31 August 2012

'A Chorus Line' (1976)

[Composer Marvin Hamlisch died on Monday, 6 August, in Los Angeles. He was 68 years old and the winner of a Pulitzer Prize, a Tony Award, three Oscars, four Emmys, four Grammys, and two Golden Globes—virtually every musical honor available in the Unites States. (Hamlisch is one of only 11 people ever to have won all four industry performing arts awards, known as EGOT: Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony. He and Richard Rogers are the only two to have won those four plus a Pulitzer.) He’s probably most well-known for his score for the Broadway megahit (and subsequent movie musical) A Chorus Line. Hamlisch, an accomplished musician who began as a concert pianist (and, at age 7, the youngest student at the time ever accepted at Juilliard), also wrote pop tunes for singers like Leslie Gore, Aretha Franklin, and Carly Simon, and movie scores, most notably The Sting, and the theme songs for The Way We Were and The Spy Who Loved Me (“Nobody Does It Better”). He also conducted for several major orchestras, but despite his periods of residence in L.A. and his work in pop music, he always said his true home was New York City, his birthplace, and his first love was writing for theater and film.

A Chorus Line, with a book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante, music by Hamlisch, and lyrics by Edward Kleban, opened at the New York Shakespeare Festival (now the Joseph Papp Public Theater) in the East Village on 15 April 1975 after a development process of workshops director-choreographer Michael Bennett conducted with chorus dancers from Broadway shows. Bennett collected over 30 hours of taped interviews with 24 gypsies, as they’re known in the business, and with Kirkwood and Dante, wove their stories into the deceptively simple plot of a backstage play about auditions for the chorus line of a new Broadway musical. An immediate hit with reviewers and audiences, the new musical moved uptown to the Shubert Theatre where it opened on 25 July 1975. It stayed for 6,137 performances before it closed as the longest-running Broadway production at that time on 28 April 1990. The production won nine Tony Awards including Best Musical, five Drama Desk Awards including Outstanding Musical, the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and a Special Tony Award in 1984 for becoming Broadway's longest-running musical. (A Chorus Line is now the fifth-longest running Broadway show in history. It was revived on at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre in 2006 for 759 performances. The film version was released in 1985.) Hamlisch’s latest theatrical score is for the stage-musical adaptation of the movie The Nutty Professor which opened in Nashville on 31 July for a limited run through 19 August.

[I saw
A Chorus Line on Broadway on 5 March 1976, a little less than a year after it opened there. I wrote a short review, unpublished until now, and as a tribute to Hamlisch, I’m posting it on ROT in his honor.]

To have seen A Chorus Line, Michael Bennett’s smash hit at the Shubert Theatre, is to have witnessed a Broadway phenomenon. The show has played to sold-out houses since it began its life at Joseph Papp’s Public Theater almost a year ago. It has captured the imagination—and the hearts—of audiences both downtown and uptown. In the past, musicals that have so caught the attention of theater-goers have been endowed with engaging stories (Shaw’s Pygmalion for My Fair Lady, King Arthur’s court for Camelot), innovative staging (Pippin), new musical concepts (Hair), great scores (Bernstein’s West Side Story), a superstar in a tour-de-force performance (Streisand in Funny Girl) or combinations of these. But A Chorus Line has none of these. Why, then, is it such a success?

There is no mistake about that fact. It is a success. The show catches you. It grabs you and holds you for two hours without intermission. But how? It reveals no profound truths, has no spectacular songs, no superlative performances, no enthralling plot.

