The names Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky may not sound familiar today, but at the height of their fame in the 1920s and '30s, the Thomashefskys were one of the most famous couples in New York City's burgeoning Yiddish theater scene.
Their story is chronicled in The Thomashefskys: Music & Memories of a Life in the Yiddish Theater, a documentary written, hosted and conducted by their grandson, Michael Tilson Thomas. Thomas also serves as music director of the San Francisco Symphony and artistic director of the New World Symphony.
In The Thomashefskys, which will air on PBS's Great Performances on March 29, Tilson Thomas details how his grandparents rose through the Yiddish theater community, eventually owning several theaters while starring in scores of productions.
Boris played heroic, adventurous roles; Bess found her fame in comic parts and created roles that championed the suffragette movement. They put on lavish musicals with equally elaborate scenery, and adapted everything from classical works of Shakespeare to vaudevillian numbers from the Yiddish stage. In 1939, when Boris died, The New York Times reported that 30,000 people lined the streets of the Lower East Side for his funeral.
On Wednesday's Fresh Air, Tilson Thomas talks about his own career in classical music and explains what lessons he took away as he researched the history of his grandparents' careers in Yiddish theater.
"Their theater was entirely a theater of social consciousness," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "Their great concern was for the audience, and they wanted to open up the worlds beyond the ghetto experiences of their audiences. They wanted to introduce them to the full possibilities of what freedom could mean in the United States through the plays they presented, through the music they gave the public and also through the kinds of topics their plays addressed."
Among the topics: labor issues, reproductive rights, child labor issues, assimilation and women's rights. Bessie Thomashefsky often played women disguised as men to bring attention to issues affecting women.
"[It was] a little bit like the story of Yentl is," he says. "Where a woman disguises herself as a man in order to gain the advantages of education or whatever that a man can have."
Tilson Thomas says he remembers hearing his grandmother talk about getting arrested for performing in theater productions on Sundays, which was prohibited by law at the time.
"At one point, when Theodore Roosevelt was police commissioner of New York, he and his men raided one of the Thomashefsky theaters," Tilson Thomas says. "And he saw Bessie, who was very young and looked much younger than she was always, and he said, 'Look out little girl.' And she said, 'Little girl, my ass. If anyone's being taken in, it's me.' That's exactly the way she told me the story."
Bessie often sang for Tilson Thomas in the living room. He says they would frequently perform scenes together for other family members and friends: "She once said, 'Your parents are very lovely people, but terribly conventional. You're like me. You're an adventurer. You'll have to prove something.'"
Tilson Thomas says he took that lesson to heart, despite not knowing exactly what it meant.
"As I listened to her tell all these stories about her life and childhood through her stardom, and even her reflections on the way fashions changed and the way she was in her late life a quite lonely person, I took it all in," he says. "And what I kind of understood from her was that it had been a very interesting ride. She was really proud of what had been accomplished. And when she saw somebody who was a very successful entertainer coming up, she was very proud of it, recognized them and appreciated them."
He says he's remembered much of what she taught him while working as a musician and conductor.
"My way of expressing what she said to me is, 'What is it like for people beyond the sixth row?' We play in such big halls in classical music, and they're halls designed to be very rich ... but to get the sound to be distinct is difficult," he says. "And I sometimes tell my students that playing classical music is like making an announcement in an airport. ... You're trying to make every moment completely distinct."
On The Americanization Of The Name Thomashefsky
"My father was trying to make his own way in life in the theater, and he simply was unable to do that. Everywhere he went, he would mention his last name and right away, it was, 'You were Boris Thomashefsky's son.' He didn't want that. He wanted to find his own way in life and in the theater. So he changed his name to Ted Thomas. And, quite frankly, he also wanted to escape from that whole crazed celebrity situation which my grandparents inspired, and I think he also wanted to protect me from that. There were crazed fans, there were stalker people who were pursuing my grandparents and their children with the same kind of ardor that we're accustomed to thinking of crazy paparazzi or fans pursuing stars today."
"Yiddish was the secret language that my parents and my grandmother could speak so that I couldn't understand. That was common in many houses. But I learned a lot, and through songs, I know a lot. And, like anybody in show business, I know plenty of expressions that we use all the time."
