May 24, 2012
For “The World of Sholom Aleichem,” one of the two Play of the Week dramas I wrote about earlier this week, producer Henry T. Weinstein and his casting director, Marc Merson, assembled something of an all-star repertory cast for the umbrella show’s three segments. Gertrude Berg, creator and star of The Goldbergs, starred in the last and longest of them, “The High School,” and a number of blacklisted actors made up the company that appeared in two or three: Zero Mostel, Lee Grant, Morris Carnovsky, Jack Gilford, and Henry Lascoe. Another blacklistee, Sam Levene, was the on-screen narrator, and Charlotte Rae, a stage actress some years away from television fame in Car 54, Where Are You? and The Facts of Life, flits through the piece in small parts (literally; she’s an angel hanging from wires in the opener, “A Tale of Chelm”).
Then there’s the fellow who plays the character at the center of “The High School,” the teenaged son of Berg and Carnovsky. He was too old for the part (twenty-nine playing fifteen), but this young actor had a memorable face and held his own in scenes opposite the forceful Berg. The man’s name was Conrad Josephs, and he this was to be his only substantial television or film role. He seemed to disappear completely after “The World of Sholom Aleichem.”
Of course, that’s not the whole story.
In fact, “Conrad Josephs” was a pseudonym for Conrad Bromberg, the son of the character actor J. Edward Bromberg. The elder Bromberg was a Group Theatre alumnus who appeared in films including The Mark of Zorro and Strange Cargo, but he may be best known as one of the symbolic tragedies of the blacklist; he died of a heart attack a year after refusing to answer HUAC’s questions. Lee Grant has always said that her own stint on the blacklist began when she was observed in attendance at Bromberg’s funeral.
Conrad Bromberg gave up acting soon after “The World of Sholom Aleichem” and became a writer, perhaps best known for his play Dream of a Blacklisted Actor. Recently, I spoke with Bromberg about his memories of making “The World of Sholom Aleichem.”
So why the pseudonym? Were afraid that you might be blacklisted by association?
I changed my name because my old man got blacklisted on TV, and I didn’t want to walk around with that kind of curse. It was a reverse thing. I was an actor at the time, and if I went in as Conrad Bromberg, all the producers would say, “Oh, Conrad, it’s so good to see you, I feel so bad about your dad, and I knew him so well. We did this show, and anything I can do for you, I’d love to do….”
The minute I walked out the door, they didn’t do anything, and they didn’t want to know and they gave me the cold shoulder. Their guilt was so deep they just didn’t want to see me, basically. I reminded them of what they hadn’t done during the blacklist time.So I figured I’d change my name and go in as a totally unrelated person.
What do you remember about Don Richardson, the director of the show?
Nice guy. He was very friendly and efficient, and he was always very prepared. I had played the part on the road in Howard Da Silva’s production, in Los Angeles and in Canada and around, so I kind of knew it. And there wasn’t much staging for my part. It wasn’t made a big thing out of. Morris and I knew each other, and Gertrude Berg came and we just rehearsed a couple of times. We all called her Molly. She was known that way, because of the character she played [on The Goldbergs].
Don mainly, as I understand it, the main thing he did, because I think we shot three-camera, was his camera work. That’s what he was hired to do – he was a live television director, not so much an actor’s director, but “I need you to stand here because I’m going to cover you with Camera Two.” That kind of thing.
Da Silva had acted in the 1954 New York debut of The World of Sholom Aleichem, along with Yiddish theater star Jacob Ben Ami and blacklistees Anne Revere and Cliff Carpenter. Along with Ben Ami, the touring company originally comprised Carnovsky, Will Lee, Phoebe Brand, Gilbert Green, and Herschel Bernardi (all blacklistees). The company evolved as it went around the country (a young and very un-Jewish Dick O’Neill appeared in the Washington production), and by the time Conrad Bromberg joined he was performing alongside Gerald Hiken, Sarah Cunningham, and the blacklisted John Randolph, with Da Silva directing but not acting.
Did you change your approach from the stage version?
No. Because we shot it live because it was a stage show. We didn’t have things like close-ups or two-shots.
What do you remember about Howard Da Silva? After the blacklist, of course, he became a welcome presence in many films and television shows.
