The Lower East Side of Manhattan had numerous Yiddish theaters in the early 1900s, but most of them disappeared by the 1940s. The area was called the “Yiddish Rialto” by at least 1908. (The English-speaking stage on 14th Street was called the “Rialto” in the late 1800s.) A later name for the “Yiddish Rialto” was “Yiddish Broadway.”
Yiddish Rialto/Yiddish Broadway was concentrated on Grand Street, but later (especially with the opening of the Second Avenue Theater in 1911) became centralized along Second Avenue.
Wikipedia: Second Avenue (Manhattan)
Second Avenue is an avenue on the East Side of the New York City borough of Manhattan extending from Houston Street at its south end to the Harlem River Drive at 128th Street at its north end. A one-way street, vehicular traffic runs only downtown. A bicycle lane in the left hand portion from 55th to 34th Street closes a gap in the Manhattan Waterfront Greenway. Second Avenue passes through a number of Manhattan neighborhoods including (from south to north) the Lower East Side, East Village, Gramercy Park, Murray Hill, Upper East Side, Yorkville and Spanish Harlem.
Downtown Second Avenue in the Lower East Side was the home to many Yiddish theatre productions during the early part of the 20th century, and Second Avenue came to be known as ‘Yiddish Broadway’. Although the theaters are gone, many traces of Jewish immigrant culture remain, such as kosher delicatessens and bakeries, and the famous Second Avenue Deli (which closed in 2006, later reopening on East 33rd Street).
Wikipedia: Yiddish theatre
Yiddish theatre consists of plays written and performed primarily by Jews in Yiddish, the language of the Eastern European Ashkenazi Jewish community. The range of Yiddish theatre is broad: operetta, musical comedy, and satiric or nostalgic revues; melodrama; naturalist drama; expressionist and modernist plays. At its height, its geographical scope was comparably broad: from the late 19th century until just before World War II, professional Yiddish theatre could be found throughout the heavily Jewish areas of Eastern and East Central Europe, but also in Berlin, London, Paris, and, perhaps above all, New York City.
Between 1890 and 1940, there were over 200 Yiddish theaters or touring Yiddish theater troupes in the United States. At many times, a dozen Yiddish theatre groups existed in New York City alone, with a theater district centered on Second Avenue (in what is now the East Village, but was then considered part of the Jewish Lower East Side) that often rivaled Broadway in scale and quality. At the time the U.S. entered World War I, there were 22 Yiddish theaters and 2 Yiddish vaudeville houses in New York City alone. [Adler, 1999, 370 (commentary)] Original plays, musicals, and even translations of Hamlet and Richard Wagner’s operas were performed, both in the United States and Eastern Europe during this period.
Yiddish theatre is said to have two artistic golden ages, the first in the realistic plays produced in New York City in the late 1800s, and the second in the political and artistic plays written and performed in Russia and New York in the 1920s. Professional Yiddish theater in New York began in 1886 with a troupe founded by Zigmund Mogulesko. At the time of Goldfaden’s funeral in 1908, the New York Times wrote, “The dense Jewish population on the lower east side of Manhattan shows in its appreciation of its own humble Yiddish poetry and the drama much the same spirit that controlled the rough audiences of the Elizabethan theater. There, as in the London of the sixteenth century, is a veritable intellectual renascence.”
At the time of the opening of the Grand Theater in New York (1903), New York’s first purpose-built Yiddish theater, the New York Times noted, “That the Yiddish population is composed of confirmed theatergoers has been evident for a long time, and for many years at least three theaters, which had served their day of usefulness for the English dramas, have been pressed into service, providing amusement for the people of the Ghetto.” (For more on the Grand Theater, see Sophia Karp.)
In fact, this was a tremendous understatement of what was going on in Yiddish theater at the time. Around the same time, Lincoln Steffens wrote that the theater being played at the time in Yiddish outshone what was being played in English. Yiddish New York theatergoers were familiar with the plays of Ibsen, Tolstoy, and even Shaw long before these works played on Broadway, and the high calibre of Yiddish language acting became clear as Yiddish actors began to cross over to Broadway, first with Jacob Adler’s tour de force performance as Shylock in a 1903 production of The Merchant of Venice, but also with performers such as Bertha Kalich, who moved back and forth between the city’s leading Yiddish-language and English-language stages.