On His Family's Influence
"It was my family's greatest fear that I would go into show business. But in the Yiddish theater, when music was desired, they would nod to the conductor and say, 'Professor, play something.' I sometimes think because the maestro was always called professor, that in their minds that was more respectable in some type of way. So I was allowed to pursue that. And then my life just made the turn it did. And once it started really happening for me, they were really happy about it."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Tomorrow night, the PBS series "Great Performances," features a tribute to two stars of the Yiddish theater, Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky. It was written and stars their grandson, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, the music director of the San Francisco Symphony. The tribute features music, readings, archival film clips and photos, and Michael Tilson Thomas's personal memories of his grandmother.
In the show, Thomas conducts the New World Symphony, which he founded. The Thomashefskys were pioneers of the Yiddish theater. Boris was a producer. He built theaters and he and Bessie starred in productions of new plays and new musicals, as well as classic plays translated into Yiddish. Boris did the first Yiddish production of "Hamlet." When he died in 1933, 30,000 people gathered on the Lower East Side of Manhattan for his funeral.
Boris and Bessie each immigrated to America from the Ukraine in the 1880s. Before we talk with Michael Tilson Thomas, let's hear an archival recording of Boris Thomashefsky singing a song he did in the film "Bar Mitzvah."
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BAR MITZVAH")
BORIS THOMASHEFSKY: (Siniging in foreign language)
GROSS: So that's Boris Thomashefsky, the star of the Yiddish stage, who was the late grandfather of my guest, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas.
Michael Tilson Thomas, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: Thank you. Pleasure.
GROSS: So your grandfather sang in synagogues in the Ukraine and on the Lower East Side of Manhattan before singing on the stage. Do you think he was influenced as a singer by the cantorial tradition?
THOMAS: Very much so because in Boris's family all my great-great-grandfathers had been mostly khazns, cantors, except the ones who had become instead badchens, that's to say a kind of village entertainers, people who would get up at a chair at a wedding and sing a song which was completely appropriate to the occasion, which was expected on that occasion. And yet, it would have improvised lyrics, little outtakes that made it completely individual to that night. So there was that sacred and profane division always in the family. And Boris's father, who already had a kind of wandering spirit - as it was called - nonetheless, sent Boris to the best cantorial school in Russia in Berdichev where he became a star.
GROSS: The role of the Yiddish theater was very important for Jewish immigrants in the United States, many of whom spoke only Yiddish. And so they couldn't read the regular newspapers. A lot of the English language theater would not have literal meaning to them, because they wouldn't understand the language. So the Yiddish stage, I mean that was a really important - particularly in New York - a really important place for gathering and for doing anything cultural.
THOMAS: Well, absolutely. But, of course, there were very many Yiddish newspapers in New York and Philadelphia and Chicago and all these major cities at that time. But for the audience to go to the theater to experience a show, especially a show which was very often in my grandfather's case a kind of spectacle, gave them a sense of the importance, the sheer scale of what was achievable by an immigrant in the United States. It inspired them. Old ladies have come up to me on the street and said we were kids, we had nothing but once a week or once a month we went to the theater and we saw the red velvet curtains with the name Thomashefsky in large gold letters. And we thought if that's possible for him to do then it's possible for us to do.
GROSS: The name Thomashefsky is such a famous name in the world of theater and in the world of Yiddish theater. I grew up knowing that name. I knew that there were Thomashefskys were famous performers on the Yiddish stage but that's about all I knew. Your last name is Thomas, which is an abbreviated version of Thomashefsky. How did Thomashefsky become Thomas?
THOMAS: It really started with my father, who was trying to make his own way in life in the theater, and he simply was unable to do that. Everywhere that he went, he would mention his last name and right away, it was, oh, you're Boris Thomashefsky's son. And therefore, he didn't want that. He just wanted to be able to find his own way in life and in the theater. So he was the one who changed his name initially to Ted Thomas. And, quite frankly, he also wanted to escape from that whole crazed celebrity situation which my grandparents inspired, and I think he also wanted to protect me from that. Because there were crazed fans, is the only way of describing, there were stalker kinds of people who were pursuing my grandparents and their children and with the same kind of ardor that we're accustomed to thinking of crazy paparazzi or fans pursuing stars today.