What it does do is show people whose lives are on the line. And it does it well. The people are ordinary—except that they are dancers; but they might be any group of people trying to do what they do best. They come from varied backgrounds, but they have one common denominator: they have to dance. Dancing defines them; if they can’t dance, they are nothing. They find themselves auditioning for the chorus line of a new show. When one of their number falls and injures his knee, they are struck dumb. No worse fate could befall them and they watch the fallen dancer carried out, knowing it could have been them. And when the choreographer asks them what they would do if they suddenly couldn’t dance anymore, they stutter and stammer, unable to face the possibility, unwilling to consider it. Then Diana Morales (Priscilla Lopez) reminds us that what they do, they do for love (“What I Did For Love”), and we know why they won’t consider the possibility of being unable to dance. For them, there is nothing else, Cassie (Donna McKechnie) says it, too: ‘Give me “The Music and the Mirror” and a chance to dance, and I’m alive and happy. Otherwise I’m lost.’ Dancing makes everything beautiful. As Sheila (Kelly Bishop), Bebe (Nancy Lane), and Maggie (Kay Cole) tell us, “At the Ballet” they belong, they’re home.

The story is simple enough, developed by Bennett from interviews and “rap sessions” with dancers and created into a book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante that is a composite experience of all the auditions any dancer ever went to. Whereas Marvin Hamlisch’s music is not spectacular, the songs, with lyrics by Edward Kleban, were each part of that collective experience. “Dance: Ten; Looks: Three” (the original title of the show) was a flip expression of the way dancers are treated as hunks of meat; “Nothing” describes the way many artists feel when faced with the kind of empty, vacuous teachers shoved at them in pretentious academies and “I Hope I Get It” tells it like it is for every performer who needs a job to define his or her existence.

Standing out among the gallimaufry of characters and personalities at the audition is the performance of Sammy Williams (Paul) who strips himself to the bare truth in front of the choreographer, Zach (Robert LuPone), and then injures his knee in a fall. Standing alone on the empty stage, responding to Zach’s disembodied voice, Williams’s Paul relates his work as a female impersonator in a revue and how his parents found out what he was doing. Though the job had no dignity, Paul explains, it was, at least, dancing. Donna McKechnie, as Cassie, makes a poignant plea for work—even chorus work—when Zach, her former lover who had previously made her a featured dancer, tells her she is too good to dance in a line again. And Kelly Bishop (formerly Carol Bishop), as Sheila, an aging chorine, shows us the bitterness of a woman whose career has stalled and begun to decline.

Robin Wagner’s set, rotating mirrors of a dance studio, is simple and elegant and makes the most of Tharon Musser’s lighting. The rainbow-colored squares of light that turn the studio floor into a frozen kaleidoscope, constantly turn the studio into a dream-world of the dancers’ collective subconscious.

The dancing of course is the main attraction. Bob Avian’s choreography is varied, including a tap routine and a cake-walk, but what is most noteworthy is the dancing that is not in the dance numbers. In the audition dancing, it is all there: the stumbles, lost steps, and missed beats. Auditioners watch their feet, move their lips as they count beats, or improvise to cover slips. These are people engrossed in their life’s work.

When the show ends, though all but eight of the auditioners are rejected, there is the flash of elation, created in the glittering, sparkly finale number (“One”), when we understand that for most of them, there will always be another chorus line somewhere. It is with this sense of fulfillment—somewhat tarnished by the process of arriving at it—that the audience leaves the theater. We have shared with these dancers a part of their lives. For them it was worth it. It was for me, too.

[Hamlisch (b. 1944) was the last survivor of the creative team that produced A Chorus Line. Lyricist Edward Kleban (b. 1939) died in 1987, as did Michael Bennett (b. 1943); co-librettist James Kirkwood (b. 1924) died in 1989; and co-librettist Nicholas Dante (b. 1941) died in 1991. Producer Joseph Papp (b. 1921), who gave Bennett the psychic and artistic space to come up with the idea for A Chorus Line and pursue it, also died in 1991. Tharon Musser (b. 1925), the lighting designer, died in 2009. (Set designer Robin Wagner, b. 1933, and choreographer Bob Avian, b. 1937, are both still alive.)]