Howard and I were friends for a long time. He was a very warm, giving kind of a guy. A better actor than a lot of people thought. They kind of pigeonholed him in Hollywood as the gangster or the tough guy or the bartender. He could do an awful lot of stuff, and once he left the theater and went to Hollywood, they pigeonholed him there. And then of course the blacklist came along and stopped his career.
Bromberg later collaborated with Da Silva and Alfred Drake, who had appeared together (as Jud and Curly, respectively) in the original 1943 Broadway production of Oklahoma!, on an unsold pitch for a television series about a crime-solving psychoanalist. Drake was to have starred in the show, with Da Silva directing and Bromberg writing.
Had you had any experience in live television prior to “The World of Sholom Aleichem”?
I had done walk-ons when I was an acting student, on things like Big Story, T-Men in Action. It was a quick way to pick up fifty bucks.
And of course Arnold Perl, who wrote “The World of Sholom Aleichem,” was the story editor on both of those shows. Did you know him then?
Yes. Arnold was a very wry, kind of cool, friendly guy. I knew he had been blacklisted. He was kind of an intermediate generation between my father’s generation and mine. When I was 25, my guess is Arnold was 40. There were writers who were part of the blacklisted generation who were younger than the Group Theater people but young enough to have gotten caught up in that whole mess, and Arnold was one.
I remember thinking at the time that he died: Well, Arnold, they finally took the cigarette out of your mouth.
He was a heavy smoker?
Constant. And his wife, Nancy, was always at him about it. And this was before anybody knew that cigarettes did that. And I smoked at the time too, but nobody smoked like Arnold.
May 21, 2012
Last year, under cover of night, E1 Entertainment let loose DVDs of a pair of rare and fascinating early television dramas. It is unfortunate that “The World of Sholom Aleichem” and “The Dybbuk” received so little publicity, since they are at present – apart from Sidney Lumet’s two-part, four-hour staging of “The Iceman Cometh” – the only commercially available segments of Play of the Week.
Play of the Week was perhaps the grandest outpost of the FCC-mandated Sunday afternoon cultural ghetto of the fifties. Most of its productions were feature-length, and they attracted top-tier talent. The two episodes here were likely chosen not because they represent the very best of Play of the Week, but instead to appeal to a cultural niche. Even for the goyim among us, though, they are of considerable interest.
Both DVDs contain helpful liner notes by the brilliant J. Hoberman, the recently, scandalously laid-off Village Voice film critic (and a specialist in Jewish cinema). Hoberman details the history of the two properties, both of which derived from modern theatrical adaptations of late nineteenth or early twentieth century works, contextualizing them within the oeuvres of the original writers, within Yiddish culture, and within the New York theater of the fifties. But the two Play of the Weeks are also worth examining as examples of the talent-heavy event productions that flourished briefly in the late fifties and early sixties, the period in which videotape displaced live transmission as the technological mode by which anthological television was shown.
“The World of Sholom Aleichem” was adapted by Arnold Perl, who would go on to become one of the most talented and uncompromising writer-producers working in sixties television. But the secret author of the piece was the blacklist. Perl and most of the show’s repertory cast had been blacklisted, and would remain unemployable on the networks for many more years. Play of the Week was able to hire them only because it was an independent, unsponsored production. (Using blacklisted talent was still a courageous move on the part of the producers, Henry T. Weinstein and Lewis Freedman, and upon its broadcast “The World of Sholom Aleichem” became a predictable magnet for right-wing froth-at-the-mouthers.) The successful 1955 stage version of The World of Sholom Aleichem had probably saved Perl from professional oblivion, since his most substantial pre-blacklist work had been done in a medium (radio) and later for a television company (Bernard Prockter Productions, which had used Perl as a story editor on Treasury Men in Action and Big Story) which were long defunct by the time the blacklist had crested.
Perl’s mature, post-blacklist work tends to fall into one of two categories – the blunt, accusatory rhetoric of his leftist passion plays for East Side / West Side (including the Emmy-nominated “Who Do You Kill,” about the fatal consequences of urban poverty and institutionalized racism) and the eccentric, quasi-existentialist black comedies he wrote for The Chrysler Theater. “The World of Sholom Aleichem” harnesses both of these impulses, and the distinctive tension between them may represent Perl’s primary stamp on material that was not, of course, his own.