YIVO Institute for Jewish Research
Bigger than Life: The Boundless Genius of Yiddish Theater
At the turn of the century, there were four major Yiddish theaters in New York, all in the Bowery area - the Thalia, the Windsor, the People’s, and the Grand -presenting 1,100 performances annually for an estimated audience of 2 million. The Thalia was a 3,000-seat house devoted to more literary plays; it often featured David Kessler and Keni Liptzin.
The Grand, managed by Jacob Adler, was the second house devoted to so-called “better theater.” It opened in 1903 with much fanfare and with local politicians in attendance. The English-language press fully covered the event, noting that it was the first theater building in the city’s history to be purposely constructed for non-English performances. Adler became the darling of the theatrical critics of the mainstream journals. His portrayal of Shylock in his adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice was such a success that the prominent uptown producer, Arthur Hopkins, invited Adler to play Shylock on Broadway. The Merchant of Venice, starring Jacob Adler, who performed his role entirely in Yiddish with the cast performing in English, opened at the American Theater on May 24th, 1903 to rave reviews of the establishment press.
The Windsor opened in 1893. With 3,500 seats, it was the largest playhouse devoted to popular plays, particularly those by Hurwitz. The People’s had a 2,500-seat capacity and was leased by Thomashefsky in 1900. In it, the greatest Yiddish hit of its day, Thomashefsky’s Dos Pintele Yid, was performed for an entire season and seen by tens of thousands of people.
The prosperity of the Yiddish stage, on the one hand, and the decline of the Bowery area, on the other, led to the formation of a new Yiddish theater district on Second Avenue Between Houston and 14th Street, stood the Yiddish flagship theaters and related businesses, such as music, flower, and photo-graphy stores, costume houses, and several restaurants and cafes.
The first Yiddish theaters to open on this “Yiddish Broadway” were the Second Avenue Theater (1911), a 1,986-seat house built especially for David Kessler, and the National (1912), a 2,000-seat house built for Thomashefsky and Adler. The last two to open on the avenue were completed in 1926 - Maurice Schwartz’s Yiddish Art Theater and the Public.
The Second Avenue was synonymous with the great stars of the 1920s and 30s. The first lady of the musical stage was Molly Picon, introduced to American audiences in 1923. Other big names in musical comedy were Menasha Skulnik, Norman Yablokoff, Aaron Lebedeff, and Ludwig Satz. Jenny Goldstein was the queen of the Yiddish melodramatic musical spectacles.
In 1918, the Folksbine (the drama section of the Workmen’s Circle) produced Green Fields by Peretz Hirshbein. The production’s success went beyond expectation; its premiere was regarded as marking the birth of the Yiddish art theater. The production also proved to Maurice Schwartz, actor, direct, and producer, the existence of audiences who were looking for a new more ambitious sort of theater.
Maurice Schwartz, more than anyone else, defined the shape of the artistic Yiddish theater in America during 1920s and 1930s. He was not committed to one particular theatrical style but was greatly interested in all the new theatrical forms. In the 1920s he was willing to risk box office proceeds to produce lavish modernistic shows, such as the constructivist production of Goldfaden’s The Tenth Commandment, designed by Boris Aronson. Maurice Schwartz’s greatest success was Yoshe Kalb, a dramatization of I. J. Singer’s popular novel. It played for an entire season and toured extensively. The Yiddish Art Theater returned to New York in the late 1930s but never managed to regain its adventurous spirit.
Maurice Schwartz turned out to be the last star of the Yiddish theater. One by one, the elegant playhouses started to close and slowly the curtain came down on a major chapter in Jewish creativity.