26 August 2012

National Yiddish Theatre – Folksbiene, Part 2


[In Part 2 of “National Yiddish Theatre – Folksbiene,” I pick up with the development of Yiddish drama and theater, first in Eastern Europe, then in New York City. In the final section, I’ll trace the history and, so far as we can predict, the future of the last producing Yiddish theater troupe in New York, the Folksbiene. As much as the language itself fascinates me, the existence of a Yiddish theater astonishes me. It is, as I’ve stated, what I believe to be an entirely unique achievement in human cultural history.

[At the end of Part 2, after I reiterate some the definitions of some of the Yiddish words that have cropped up in the article, I name a few useful sources and resources for anyone who is curious enough to look further into this art form.]

Jewish drama in Europe began in the Middle Ages with performances of the traditional Purim play (Purimspiel), the Biblical story of Esther, Mordechai, Ahasuerus, and Haman by amateurs going from house to house. By the 16th century, these itinerant performances, which included references to contemporary matters as well as improvisations, songs, and dances, were performed in Yiddish. I’m giving short shrift to the prehistory of Jewish theater, but suffice it to say that during their sojourn in Western, Central, and Eastern Europe, the Jews of the Diaspora came into contact with the theatrical entertainments of their host countries from the Middle Ages on. During the 18th-century Haskala, intellectuals wrote plays that extolled their beliefs, but popular plays, ones that entertained and probed, began to appear in the late 19th century. By the 19th century, the new Jewish theater, following the tradition of the serious European art theater in its dramatic writing and content, was equally famous for its music. (There was a parallel development in Eastern Europe of Jewish minstrelsy that grew out of the impromptu singing and dancing performed at weddings. At a certain point, the two traditions met.) Offerings ranged from revues to operettas to musical comedies, melodramas to naturalist dramas to expressionist and modernist plays.

Abraham Goldfaden (1840-1908), a Ukrainian journalist, teacher, and poet (whose poems had already been set to music and become popular songs), is credited with staging the first Yiddish play, a presentation of one of his own musical scripts at a Romanian tavern in Iasi in 1876. The location isn’t entirely coincidental as some of the foundational influences for Jewish drama happened in Romania in the Middle Ages: while Jews elsewhere in Europe had been barred from attending the Christian religious performances, such as the Passion Plays and the miracle, mystery, and morality plays that were the origins of post-Roman European theater, the Romanian Orthodox Church wasn’t so restrictive and Romanian Jews saw these seminal performances. In any case, the Iasi presentation was successful and Goldfaden, known as the father of Yiddish theater, soon established the first professional Yiddish theater troupe there, though he later moved his base to Bucharest. Decades later, Bucharest is one of the three remaining centers of Yiddish theater, with Tel Aviv and New York.

The Jews of Europe being among the most literate people—out of necessity, many spoke three or four tongues—and Yiddish having been established as a literary language, this new art form was immediately appealing. A few Jews were familiar with the theater of their home cultures, but for most, literary pursuit meant books and prose. Within a few years of Goldfaden’s success in Romania, however, the idea of Jewish theater spread abroad. Goldfaden himself was urged to come to other cities like Warsaw and Vilnius to start Yiddish theaters and his Romanian company toured frequently, playing taverns and cafés across Eastern and Central Europe. Since the Ashkenazim shared common experiences despite their different countries of residence, the new Yiddish plays traveled easily and the successful playwrights immediately gained international followings. This spurred more Yiddish theaters to open and Goldfaden’s scripts were also published, spreading the idea of Yiddish plays and playwriting even further. Almost immediately, other Yiddish theaters popped up all over the Ashkenazi diaspora, prompting a simultaneous burgeoning of Yiddish playwriting to fill the little stages from Moscow to Berlin and beyond, stretching all the way to Vienna, Paris, London, and finally New York.

