Below is an essay written by my cousin, writing and producing partner for many years, Moishe Rosenfeld.
A Special moment with Molly Picon at the opening of “The Golden Land”
October 28, 1984. It had been a two year whirlwind. From a concert at a Workmen’s Circle (WC) convention in the Catskills, commissioned by WC’s Education Director, my uncle Yosl Mlotek celebrating the 75th Anniversary of the Jewish Daily Forward to this grand opening night at the Norman Thomas High School on East 33rd Street. It had been a journey filled with twists and turns. The original cast of four, Eleanor Reissa, Phyllis Berk, Avi Hoffman and me had rehearsed the material at my cousin Zalmen Mlotek’s tiny West 106th Street apartment. Much of the material had been recently unearthed by my beloved aunt, Zalmen’s mother Chana Mlotek, and as we wove it into a chronological timeline, and as Zalmen’s musical genius brought the tremendous emotional impact of the immigrant story to the fore, we all became deeply engaged with this new musical and theatrical collaboration. By the end of the performance at the Stevensville Hotel in June 1982, we knew this would not be a “one-off.” The audience laughed, and at times wept and gave us a standing ovation. That fall we presented it at the Central Synagogue Auditorium on East 55th Street, where the Folksbiene had been performing ever since the Forward Building was sold in 1974. Again, a wonderful reception, and a review in The New York Times. After the first performance, the iconic Yiddish actor Leon Liebgold told me “it reminds me so much of the work we did in the Poylishe Bande” – the young Yiddish theater company that he’d been part of in pre-war Warsaw. Such a compliment from Molly Picon’s co-star in the film “Yidl Mitn Fidl” was very special. In the following year, the script evolved, new songs were added, the show was given a name—The Golden Land —and was presented by the original cast in New York, Toronto, Cleveland, Memphis … and eventually at the Upper East Side apartment of Broadway agents Debbie Coleman and Jack Rosenberg, who were the agents of Jean Stapleton with whom Zalmen had worked in a theater the previous summer. The performance was an audition for a number of Broadway and Off-Broadway producers. Among the attendees was Art D’Lugoff the owner of the legendary Village Gate, and Manny Azenberg, the Broadway producer of all of Neil Simon’s plays among many others. We gave it our all. At the end of the performance, Manny invited all of us out for dinner where he commented “Shver gearbet, kinderlekh.” (You worked hard, kids.) He expressed admiration for the work, saying his background in Labor Zionist summer camps endeared him to Yiddish culture. He encouraged us to keep going, building the project. But didn’t offer to produce it. The following day, I got a call from Art D’Lugoff asking to meet with Zalmen and me. He said he was in love with the show and would be interested in getting involved. We shook hands and said “Let’s do it!” In the early spring of 1984, the Yiddish theater star Ben Bonus, who had produced a number of seasons at the Norman Thomas High School, died. Ben had been a force, keeping professional Yiddish theater going in the face of its demise around the world. And he had managed to attract audiences to his shows in which he and his wife Mina Bern starred with special guests like Liebgold, Seymour Rexsite and Miriam Kressyn, and the brilliant Yiddish comedian Shimon Dziganwho had been part of the hysterical duo Dzigan un Schumacher before and after World War II. So Ben’s passing dealt a blow to the remnant Yiddish theater community. All that was active at the time was the Folksbiene, which stuck to its non-union “ensemble” profile, leaving the Hebrew Actors Union a bit forelorn.