City in Slang
by Irving Lewis Allen
New York, NY: Oxford University Press
Pg. 61 (The Rialto):
Among show people, 14th Street was “the street” in the sense of an informal network of news and gossip. Hence, the famous New York phrase “What’s new on the Rialto?”—an inquiry about what was going on in show biz and later by extension in any world of endeavor. The question echoes the line in The Merchant of Venice, “What news on the Rialto?” So, it is not surprising that the perennial inquiry found favor with actors. Other nearby streets also served as rialtos, such as Irving Place in the 1870s and early 1880s. In later years Second Avenue south of 14th was called the Yiddish Rialto and the Yiddish Broadway, alluding to the many Yiddish theaters and supporting enterprises that once lined the street. Its social center was the Cafe Royal—sometimes called “the Yiddish Sardi’s”—which opened in 1920 on the southeast corner of Second Avenue and 12th Street.
13 December 1908, New York (NY) Sun, third section, pg. 6, col. 6:
PASSING OF ZEITLIN’S.
Famous Resort On the Yiddish Rialto Moves On.
With the closing of Zeitlin’s cafe in Canal street not long ago one of the favorite haunts of the Yiddish rialto passed from life into what the American Hebrew calls “the thrilling annals of the Yiddish stage.”
After saying the last farewells to their old haunt they emigrated en masse to the other cafes of the Yiddish Rialto, most of which are situated on and around Grand street.
11 September 1911, New York (NY) Times, “Just Locked Out His Tardy Actors,” pg. 9:
It is common knowledge on the Yiddish Rialto that Mintz has no use for the Actors’ Union or for any of the individual members thereof.
8 July 1957, New York (NY) Times, “Theater Regains Its Vigor With New Faces and Ideas” by Harrison Salisbury, pg. 16: pg.
Second Avenue, the Yiddish Broadway, persisted into the Nineteen Forties.
8 April 1983, New York (NY) Times, “A Nostalgic Walk Into Jewish Past” by Richard F. Shepard, pg. C16:
The search for the vanished Jewish Lower East Side leads up Second Avenue, the vanished old Yiddish Broadway. Swallowed up in a sea of newer, far less distinguished architecture are such pleasure domes as the National Theater, once home to Yiddish vaudeville, at the southwest corner of Houston Street; the Second Avenue Theater, where Menashe Skulnik entranced audiences, at the southwest corner of Second Street, and at Fourth Street the house the became the Public and finally the Anderson Theater. One living theatrical survivor remains, in English, on the southwest corner at 12th Street; today known as the Entermedia, formerly the Phoenix, it was built as the home for Maurice Schwartz’s Yiddish Art Theater.
8 November 1984, New York (NY) Times, “Archives Source for ‘Golden Land’” by John Pareles, pg. C3:
before World War II, downtown Second Avenue was a kind of Yiddish Broadway. Every night more than a dozen theaters filled up with Jewish immigrants, who came to see operettas that reflected their own experiences as sweatshop workers, union maids and schleppers.
25 June 1985, New York (NY) Times, “Going Out Guide” by Richard F. Shepard, pg. C16:
Abe Lebewohl, proprietor of the deli (Second Avenue Deli—ed.), has a sense of tradition and today he is inaugurating a new landmark, maybe better a footmark, for the neighborhood.
At noon, the deli and the Hebrew Actors Union, which still has its headquarters on Seventh Street, near Second Avenue, dedicate “Sidewalk of the Stars.” This is a special 35-foot long sidewalk in front of the delicatessen. Embedded in the sidewalk are granite plaques bearing the names of 58 great performers who made the avenue a Yiddish Broadway.
Memorialized here are such bygone and still-going greats as Paul Muni, Molly Picon, Maurice Schwartz, Seymour Rexsite, Miriam Kressyn, Herman Yablokoff, Boris Thomashevsky and the Burstein family.
5 March 1996, New York (NY) Times, “Owner of Second Avenue Deli Is Shot and Killed in Robbery” by Rachel L. Swarns, pg. B1:
With his (Abe Lebewohl, owner of the Second Avenue Deli—ed.) passing, they also lost one of the last links to the old Jewish neighborhood, the historic Lower East Side, and to a time when Second Avenue was dubbed “Yiddish Broadway” for the Yiddish theaters tha dotted the street. Mr. Lebewohl clung to the neighborhood long after the glory faded, commemorating the old days with granite plaques bearing the names of the Yiddish artists, naming a dining room after a famous Yiddish actress, Molly Picon, and entertaining customers with Yiddish music.