GROSS: Were you aware of that when you were growing up? Your grandfather was dead but your grandmother lived until you were 16 or 17, and she lived nearby and I think you were pretty close to her. Did you get a sense of people stalking her? Or was it like way too late for that because she was already in her 70s?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
THOMAS: Well, she had also moved out to LA. And one of the reasons for doing that outside of getting some character parts in movies she hoped for, was that she wanted to get away from the whole scene in New York - a town, as she said, with too many ghosts.
But when I really became aware of the shadow of Boris for the first time was when I went back East when I was perhaps 11 or 12 and I was going to a lot of shows, stage manager cousins of mine, because so many members of the family were still in the business in show business, not necessarily as actors on stage, but in everything having to do with the behind the scenes life. And we used to go to just one scene in every play so theater people they say oh, kid, the good scene to see, the Luntz act two finale is good. Eddie Foy's joke in the second scene of the first act is good, you know, so that kind of stuff.
But there was this one show, "My Fair Lady," and everybody was talking about it and I thought I'd like to see it. My mother said don't ask cousin Georgie to get you into that show. It's the hardest ticket to get and just don't be a monster. So, of course, when I saw him I immediately said, could we see "My Fair Lady?" We went to the theater. People were lined up around the block to hopefully get some returns and he went over to the stage door, knocked and said hey, is Izzie around? And Izzie, the company manager, came out and my cousin indicated me and said hey, Izzie, see this kid, Boris Thomashefsky's grandson. Two minutes later we were in row five right in the center of that theater.
GROSS: My guest is conductor Michael Tilson Thomas. His tribute to his grandparents, Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky, will be shown tomorrow night on the PBS series "Great Performances." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, music director of the San Francisco Symphony. He conducts the New World Symphony in his tribute to his grandparents Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky, who were stars of the Yiddish theater, it will be shown tomorrow night on the PBS series "Great Performances."
Although your grandfather died before you were born, you got to know your grandmother, Bessie Thomashefsky, pretty well. And tell us about the kind of parts that she played in the Yiddish theater.
THOMAS: Bessie started out as a young girl, she was about five when she arrived to the United States from the Ukraine and she met Boris, kind of eloped with him when she was a young teenager and 14, 15 years old and she began finding her way in the theater, first playing kind of innocent young girl roles. But as time went on, she also discovered her enormous abilities as a comedian and she very often played trouser parts or parts involving women being disguised as men for particular political or educational, social purposes. A little bit like what the story of "Yentl" is, right?
THOMAS: So Bessie did a lot of plays like that, where a woman disguises herself as a man in order to gain the advantages of education or whatever that a man can have.
GROSS: What did she tell you about women's rights and the disparities facing women when she was young?
THOMAS: Well, she went from being a little girl in a village that was asked to bring in the goats and do other domestic chores to working in a tobacco factory in Baltimore and then suddenly finding herself on stage as a star pretty quickly. But she went beyond that. She wanted to know everything about the structure of the theater and she became a very effective producer and manager and someone who paid far more attention to the whole business and organization aspect of the theater than my grandfather did, who was the kind of big dreamer and partier. And that was so unusual for a woman of those days.
I have some correspondence of hers where she's writing to some people who put into an ad in some big paper that she was going to be a part of some season they were doing. And she writes to them saying that she absolutely has not agreed to do this and these are the conditions which they must immediately fulfill in order for this to happen. It's really very tough and straight talk. And there's a lot of stuff about her I didn't have room for in the show, remarkable things, like when she was arrested by Theodore Roosevelt.
This happened in this way, in New York there were blue laws at the time, meaning that performances were forbidden on Sunday. But, of course, in the Yiddish theater Sunday was a very big day because Saturday was the Sabbath. So they played on Sunday and at one point when TR was police commissioner of New York, he and some of his men raided one of the Thomashefsky's theaters. And he came in, he saw Bessie who was very young and who looked much younger than she was always, and he said look out, little girl. And she said, little girl, my ass. I'm the star here. If anybody's been taken in, it's me.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: That's so funny. So she got arrested?
THOMAS: She did. That's exactly the way she told me the story. Little...
