In 1903 architect Victor Hugo Koehler’s impressive Lyric Theater opened on 42nd Street. The Longacre Square area, which would be renamed Times Square the following year, was seeing an explosion in legitimate theater construction.
But blocks to the south and less noticed, another theater designed by Koehler opened that same year. The Grand Street neighborhood was a mixed bag of stores and tenements; its population composed mainly of German Jews. The Grand Street Theatre was intended to offer this Lower East Side audience with Yiddish plays—a world apart from the fare produced in the Lyric.
Architecturally the Grand Street Theatre shared much with is uptown counterpart. Working in brick, stone and terra cotta, Koehler embellished the façade with neo-classical motifs—pushing the elaborate ornamentation to the edge of taste without slipping over it. A classic balustrade along the roofline sprouted a crop of unusual spiky pinnacles.
The theater sat on the site of the old Lord and Taylor store at the southeast corner of Grand and Chrystie Streets. The property had been purchased by Elias A. Cohen a few years earlier for $30,000, who resold it to developer Harry Fischel. Fischel’s completed dual-purpose structure would provide extra income with office space behind the theater portion.
The theater—the first to be established solely for Yiddish drama in New York--opened on February 4, 1903. It was run by Russian actor Jacob Pavlovich Adler, who had attained stardom in Odessa and later in London. He was forced to leave Russian in 1883 when the Government prohibited Yiddish theater. A serious actor, Adler staged translations of classic and modern European plays. He recruited playwright Jacob Gordin who wrote works like Der Yiddisher King Lear (The Jewish King Lear) for Adler’s company.
|photo Brockhaus and Efron Jewish Encyclopedia, 1906 (copyright expired)|
Two months after the theater opened, horror visited Adler’s homeland. On April 19, 1903 Russian mobs attacked the Jewish population of Kishinev. When the two-day pogrom finally ended, 47 were dead and 92 severely injured. More than 700 homes were destroyed and 600 stores plundered.
The New York Times reported “The anti-Jewish riots in Kishinev, Bessarabia, are worse than the censor will permit to publish. There was a well laid-out plan for the general massacre of Jews on the day following the Russian Easter. The mob was led by priests, and the general cry, ‘Kill the Jews,’ was taken- up all over the city. The Jews were taken wholly unaware and were slaughtered like sheep.”
Adler quickly went into action, and a play, The Jew in Roumania, was written that depicted the atrocity. The New York Times on May 19 announced “Benefit performances are to be given at the Grand Street Theatre Friday evening and Saturday afternoon and evening. The management and actors have agreed to give a new version of the recent tragedy in Russia the proceeds to go to the general fund.”
Another benefit performance of the play was staged on June 1. Among those making a statement by their presence were the powerful Episcopal Bishop of New York, Henry C. Potter; the Manhattan Borough President; and Supreme Court Justice Greenbaum.
Jacob Adler ensured his ability to control the dramatic content of the Grand Street Theatre in February the following year. On February 5, 1904 The Evening World announced “Jacob P. Adler, the Jewish tragedian, has bought the stock of all the shareholders of the Grand Theatre, in Grand street, and now becomes the sole proprietor and manager.”
The newspaper added “Mr. Adler will appear there next Friday evening, together with his wife, Mme. Sarah Adler, in ‘Broken Hearts.” During the season he will be seen in ‘The Merchant of Venice,’ ‘King Lear,’ ‘The Martyr of France’ and ‘Uriel Acosta.’”
Also appearing in Broken Hearts would be Stella, the Adlers’ four-year old daughter. It would be her first appearance on the stage; the initial step in a vibrant dramatic and coaching career.
Three weeks after the announcement Adler tried something new: grand opera. On February 29 he staged The Demon, a variation of Faust. The Sun ran a sarcastic review the following day, saying “It was the eve of Purim, the Ghetto festival for which the slogan is ‘Be happy.’ And they were happy. What if the heroine threw herself in tears upon the dead body of her beloved? Laughter quivered throughout the room. They were happy.”