Indeed, the “world” of Mr. Aleichem (a nom de plume for Solomon Rabinovich) is very loosely defined. Perl’s decision to include a piece by a different writer, Y. L. Peretz, in between two actual Aleichem works is already a bold assertion of editorial control. “Bontche Schweig,” in Hoberman’s phrase “an allegory of proletarian passivity,” follows a much-abused nobody (Jack Gilford) through the gates of heaven; exhorted by the angels to finally speak out for himself, Schweig at last makes the humblest request imaginable. The expert timing of the long build-up and quick reversal in this mordant, loaded vignette is worthy of early Woody Allen, although I think the true topper to Peretz’s came not from Perl but from one of his contemporaries, Ernest Kinoy, when he took “B. Schweig” as his pseudonym. (“Schweig,” just to explain the joke, is Yiddish for “silent.”)
As Hoberman notes, the first segment, “A Tale of Chelm,” diverges broadly from Aleichem’s original fable, in which a tailor is driven to economic ruin and madness by the inexplicable sex changes of his goat. Perl, abetted by the casting of the comedic actors Zero Mostel and Nancy Walker, turns the Aleichem story into almost a Hebrew Honeymooners, a farce of home and community that offers an earthly explanation for the bovine’s gender reassignment and makes room for much of the kind of verbal wit that one associates with “Jewish humor.” By contrast, the final story, “The High School,” has no humor at all. Perl expresses his didactic streak in this nearly hour-long piece, which casts Goldbergs matriarch Gertrude Berg in a rare straight role. An East Side / West Side for the turn of the century, “The High School” methodically chronicles a father’s acceptance of the merits of higher education for his teenaged son, and then the family’s lengthy and appalling struggle to triumph over the quotas that excluded Jews from most institutions of learning.
If “The World of Sholom Aleichem” was executed by a writer of some distinction and a journeyman director – Don Richardson, who slid quickly from The Defenders to Lost in Space after a move to Hollywood – then “The Dybbuk” reverses that equation. Its source, a play by S. Ansky, was adapted by Joseph Liss, a minor writer who toiled amid the legendary talents who emerged from The Philco Television Playhouse and Studio One. But the director of “The Dybbuk” was Sidney Lumet, already (at thirty-six) an Academy Award-nominated feature director and soon to leave television behind for good. Looking nervous and struggling to remember (or read) his lines, Lumet appears at the beginning of “The Dybbuk” to explain his personal investment in the material: his father starred in a production of the play in 1927, which also happened to be the first play Lumet saw in the Yiddish theater. His presence on camera reminds us that the director was a bigger star than anyone in his cast save the ingenue, Carol Lawrence, who was then playing Maria on Broadway in West Side Story. (Don Richardson may have been just as personally invested in “The World of Sholom Aleichem,” but no one was going to give him a chance to tell that to the world.)
“The Dybbuk” captures Lumet’s television style at its apex, and the show is of interest primarily as a kind of auteurist snapshot. Regardless of his personal (and ethnic) connection to the material, Lumet was, in some ways, an odd match for “The Dybbuk.” Lumet was one of the cinema’s great rationalists, and despite its folkloric trappings “The Dybbuk” is essentially a ghost story, one that culminates with incidents of demonic possession and exorcism. It’s easy to imagine someone like John Frankenheimer (who had staged “The Turn of the Screw” on Sunday Showcase a year earlier) devising clever trick shots and turning the show into a look-what-we-can-do-on-videotape extravaganza.
Lumet, true to his nature, de-emphasizes the paranormal elements. There are no special effects in “The Dybbuk.” When the spirit of the doomed Channon (Michael Tolan) appears on screen, he simply rises from behind a mound of dirt or, in the moving final scene, stands in the gloom, a row of tall candles acting as the bars between him and the corporeal world. Lumet orchestrates the demonic possession simply by having Lawrence, playing the possessed, and the off-screen Tolan speak in unison. The effect of the male and female voices blending is disturbing, even when the actors slip out of synch with one another.
Despite its subject matter, “The Dybbuk” evinces a certain distaste for the supernatural. The wizened elder (Ludwig Donath) who narrates the play – initially unidentified as he addresses the audience directly, this character later turns out to be the community’s rabbi – refers to the Kabbalah as “a mountain of foolishness.” The Kabbalah is what gets Channon in trouble; Hoberman describes his sudden death as punishment for blasphemy, but I think the cause, in Lumet’s staging, remains more ambiguous. Lumet cuts away from Tolan, staring upward and addressing God, just before he falls. Channon’s mortal distress in this split second is so hard to discern that it comes as a surprise when his body is discovered some time later. Could Frankenheimer have resisted a lightning bolt here? It is as if Lumet cannot bear either the melodramatic or the metaphysical implications of a vengeful god.