During those days, I had begun to host a daily Yiddish newscast on Radio Station WEVD—named after the American socialist Eugene Victor Debs. There, I often ran into Seymour Rexsite who hosted a show Memories of the Yiddish Theater with his wife Miriam Kressyn. One day, Seymour approached me and said, “How about taking over the Norman Thomas?” (another great socialist, by the way.) I said, “What? How?” He said, “I’ll introduce you to the custodian. You should do The Golden Land there.” So the path was clear(ish.) Zalmen and I decided to go for it, believing that with Art D’Lugoff in the mix, we had a good shot at putting it all together. But —small detail —we had no money. Producing a big show in a 700-seat theater would certainly cost … SOMETHING! We approached the Yiddish-supporting psychiatrist couple Arnold and Arlene Richards to see if they might host a fundraising concert in their apartment. We did it and raised $30,000 … Not so much when we’re talking about producing a freaking musical! But we were naive novices, so we moved ahead. Zalmen and I kept working on the piece … We expanded the Yiddish theater section; added a Yiddish radio section; Zalmen found ways to meld Yiddish and English songs of the same period into heartrending duos. One afternoon, at a meeting with Art in my apartment, he played us the song Bread and Roses that had been an anthem of the early 20th century women’s labor movement. What an amazing addition that formed one of several climactic moments in the final production. We connected with the super-talented Bruce Adler, the son of a Yiddish theater couple Julius Adler and Henrietta Jacobson, and a veteran of several Broadway shows and Yiddish theater productions. He loved the concept and signed on. Zalmen introduced me to a young director he’d worked with, Howard Rossen, who agreed to direct and choreograph the show for the Norman Thomas High School. Pieces were starting to fall into place. Now that we had Bruce, I was no longer in the cast. Sadly Eleanor Reissa couldn’t be in the show because of another commitment. A friend, artist Abe Lubelsky, designed a simple movable set. Off-Broadway lighting designer Victor En Yu Tan worked with the limited equipment available to create a gorgeous lighting plot. Art had connected us with a fantastic ad agency that would give us ads for which we could pay a month later. We opened an office in the Workmen’s Circle building on the first floor, from where we sold group sales and tickets, which gave us some additional cash flow as the opening approached. For Zalmen, this became an artistic canvas on which to create his magic. He engaged a seven-piece orchestra which performed with orchestrations by Pete Sokolow, an early pioneer of the Klezmer revival. Zalmen was now working with a cast of five—Avi Hoffman, Phyllis Berk, Joanne Borts, Betty Silberman and Bruce Adler. He built a musical retelling of the journey from Ellis Island to the creation of the State of Israel in a most melodic, harmony-rich, exciting, moving and entertainment vocal score that inspired my book and continuity, Howard’s staging, and Pete’s gorgeous orchestrations. Aside from being an active co-creator with Zalmen, and constantly fine tuning and shaping the script and story-line, I was also the co-Producer. In the lead up to the premiere, I remember describing my role as running down the street balancing one hundred valuable plates and glasses and perishables on my head and in my arms, and catching each before it hits the ground. In other words, I barely knew what the hell I was doing.
But time doesn’t stand still and opening night was approaching. We needed costumes and a recent arrival from Russia, Natasha Landau was introduced to me, and she went to work at the Costume Collection creating a gorgeous wardrobe, which she slaved over till the very last minute before the premiere. The audience was packed—seven hundred people. Many of them invited guests and press. The dress rehearsal had had many mishaps—which someone told me was a good sign. The lights dimmed, Zalmen came out to conduct the overture and … Game on! I spent most of Act One in the box office with our sweet treasurer Sylvia from the Lower East Side, who had been selling tickets in the Yiddish theater for decades. What a ziskayt—with a dialect unique to the children of Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side. After counting the cash, I put it all in a bag and didn’t know what to do with it. So I took it upstairs to the theater to watch the rest of the show. When I entered the back, of the house, the cast was singing Ruth Rubin’s devastatingly powerful “Ballad of the Triangle Fire,” which portrayed the horrific death of one hundred forty-six working women and girls in a fire at their factory near Washington Square Park in 1911. The mourners on stage evolved into angry protesters demanding that the martyrdom of these immigrant girls not be in vain, and soon they were marching on stage to the song “Bread and Roses.” I felt my heart pounding with emotion, pride inspiration … and then the scene shifted to our cast being sworn in as American citizens and singing “Gebentsht iz Amerike!” (Blessed is America). INTERMISSION. Wow what a buzz. People were hugging me, the audience was thrilled. I was … relieved. Act Two showed the upward mobility of the immigrants moving from the Lower East Side to Harlem, the joys of going to the Yiddish theater, the heartbreak of the Depression, the lead up to World War II and the nightmarish revelations of the Holocaust. Resilience, the UN Vote creating the State of Israel, and a new wave of immigrants—Holocaust survivors—coming to Ellis Island and America—“Am Yisroel Chai” —the Jewish People Live. The audience went wild, shouts of bravo filled the air as everyone stood for a seemingly endless ovation. Zalmen and I and the cast stayed on the stage as the audience began to filter out. We had a very special guest who wanted to see us. It was Molly Picon who had been the queen of the Yiddish theater throughout the 20th century. She took Zalmen’s hand and my hand and held them as she said: “Boys, I have never in my life been so moved by a theater production as I was tonight. Thank you.”