Joining a tide of Yiddish-speaking Jews fleeing the wave of anti-Semitic pogroms that followed the assassination in Russia of Czar Alexander II in 1881, Abraham Goldfaden emigrated to America. (In 1883, the government of Czar Alexander III banned Yiddish theater. The ban was lifted in 1904.) By 1887, two established companies from Eastern Europe had already crossed the Atlantic to set up in New York City—comedian Sigmund Mogulesko (1848-1914), from Moldavia via Romania, and his dramatic co-star, David Kessler (1860-1920), also Moldavian, were playing on the Bowery at the Rumania Opera House and a smaller troupe was working out of the Oriental Theatre. Goldfaden attempted to put his work on in New York in 1887, but the success he had in Europe eluded him here. His last play, however, Ben Ami (1907), opening five days before his death, was well-regarded in a production directed by Boris Thomashefsky, the première actor-director of the Jewish Broadway, Second Avenue on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Many other playwrights arose, a number of them following Goldfaden to the United States and New York City, fast becoming the world capital of the Yiddish stage.

In 1880, there were 240,000 Jews in the United States, 60,000 of them in New York City. New York already had the largest concentration of Jews in the world, all from different countries with different languages. Between 1880 and 1910, the Golden Age of Yiddish theater, one-third of all the Jews in Eastern Europe had emigrated, 90% of them to the U.S. They were a ready-made audience for the migrating Yiddish theaters expelled from Eastern Europe. Much of the early stage fare were translated, often bowdlerized versions of European plays—but they offered astonishing talent, with the likes of Boris Thomashefsky (1868-1939), who arrived in New York from Russia in 1881 as a 12-year-old, and his wife, Bessie (1874-1962); and Jacob Adler (1855-1926), two of whose children, Stella (1901-92) and Luther (1903-84), became both famous and influential on the English-speaking stage and in Hollywood. (Stella Adler, a founding member of the Group Theatre, became one of America’s most respected acting teachers and one of the world’s most important interpreters of the Stanislavsky system of acting.) In 1899, the United States’ first actors’ union was formed by the Yiddish performers; the Hebrew Actors Union fought for actors’ rights 14 years before the Actors’ Equity Association was founded. 

Audiences began to include non-Yiddish-speakers and by 1900, there were three professional Yiddish theater troupes on New York City’s Lower East Side, charging from 25 cents for the gallery to a dollar for orchestra seats. In 1918, there were as many as 20 companies in the city, presenting over a thousand performances which brought in two million spectators from across the entire spectrum of Jewish society. The strip of 15 Yiddish theaters along Second Avenue between about 6th and 14th Streets was dubbed “The Yiddish Rialto” and New York’s Yiddish theater became a significant cultural establishment not just for the Jewish population, but the entire city. (Indeed, it benefited the entire country eventually. Vaudeville in the ’30s and ’40s and TV comedy of the ’50s inherited the talent that had been honed by New York’s Yiddish stages. Broadway and Hollywood did well from Second Avenue as well, with stars like the Adlers and Muni Weisenfreund—better known as Paul Muni.)

The young Thomashefsky, still only a child himself, orchestrated the emigration of two Romanian brothers with theatrical backgrounds and when they arrived in 1882 with four other actors, the boy, who’d never seen a play himself, persuaded a neighborhood tavern-owner to hire a hall and produce a play, Goldfaden’s Koldunye (The Witch, 1877). It was such a success, despite stiff opposition from upper-class German Jews who looked upon Yiddish theater as undignified, that Thomashefsky’s credited with staging the first Yiddish theatrical performance in New York. No older than 13, Thomashefsky became the first impresario of New York’s Yiddish theater. He took the new company on tours to Philadelphia; Washington, D.C.; Baltimore; Pittsburgh; Boston; and Chicago, playing before enthusiastic audiences of working-class Jews. Besides original plays by Goldfaden and others, Thomashefsky’s troupe, one of the most celebrated of the many then playing in New York City and touring the country, also presented Yiddish adaptations of such works as Hamlet (called The Yeshiva Student), Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Faust, and Oscar Wilde’s Salome, starring a hugely successful Bessie Thomashefsky in the title role. (Many of the adaptations, like King Lear or Hedda Gabler, were given haimishe—‘homely’ in the sense of ‘warm,’ but here connoting ‘happy’—endings.) Still, while the English-speaking audiences uptown were seeing lightweight comedies or melodramas like Alias Jimmy Valentine or The Heart of Maryland, the Jews on the Lower East Side were seeing the work of modern European writers such as Shaw, Strindberg, Ibsen, and Gorki, along with the new Yiddish works of Ansky, Asch, Aleichem, Pinski, and others.