Lumet’s staging of that moment is unexpected and effective, but his restraint works less well in other sections of “The Dybbuk.” Lumet puts his faith in the text and the performers; his only repeated visual flourish in “The Dybbuk” is a camera crane, which he uses imaginatively at times (pulling up to a heavenly point of view, for instance, during Channon’s final speech to God). But the first act is talky and confined (to two rooms in a synagogue), and Lumet’s stiff compositions and timid camera placement cannot sustain the nearly forty minutes of expository Torah instruction and kibitzing from Channon’s fellow students (Stefan Gierasch, Jerry Rockwood, and Gene Saks, all charming and funny) that pass before the play’s tragic romance is activated. “The Dybbuk” doesn’t come alive, as it were, until Channon’s soul enters Leah’s body.
Lumet sets up what I think is a deliberate clash of performance styles in “The Dybbuk,” using his actors to delineate a line between reason and emotion. While the actors playing the Jewish elders remain contained, the pair playing the young lovers – Tolan and Lawrence – give expressive, Method-styled performances. Lumet stages their first meeting almost entirely with voiceover, as they stare at each other across a room, forbidden by social custom from interacting for more than a moment.
The two actors generate real heat in this scene – if they didn’t, “The Dybbuk” would collapse completely at this point – and later Tolan’s intensity as he turns to the kabbalah is mesmerizing. (Tolan rightly considered this one of his best performances). The final exorcism of the dybbuk again defies the conventions of the genre. In his boldest directorial choice, Lumet stages it as a modern dance piece, choreographed by Anna Sokolow and beautifully executed by Lawrence.
Lumet insists on precise, minimalist work from all of the older actors – Ludwig Donath and Michael Shillo as the rabbis and especially Theodore Bikel, who, as the father of the bride and the target of the spirits’ anger, gives perhaps the most unadorned performance of a generally flamboyant career. The Judaic Van Helsings who dominate the second half of “The Dybbuk” feel like transplants from a later era of genre filmmaking. They affect the same implacable, matter-of-fact approach toward the unknown as Nigel Kneale’s Professor Quatermass or The Exorcist’s Father Karras and Father Merrin. (The Dybbuk’s incongruously doubled voice also anticipates Linda Blair’s growling demon voice in the Friedkin film.) The rabbis pore over the ancient texts and debate the finer points of theology like scientists testing a thesis; then debate with the disembodied like lawyers in a (literal) trial; then finally perform the exorcism like surgeons probing for a tumor. The possession of Leah, though clearly a paranormal event, does not inspire fear. Rather, it is a social problem that must be solved through careful consideration and concerted action. Upon a text rooted in ancient myth – Ansky derived “The Dybbuk” from Hasidic folklore he collected on an ethnographic expedition through the Ukraine – Lumet casts a modern and somewhat secular gaze.
If “The Dybbuk” remains in some ways a remote, flawed work, it may be because the strands of rationalism and emotionalism set up by Lumet (who structured many of his films, beginning with 12 Angry Men, along the same schematic lines) often seem to coexist rather than cohere. As Hoberman points out, Lawrence’s West Side Story association provides a key subtext for “The Dybbuk.” The Romeo and Juliet template of star-crossed lovers is present in the Ansky play; it is a universal idea amid an ocean of specific cultural references, and Lumet seizes upon it. Lawrence’s dark beauty, which dominates the climax, appears to have been his chief inspiration.
The doomed romance in “The Dybbuk” serves as an entry point into a show that, like “The World of Sholom Aleichem,” does not pander to gentiles. Both shows deploy on-screen narrators – Sam Levene as Mendele the Bookseller in “Sholom Aleichem” and Donath in “The Dybbuk” – who make a token attempt to explain Yiddish culture to the uninitiated, but many of the finer points will be lost on non-Jews. The axiom that television was parochial enough in the fifties to permit ethnic art like The Goldbergs, but quickly turned homogeneous once the cross-country cable was connected, is probably too simplistic. Still, Play of the Week, with its proto-PBS diagram for highbrow quality television, was a defiant exercise in courting a niche audience long before the days of the cable multiverse.