A touch of Yiddish

Baltimore Glimpses

June 25, 1991|By GILBERT SANDLER

THOSE Were the Days," which played at Center Stage a few weeks back to hand-clapping, foot-stomping full houses, was an immersion in the nostalgia of Yiddish theater.

The music, the dancing, the stories -- all were calculated to recall the days when acting troupes traveled city-to-city staging their plays, the story lines of which were rendered entirely in the language of Yiddish (a combination of German and Hebrew with a little Slavic and who-knows-what-else thrown in) and drawn from the Jewish immigrant experience in New York's Lower East Side. One of the reasons "Those Were the Days" was so successful is that many people in the audience hadn't seen Yiddish theater in Baltimore since 1963.

Opening night was Feb. 18, when the great international star of Yiddish theater, Molly Picon, and Robert Weede starred in "Milk and Honey" at Ford's Theater, Baltimore's legitimate theater before the Mechanic. (Ford's was on Fayette between Howard and Eutaw streets.)

Purists will argue that "Milk and Honey" was not Yiddish theater at all, but merely Broadway with a Yiddish flavor. Sun critic Hope Pantell agreed in her critique of opening night: " 'Milk and Honey' smacks more of Broadway than of Israel. Notwithstanding, it's a zestful, high-spirited, rousingly entertaining show."

The plot concerned eight American widows touring Israel, all with husband-hunting uppermost in mind. "Often the stage fairly rocked with the lusty singing and dancing of sinewy farmers and energetic farmerettes," wrote Pantell.

The show-stopper was a goat-milking scene with Molly Picon -- all 4 feet 10 inches of her. "Those Were the Days" at Center Stage was a lively collection of these show-stopping scenes from half a century of Yiddish theater.

Of course, before and after "Milk and Honey" there were other Yiddish stage productions in Baltimore. Baltimore's legitimate Yiddish theater in the 1920s was the old Folly Theater at Baltimore Street and the Fallsway. Many productions were at the old Jewish Educational Alliance (the "JEA") on Baltimore Street near Central Avenue and in later years at the Jewish Community Center. Others were at Ford's and the Maryland Theater on Franklin Street.

But Yiddish theater at the old Folly in the 1920s -- with only Yiddish spoken and sung, the crowds clapping and sighing, cheering and crying to the likes of Jacob Silbert and Morris Novikoff in productions with names like "The Forgotten Children" . . .

Those were the days!

* There is no end to the challenges to Baltimore Glimpses (an untidy mix of memory, research findings and conventional wisdom) in matters of Baltimore history and nostalgia. In the past few weeks came Jesse Weinberg, Sam Culotta and Gwinn Owens, each of whom said rightly that we got it wrong.

In a piece about the late Gov. Albert C. Ritchie, we wrote of his send-off from Penn Station in 1932 to the Democratic National Convention. People we'd talked to over the years said it was Penn Station, though we could never find anybody who was there, and the news story reporting the occasion had failed to mention the name of the station. But the day after we published the account (April 2), it caught the attention of Weinberg -- who said he was there -- at Mt. Royal Station. Thank you, Jesse.

In a column on school desegregation in Baltimore in 1954, we said accurately that Gov. Theodore R. McKeldin advocated peaceful compliance with the historic Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education. When an Eastern Shore citizen complained that he wanted a governor who would "represent the wishes of 80 to 90 percent of the people," McKeldin, we said, replied, "I believe in the law!" In fact, said Culotta, McKeldin said, "I represent the law." We looked it up. Culotta was right.

And we wrote that radio station WITH had broadcast the first Orioles games. Owens, former editor of this page, said, "Hold on! The first Orioles games were broadcast over WCBM." Right, if by "Orioles" one means the International League Orioles, a team that went out of business in 1953. They played the Rochester Red Wings and Newark Bears, among others, in Oriole Park on Greenmount Avenue.

No doubt Owens, a Baltimore native, was there. In this nostalgia business, to get it absolutely, positively right, you should have been there. And even then you can get it wrong.

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