Though adaptations of European classics dominated the fare on the Yiddish stage, a practice often disparaged by the Jewish intellectual class, that began to change drastically around 1890, the start of the Golden Age of Yiddish theater. Jacob Gordin (1853-1909) took his lead from the best Russian theater, including the Moscow Art Theater of Konstantin Stanislavsky which was already reforming the theater of the western world. His début play for the New York theater, Siberia (1891), incorporating some of the style of secular Yiddish literature, was the first realistic play about Jewish life of the day (though by today’s standards, it was full of melodramatic plot elements). His Yiddish King Lear (Der Yidisher Kenig Lir, 1892) wasn’t a translation of Shakespeare but an original play inspired by the Elizabethan classic. Gordin’s central character is Dovid Moishele, a wealthy Jewish merchant in 19th-century Russia, the family patriarch and a most familiar figure to the East European theatergoers.

Though Gordin’s plays demanded sincerity on stage and attention from their audiences, he wasn’t above incorporating comic and musical elements to appeal to the spectators. The plays, both Gordin’s and those of other popular Yiddish dramatists, were most often about family life and problems—one popular theme was the generational conflict between American-born children and their old-country parents—with characters that resembled the playgoers and their neighbors, and situations they saw around them. Topical events also found expression on the Yiddish stage: the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and the sinking of the Titanic were both subjects of downtown dramas. Some of the plays were serious art and others were shund, trash, but the theater quickly became the cultural core of the Ashkenazim’s life in America. Playwright Isaiah Sheffer (b. 1935), a child actor on the Yiddish stage who eventually became artistic director of Symphony Space, explained that he went to Yiddish theater “for great depth of feeling, a richness of feeling. The idea of fullness, richness and overflowing table.” The great director Harold Clurman (1901-80), describing his own response to the output of Second Avenue, said that “it really satisfied and responded to the needs and the feelings and sentiments and the hopes of the people. It was not an entertainment or a pastime. It was a necessity.” Broadway actors came downtown to have a look and the New York press began to take serious note of this rival to Broadway as the English-language papers began running reviews of Yiddish performances around 1900.

The Yiddish Rialto also had its own culture, much like Broadway’s uptown. There was even a “Sardi’s of Second Avenue”—the Cafe Royale on East 12th Street—where fans and artists hung out after performances and between gigs. (The famous coffee shop was fictionalized in the 1942 play—revived on Broadway in 1989—and 1964 musical Cafe Crown.) The world of Yiddish theater was a separate universe, possibly an escape from the drudgery of daily life or the reality of the bleak world the immigrants had so recently left behind. In fact, more than Broadway, the Yiddish theater resembled the world of Kabuki, in which the actors’ children went into the family business as soon as they could manage to cross the stage. Lulla Rosenfeld, the late granddaughter of Jacob Adler and his colleague and friend Abba Schoengold (her parents were Adler’s daughter Frances and Schoengold’s son, Joseph), recounted that her sister Pearlie “made her debut at the age of 2, and created an uproar when, forgetting her role, she addressed Jacob Adler as ‘Zayde’ (Grandpa) . . . .” (The error brought laughter and “a rain of coins” from the audience.) The few Yiddish artists who married outside the profession introduced the spouses to the theater immediately and soon found an excuse to get them on stage. At the other end of history, sadly, is the burial ground, Block 67 at Mount Hebron Cemetery in Queens, maintained by the Yiddish Theatrical Alliance (a branch of the HAU) exclusively for artsts and stage hands of the Yiddish theater.