GROSS: Like she insisted on getting arrested.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
THOMAS: Yeah. She was going to be in the center of it. And I mean women's rights, feminism was a very big part of the Yiddish theater, but along with a lot of other social issues. I mean the Yiddish theater plays, even the so-called shunts, sort of low, every day plays were about issues like women's rights, like about labor, capital and labor, child labor, about degrees of religious observance, about the whole issue of assimilation, about reproductive rights of women, and also a lot about the language. Are we going to speak Yiddish? Are we going to speak English? What language at home? What language in the rest of the world? And what about the much larger issue, which is how can it be that somebody who was such a big shot in the old country became a nobody in America, and some little schlemiel from nowhere in a tiny village has suddenly in the United States become such a macher, such a big shot, and what does an immigrant pool of people do to understand where now is honor? Where is tradition?
GROSS: So I want to play now a record by your grandmother, the late Bessie Thomashefsky, singing a song. And I'm going to have you introduced it. This is actually from a DVD outtake from your show. So tell us about this song and when you think it was recorded.
THOMAS: This is a little introduction to a song called "Minka's Monologue," one of Bessie's most famous parts in which she's playing a girl from a little village who has come to United States and is on the eve of a huge adventure, a "Pygmalion"-like experiment in which she will be elevated from her lowly parlor maid status to be so lady of the house.
GROSS: OK. So this is Bessie Thomashefsky recorded approximately when?
GROSS: Wow. OK. Here we go.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MINKA'S MONOLOGUE")
BESSIE THOMASHEFSKY: (Singing in foreign language)
GROSS: So that was the late Bessie Thomashefsky singing in Yiddish and she and Boris Thomashefsky are the late grandparents of my guest, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and he has a show about them, which is about to be shown on public television on March 29th and the show is called "The Thomashefskys: Music and Memories of a Life in the Yiddish Theater."
So what kind of music did your grandmother introduce you to?
THOMAS: I was lucky enough to hear her deliver a lot of her biggest numbers right there in our living room since she would arrive every weekend to our house and we would put on a little show together which I could accompany her in some of her songs and she would do recitations and we did little scenes together.
So, although it was my parents fondest hope that I would become some kind of scientist or mathematician, I realized that she was already getting me into the whole theater experience right there at home.
GROSS: That's really interesting. You know, one of the things she says – one of the things you describe her having said to you when you were young: You're more like me than your parents are. They're more conventional and you have more of a – what'd she say? Like a creative spirit or something.
THOMAS: Yeah, she said: Your parents are very lovely people but terribly conventional. You're like me; you're an adventurer. You'll have to prove something.
GROSS: Did you take that to heart?
THOMAS: I paid attention to it. I didn't know quite what it meant and as I listened to her tell all these stories from her life from her childhood through her stardom, and then even her reflections on the way fashion has changed and the way she was, in her late life, a quite lonely person, I took it all in.
And what I kind of understood from her was that it had been a very interesting ride; that she really was proud of what had been accomplished. And when she saw somebody, a very successful entertainer coming up, and she could see in them something that had come from the kind of the things that they had done in the theater, she was very proud of it. She recognized them and appreciated them.
GROSS: Now, you actually sing a song in your show about your grandparents and I was surprised.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: I didn't know you sang.
THOMAS: You and me both.
GROSS: You know, it was very enjoyable and it's a song about how famous they were. Why don't you describe the song? And then we'll hear you singing it.
THOMAS: My grandparents, especially my grandfather, was a real character. A man about town - that's what Boris was. And he was hobnobbing with great people in the theater like the Cohans and people in society like Diamond Jim Brady and Feodor Chaliapin. The great opera singer was a big pal of his.
And these guys were going out on the town. They were doing all the restaurants and all the after-hours spots and they all had diamond garters and, you know, fancy duds. Lots of top hats and tortoiseshell canes and Thomashefsky particularly developed this image for the Yiddish public of his being this grand impresario, rich bon vivant.
And his friends, Jack Norworth and Nora Bayes, the composers of "Shine On, Harvest Moon," wrote this comedic song in tribute to him.
GROSS: And this is Michael Tilson Thomas performing an excerpt from his new PBS special "The Thomashefskys: Music and Memories of a Life in the Yiddish Theater."
(SOUNDBITE OF SHOW, "THE THOMASHEFSKYS: MUSIC AND MEMORIES OF A LIFE IN THE YIDDISH THEATER")
THOMAS: A one, two, three, four. (Singing) When Caruso's on a stage, he thinks he is mighty fine. Addie Mac (ph) he thinks he is the rage. Maybe so but not on mine. You know that Georgie Cohan makes me sing. (Unintelligible) Now, my sister met an actor, a real life Yiddish actor. She saw him act and said, oy, I'm for you. Well, who do you suppose went and married my sister?