The newspaper said the actors “were all amateurs, except Herman Kaminsky, who sang Prince Goudal. He was once in the Imperial Grand Opera at St. Petersburg, but that must have been long ago, because he’s so old.”
The Sun continued, saying “with the many little accidents on the stage, one might have been at a farce. The curtain went up too soon and a solitary little man madly clinging to it, yelling and gesticulating, started off the amusement. The headgear of Mme. Rombro Krantz, who sang Tamara, would persist in slipping off at the most crucially sad points and the house shook with laughter when tears ought to have been flowing. But everybody had a capital time.”
|Crowds wait outside in 1905. photograph by Byron Company from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult&VBID=24UAYW21PCFR&SMLS=1&RW=1536&RH=731|
The New-York Tribune looked at Jacob Adler and his productions with suspicion. On October 25, 1904 it wrote “The Grand Street playhouse is where the plays of Jacob Adler, the Socialist, are brought out. About everything produced there has a Socialist cast.”
In actuality, Adler was being controlled by the Yiddish actor’s union. The Sun called the union the “real octopus in the ghetto” that “rules the Yiddish stage.” The union’s power was such that when Jacob Adler wanted his non-union sister-in-law, Mrs. J. Louis, for a part in an upcoming play, the union nixed it. “He was anxious that Mrs. Louis should appear with his company, believing her to possess real talent. But she cannot appear even in Mr. Adler’s theatre,” said The Sun on April 10, 1904.
It became too much for Sara Adler, and during the performance of Uriel Acosta, she “suddenly drew herself up to the full measure of her stately height, and with dramatic emphasis hissed out a line not in the play. ‘Union actors!’ cried Mrs. Adler, altogether forgetting the part of Judith,” reported The Sun. “Scorn and rage were in her words.”
Adler’s continued conflict with the United Hebrew Trades union came to a climax on September 6, 1906. The union had insisted that he fire a musician, who was a member of a different union, and replace him with one of their own. Adler refused. It resulted in the “actors, scene shifters, musicians, ushers, chorus singers and all” walking of the theater and shutting it down.
The strike was settled, but the relationship between Adler and the union would continue to be contentious.
Patrons were blissfully unaware of the labor difficulties; and on October 13, 1907 three audience members were concerned only with what they felt was a tepid production. That night was the opening of God, Man and the Devil, called by the New-York Tribune “a thrilling drama.” The newspaper estimated the audience at about 2,000.
Samuel Hirsch, Harry Optaker, and Samuel Fraedlin were in the balcony. The Tribune said “the performance was not sufficiently ‘thrilling’ to meet the approval of some of the occupants of gallery seats.” Before the end of the final act, the men leaned over the railing and yelled out the derisive term “Supe!”
Unfortunately, many in the audience below mistook “Supe!” for “Fire!” and panic washed over the crowd. “Only the activity of the special police prevented accidents in the rush that followed,” reported the newspaper. The three men were arrested, “but discharged for lack of proof.”
|In 1907 the cast of Homeless poses on stage. photo by Byron Company from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult&VBID=24UAYW21V3UI&SMLS=1&RW=1536&RH=731|
The audience of the Yiddish theater was almost entirely Jewish. So it was understandable that weekend productions were staged on Sunday—the day after the Jewish Sabbath. New York City law did not see it that way, however. On Sunday November 11, 1908 Patrolmen Reilly and Cooney entered the theater during a performance of Charity. On stage at the time were Jacob Adler and Samuel Greenberg. The actors were arrested, as were the manager Leopold Spachner, and staff members Max Heine and Patrick Mackey. They were charged with “conducting a dramatic performance on Sunday.”