The theater managers engaged in publicity wars with one another over their stars on posters and handbills and in the press, and insults to rival actors at another theater were inserted into scripts. Devoted fans, called patrioten, truly adored their stage stars; many were fans of particular actors and would even yell advice from their seats at critical moments (much the way Japanese patrons of Kabuki might shout out encouragement or criticism at performers). Just as in a Kabuki-za, spectators ate and drank, exchanged loud remarks, and shamelessly cheered and booed the performers. Patrioten rabidly defended their favorite’s turf to all boosters of anyone else, even resorting to tossing a rival patriot out of the auditorium. Once a well-known patriot of actor David Kessler, Jacob Adler’s chief rival famous for his histrionics, turned coat and began supporting Adler, known for his dignity and reserve on stage. This was such an upheaval in the sphere of Yiddish theater, it got full-page coverage in the Jewish press.

Not only were productions quickly sold out, even among the working-class immigrants for whom the 25-cent ticket price was a small fortune, but the stars’ off-stage luster helped raise up their fans and the whole Jewish community. As I noted, many of the later stars—the Marx Brothers, Molly Picon, Paul Muni, Fyvush Finkel; even Leonard Nimoy and Tovah Feldshuh had a taste of the Yiddish stage in their youths—moved on to stardom on Broadway or Hollywood, but the star that shone brightest on Second Avenue was Jacob Adler, an émigré from Latvia via London in 1889. His performances in such Yiddish classics as The Yiddish King Lear moved audiences beyond control. It’s reported that one spectator ran toward the stage bellowing:

To hell with your stingy daughter, Yankel! She has a stone, not a heart. Spit on her, Yankel, and come home with me. My yidene will feed you. Come Yankel, may she choke, that rotten daughter of yours.

(“Yankel” is the common nickname for Jacob, Yakov in Yiddish. Yidene is a derogatory term for a Jewish woman, somewhat more insulting than “old lady.”) In 1901, Adler performed the role of Shylock in a Yiddish translation of The Merchant of Venice at the People’s Theatre on the Bowery. So successful was his portrayal of “The Jew of Venice” as a man driven not by revenge but pride, motivated, in the words of the New York Times review, to vindicate “Israel against the despiteful usage of the Christian merchant and his friends,” that he was invited to repeat the performance on Broadway and in May 1903, Adler appeared at the American Theatre on West 42nd Street in a production where he spoke in Yiddish and the other actors responded in English. When Adler, who had been nicknamed Nesher Hagodl, Hebrew for “The Great Eagle” (Adler is German and Yiddish for ‘eagle’), died in 1926, hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers gathered to view his body as it lay in state for two days at the HAU.

But the New York Yiddish theater also presented the particular world of the American Jew, expressing pride in both the people’s Jewishness and their Americanness. Patriotism for their new land, keenly felt because of the freedoms they found (despite what we would recognize as casual and societal anti-Semitism and general xenophobia—far less than the new Jewish Americans had left behind in Europe) and the opportunities they had to express themselves artistically and intellectually, was expressed in plays like Boris Thomashefsky’s Der Yidisher Yenki Dudl (1905). The United States’ entrance into World War I in 1917 found the Stars and Stripes adorning every Lower East Side stage as Yiddish stars sold thousands of dollars of Liberty Bonds and raised large sums for the Red Cross. They could look with pride at fellow immigrant Irving Berlin (1888-1989), whom George M. Cohan had dubbed “the Yidishe Yankee Doodle,” and his raft of popular—and often patriotic—American songs and Broadway scores.

At its height of popularity, up to about the Second World War, Yiddish theater spawned as many as 200 troupes in New York City and around the U.S. Today, the only producing Yiddish company in New York City is the Folksbiene, founded in 1915 on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. There were over a dozen companies in New York City when the Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre formed, an arm of the Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring, a socialist-oriented labor organization founded in 1900. (Another company, the Yiddish National Theatre, was affiliated with a different labor organization, the now-defunct Hebrew Actors Union.) Remember that the large majority of Yiddish-speaking immigrants were working-class people laboring for wages and their culture reflected that. It’s this association to which I was referring when I suggested earlier that there’d been a practical effect of Yiddish literature’s leftist proclivity.