(Singing) Don't you know? Give a guess. Thomashefsky. Thomashefsky. I know if I told you...
GROSS: So being exposed to so much Yiddish song and pop and theater music, how did you end up in classical music?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
THOMAS: It was my family's greatest fear that I would go into show business. But, of course, in the Yiddish theater when some music was desired they would nod to the conductor and say: Professor, (foreign language spoken). Professor, play something. I sometimes think that because the maestro was always called professor, that in their minds that was more respectable in some kind of way.
So I was allowed to pursue that. And then my life just made the turn it did and once they saw it was really happening for me they were very happy about it. And I think that the involvement, though, I've had in Yiddish music, which really begins with village music – and that's a kind of theme that our show follows, that the first music my grandparents performed absolutely sounds like klezmer music.
And then it sort of turns into klezmer mixed with operetta. And then in the United States, especially in Bessie's repertoire, it become very, very much more Americanized until finally it's kind of indistinguishable from the early numbers of Irving Berlin and George Gershwin, which sound very much like numbers that could be in the Yiddish theater.
GROSS: So when your grandmother died and you were, I don't know, 16 or 17, was there music at her funeral?
THOMAS: There wasn't much music at my grandmother's funeral. There were a few prayers and there were very few people there. And her plaque just says Bessie Thomashefsky, Yiddish theater pioneer, star, which is exactly what she wanted it to say. But of course, there's a whole repertory of songs that we played at home all the time whenever we thought about her and that I still play.
It was a very big moment, a big rite of passage, in my life the first day that I took over playing her songs instead of my father playing them. And measuring the way I was playing them against the wonderful nuances that he and my grandmother had brought to the music. I was lucky to hear my family play that music for me.
I wanted to keep in my ears exactly the way they had sung the songs and played them with all the irony and mordancy and snappy little gestures and comebacks.
GROSS: So you mentioned some advice in your show that your grandmother gave you about when you're on stage you have to remember that the people in the uppermost balcony are the people who paid the least but are enjoying it the most. And you have to, even if you're whispering, you have to make sure that those people can hear you. How has that affected you as a conductor?
THOMAS: My way of expressing what she said to me is what is it like for people beyond the sixth row? We play in such big halls sometimes in classical music and they're halls designed to be very rich which is, on the one hand, very nice, the gorgeous sound that's there, but to get the sound to be distinct is difficult. And I sometimes tell my students that playing classical music is like making an announcement in an airport. That you hear someone say: Passengers on flight 391 (unintelligible)...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
THOMAS: Immediately please.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
THOMAS: So you're trying to make every single moment completely distinct. Another way Bessie had of saying that, she said: Listen, when you're doing an accent, you've got to watch out for the ninth word. It's the ninth word that's dangerous. Because you're saying: I was going to the park one day and I noticed the most beautiful...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
THOMAS: And suddenly, you know, around that you'll suddenly drop the accent. You'll drop it. You've got to keep the contour of it all the way going through. Same thing in music.
GROSS: That's really great.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: We're going to close with the overture from "Chantzhe in Amerika," which is one of the shows that your grandmother was in. Right?
THOMAS: "Chantzhe" was a show about a young girl who disguises herself as a man so she can go to driving school and become the chauffer of a big, classy New York family.
GROSS: Great. And your grandmother, no doubt, was that girl.
THOMAS: She was that girl and she started as a chauffer in the play and she wound up at the end being a big-time suffragette.
GROSS: So this is my guest, Michael Tilson Thomas, conducting the New World Symphony, which he founded. And this is an excerpt of his tribute to his grandparents Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky which will be shown on public television on March 29th. Michael Tilson Thomas, thank you. It's been great.
THOMAS: As always, thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "CHANTZHE IN AMERIKA")
GROSS: Michael Tilson Thomas' tribute to his grandparents, "The Thomashefskys: Music and Memories of a Life in the Yiddish Theater," will be shown tomorrow night on the PBS series "Great Performances." DVDs will be available April 24th. Michael Tilson Thomas is the musical director of the San Francisco Symphony and the founder of the New World Symphony which he conducts in the tribute. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.