Adler’s attorney, Abraham Levy, tried a novel defense. The Sun reported “Abe Levy tried to prove to the Magistrate that I was something in the way of a sacred concert, but was not successful.” The judge held the men at $500 bail.
|George F. Arata captured the theater on film in 1904 as Adler's In Uriel Acosta prepared to open. From the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult&VBID=24UAYW21PCFR&SMLS=1&RW=1536&RH=731|
The following year, frustrated with being under the control of the United Hebrew Trades Union, Adler decided not to open for the new season. The Reform Advocate explained on September 4, 1909 “Last Friday evening was scheduled as the opening night of the Yiddish theatrical season on the East Side. This did not occur, however, in all the four Yiddish theatres, because the managers find it impossible to meet running expenses under the existing conditions…Jacob Adler does not intend to open his Grand Street Theatre at all, and will re-lease it to a moving picture show.”
A reporter from The New York Times asked Adler what his personal plans were. “Whatever I do I shall no longer have a theatre on the east side,” he replied. “The demands made by the unions have made it impossible to continue…Now the unions have made all sorts of impossible demands, asking me to engage actors, which I cannot possibly use among other things, I see no reason to continue the struggle when other opportunities are open to me.”
Adler leased the theater to the Bedford Theatrical Company. By 1913 Marcus Loew was screening motion pictures in the theater.
By now the growing Little Italy neighborhood was changing the face of Grand Street. One Italian immigrant entered the darkened balcony on February 1, 1914 only to find his girlfriend sitting with another Italian man. “He started right in to make a disturbance,” reported The Times the next day. “There was some cursing and a scuffle, and from the surrounding seats other patrons of the family circle called out: ‘Don’t fight! Don’t fight.’”
As had been the case several years earlier, patrons heard “Fire!” instead. The 1,600 people in the theater rushed up the aisles and onto Grand Street. A passerby pulled the alarm box, and before long fire engines were clanging up the street.
When calm was finally restored, “every one began to feel sheepish,” said The Times. “There was a gust of laughter and the tide turned. Every man, woman, and child started back to the auditorium.” Attendants could not check the tickets of the swarm and “they could not stop the rest of Grand Street that decided to enter the theatre at this moment.” Much of the Grand Street neighborhood was treated to a free movie that evening.
John Rothwick, a 41-year old married man, discovered that women in 1921 were not the shy, defenseless girls of a generation ago. On May 16 that year he noticed a pretty 18-year old girl in the balcony of the Grand Street Theatre. He sat down next to Christina Belsky and began “annoying” her. According to The Evening World the next day “The girl asked him to stop, she said, but he continued, and after fifteen minutes she seized him and, followed by a large crowd, took him to the Clinton Street Police Station, where she had him arrested.”
By 1926, the year that Jacob Adler died, vaudeville had joined motion pictures at the Grand Street Theatre. Vaudeville skits routinely pushed the limits of what 1920s officials deemed appropriate. On September 21 that year 21 women, three men and the manager, Nock Elliott, were arrested for “giving an indent performance, while the manager is charged with allowing it,” as reported in The Times.
The Grand Street district continued to change and by 1930 was part of the growing Chinatown. On April 6 that year Grace Lynn, writing for The New York Times, reported on a Chinese production staged by the Wong Society.
“Members of the society, distinguished by red roses in their coat lapels, were entitled to front orchestra seats. The rest of the populace occupied every inch of space, overflowing from boxes and standing many rows deep.” Lynn was perplexed when “The audience came and went during the performance, some of its members even visiting backstage. The noise of their chattering, the opening of doors and the moving of many feet, intolerable to Occidentals, disturbed the imperturbability of neither audience nor actors.”
The Wong Society performance would be among the last in the Grand Street Theatre. In 1929 the City of New York had acquired all the property between Chrystie and Forsyth Streets. The plan was to widen both streets and to build low-cost housing. But instead, all the buildings in three-block section from East Houston Street to Canal Street were demolished before 1934—including the Grand Street Theatre in 1930—for the 7.8-acre Sara Delano Roosevelt Park.