After the genocide of World War II destroyed most of the European Yiddish-speaking community, the pool of both writers and performers, as well as spectators, who spoke Yiddish diminished. (In 1921’s Emergency Quota Act and the Immigration Act of 1924, Congress had imposed restrictions on immigration from Eastern Europe.) American Jews had meanwhile become so assimilated that they preferred the English-language theater (as was true of most ethnic groups who arrived in the mass immigration of the turn of the century) and many of the stars of the Yiddish theater transferred to the English-speaking stage and Hollywood. In 1959, two of the most prominent Yiddish theater buildings on Second Avenue were demolished (initially for parking lots); in 1985, the last Yiddish play was produced on Second Avenue; in 1996, the same year the Hebew Actors Union went out of business, the Yiddish Rialto’s last theater was torn down.

Like many of the small theaters in New York City and around the country, Folksbiene, thought to be New York City’s longest continuously-producing theater troupe of any kind, began as an amateur company. It soon became a semi-professional outfit, first hiring renowned directors like Joseph Buloff (1899-1985) and Jacob Ben-Ami (1890-1972), followed by professional actors. Its earliest commitment was to present plays of literary worth, including Yiddish versions of classics from other cultures, though it now produces more popular fare to attract a wider audience. Folksbiene—the name, as I explained in my introduction, is Yiddish for “the people’s stage”—became an independent, not-for-profit theater in 1998, hiring a professional staff (currently about 10 personnel) and acting company. It embarked on a program of modernization in an effort to expand its audience. Having renamed itself the National Yiddish Theatre – Folksbiene in 2006, its modern mission, as stated on the company’s own website, is “to preserve, promote and develop Yiddish theatre for current and future generations.” Toward this end, along with the more liberal repertory, Folksbiene has also added supertitles in English and Russian for theatergoers who don’t understand Yiddish. Formerly housed in a midtown synagogue on the East Side, the company has been nomadic for several seasons now but has raised around $2 million towards building its own permanent performance space. The troupe, one of just five professional Yiddish theaters in the world still operating, currently presents one main play a year during the winter (though it also has other programs).

Folksbiene says that these efforts have increased their audiences threefold. In 2007, the theater won the Drama Desk Special Award “for preserving for 92 consecutive seasons the cultural legacy of Yiddish-speaking theatre in America”; its 2006 mounting of Di Yam Gazlonim, a Yiddish adaptation of The Pirates of Penzance, was nominated for the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Revival of a Musical. Though the troupe’s original focus was on preserving and memorializing the traditional Yiddish theater culture, both the popular work and the classical plays, it has turned in recent years to original work that continues the tradition in modern ways. In 2011, for example, Folksbiene presented a co-production with Theater for a New Audience of a new klezmer musical, Robert Brustein’s Shlemiel the First, an English-language adaptation of a story by Isaac Beshevis Singer. Folksbiene artistic director Zalmen Mlotek, a Yiddish music specialist and conductor, explained: “We’re encouraging young artists to use the Yiddish culture and reinterpret it for the widest possible audience.” Its outreach efforts include bringing Yiddish shows to communities outside of New York City and offering free performances at colleges. Folksbiene has also expanded its offerings beyond theater to include concerts, literary programs, and children’s performances (Kids & Yiddish) in an effort to redirect its emphasis to the whole of Yiddish culture.
Coming up on its 100th anniversary, Folksbiene has announced plans for an international Jewish arts festival in 2015. Kulturfest: The First Chana Mlotek International Festival of Jewish Performing Arts will include performances and workshops exploring Jewish identity through the arts. (Chana Mlotek, the mother of Folksbiene’s Zalmen Mlotek, is the music archivist at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.) The company anticipates a week of celebration featuring 100 concerts, film screenings, and theater events, though fundraising isn’t complete yet. One question the plans raise, however, is embedded in the festival’s proposed name. As Jewish novelist Thane Rosenbaum, who writes frequently about Jewish culture, phrased it: “Is there is a distinctly Jewish art today, and what is its connection to Yiddish?”

