience is sitting in the theater and cries tears and laughs at the jokes, and corrects the comedian on the stage, because they know the joke with a better punch line. It’s a little like a folk theater where people interact very much.”

Although the dialogue is in English, the play, “Belz! A Jewish Vaudeville Musical,” opening March 2 at the Whitefire Theatre in Sherman Oaks, includes songs in Yiddish, German, Czech and Hungarian. Cerny and his wife, Helena Weltman, first created the show in 1979 as a one-person vehicle about a man reading his diary and letters from the past, intercut with some Jewish jokes. Then in 1984, Cerny expanded it into a musical with a huge cast and lots of costumes. The show was so successful, it ran for a year at the Callboard Theater on Melrose Place.

Creating a show with a Jewish theme required major research into his own heritage by Cerny, who grew up under communism in Czechoslovakia.

“I was the first to have a bar mitzvah after the war, in Prague. I knew nothing about Jewish culture. We went to the Jewish City Hall for Purim, and we went to the temple on Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah, and that was it. There was no Jewish culture available at all. So I came here, and I started reading these books of Jewish jokes. They were so fantastic, and I didn’t know any of them. I never heard of them. Some of them were old, old jokes which everybody knows from all these comedians on TV, but to me they were all new, so I went back, and I researched Jewish culture, and I put all that research into ‘Belz!’ ”

The play begins in 1917 and centers on Hugo Schwartz, who, as a young man, dreams of becoming an entertainer who can bring audiences to laughter and to tears. He gets the chance to leave his shtetl, called Belz, becomes increasingly successful all over Europe, meets beautiful women and marries one of them. He gets through World War I and the Depression, but then has to flee to America with his family to escape the Nazis.  He continues performing in New York and in the Catskills.  

Cerny considers the universal theme of his play to be that of the wandering Jew. He said there is a lot of himself in the character of Hugo, who longs to return to Belz, just as Cerny spent years longing for his birthplace in Czechoslovakia, where he had been a noted film director. After he came to America on a visit in 1972 to introduce his wife to his parents, he was supposed to return to Prague to shoot two major motion pictures but found himself barred from his native country.

“When I wanted to return, they wouldn’t let me in. We couldn’t go back to Prague for almost 20 years, until 1990. I missed Prague horribly, because Prague was, for me, a city of dreams, and the city of my childhood and youth. I dreamt about it all the time.” 

Cerny never found out exactly why he was banished for so long. “I was the only one to graduate from the Prague Film School who was working, and there were classmates who were sons of high communist functionaries and generals and so on. At that time, it was enough to go to the police and say, ‘Pavel Cerny said that Brezhnev is an idiot.’ I don’t know what happened. Nobody told me.” 

In the 1980s, Cerny was expelled from West Germany, where he had spent some four years directing major theater productions. “In 1984, I was supposed to direct ‘Waiting for Godot’ in the National Theater Mannheim. I was here in the United States to prepare for it, and I received a letter which said that the ensemble of the theater has decided, as a protest against the stationing by Ronald Reagan of atomic weapons in Germany, to suspend my contract.”

Cerny continued, “I was the bad American, you know. Here, I was always the ‘European director.’ ” 

Cerny said he was forced to keep reinventing himself whenever work in the entertainment industry was scarce. When he first came to America, he was a night clerk in his father’s liquor store, where he was robbed at gunpoint, and, 12 years ago, he was the top toilet salesman in a Santa Monica plumbing store. 

“I became a location manager, eventually,” Cerny said, “so I traveled with some films abroad. I was in Morocco and so on, but, basically, even here, I was starting over and over and over again.”

Cerny added that his play also deals with a poignant father-son relationship that mirrors his relationship with his own dad, who died in 1973.

When asked what he would like audiences to ponder after seeing “Belz!” Cerny cited a moment from the play in which a rabbi, officiating at Hugo’s wedding, makes an observation that is at the heart of this odyssey.

“Life is giving us not just a bowl of cherries, but it’s also like raisins and almonds, a little bit bitter, a little bit sweet.”

“Belz! A Jewish Vaudeville Musical” plays at the Whitefire Theatre (13500 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks, CA 91423) from March 2 – April 14.  Showtime are Thurs. – Sat. at 8, Sun. at 3.  Tickets are $30; Seniors and Students $25.00.  For reservations please call (800)838-3006 or visit