The concepts of “Jewish” and “Yiddish” aren’t identical, though they clearly overlap. If nothing else, of course, “Jewish culture” must include not just Ashkenazi and Sephardi arts, but the creative work of Mizrahim (the Jews from Muslim-majority lands of the Middle East) and even the Falashas (the Jewish sect that arose in Ethiopia), among the many Jewish sects and communities around the world whose language isn’t Yiddish. (There are, for instance, centuries-old, indigenous Jewish societies in India and China.) “Jewish” theater, for instance, can be written in any language—there’s a lot of it in English, for example—and be creatively based in any nation, even as the Yiddish theater can be. But shouldn’t “Yiddish” theater be written exclusively in Yiddish? Traditionally, it also depicts the Ashkenazi world, either of the past or the present, though there’s no reason it must. As Rosenbaum put the query: “Is this really about world Jewish culture?” or “Is this just homage to Yiddish culture?” Does the use of Yiddish automatically make something Jewish? Shane Baker, executive director of the Congress for Jewish Culture, declared, “I’m a gentile fluent in Yiddish, and I play in Yiddish theater” and suggested, “I imagine one of the things they’ll be looking at is what is Jewish culture.” (It’s provocative to note that the official announcement of the Kulturfest plans came at a gala Town Hall concert in honor of, among others, pop singer Neil Sedaka, a Sephardic Jew—raised, curiously enough, in an Ashkenazi-influenced home).

Another provocative question, pertinent more today in this time of assimilation and homogenization, is raised by Theodore Bikel, the actor and folksinger: “Is someone a Jewish artist or a Jew who happens to create music or books?” Was Death of a Salesman a Jewish play (Willy “Lohmann”?) because Arthur Miller was a Jew? Is Barefoot in the Park a Jewish comedy because Neil Simon’s Jewish? West Side Story was famously written and staged by five Jews. It’s hardly a Jewish play, I wouldn’t say. (All five artists were also gay. Is West Side Story a gay musical?) On the other hand, Fiddler on the Roof is surely a Jewish play and story—albeit with universal themes and appeal. But when it opened in Tokyo, Japanese theatergoers and critics reportedly declared, “It’s so Japanese”! (A recent Broadway revival of Fiddler was mounted with no Jews among the principle artists engaged in the staging. It was humorously dubbed “Goyim on the Roof” and, coincidently or not, roundly criticized for its lack of personality and verve. Goy is the slightly derogatory—“condescending” is perhaps a kinder adjective, remembering that Yiddish words never have a single translation—Yiddish term for ‘gentile.’)

Is there even still a “Yiddish culture”? Thane Rosenbaum reminds us, “It is still a dying language,” spoken in fewer and fewer households, especially outside the Hasidic world. Rosenbaum also asks, “Are there original plays being written in Yiddish?” The theatrical section of the Mount Hebron Cemetery is steadily filling up as the practitioners of Yiddish theater dwindles. Could there possibly be a resurgence? Does it matter? Is the long and stunning history enough to justify the celebration or even the existence of an organization like Folksbiene? As I admitted, Yiddish and the Yiddish theater have intrigued me most of my adult life—yet I never learned the language. Are most Jews like me? Is the Folksbiene fighting a losing battle, sticking a finger in a dyke that's going to burst anyway? Are we getting ready to say, as one Mount Hebron epithaph reads, “The play is done, the curtain drops slow, falling to the prompter’s bell.” Sentimentally, I hope not. Realistically? “God alone knows,” as Hodel, Tevye’s daughter, says in Fiddler.

[I’ve tried to make clear what I’ve meant by the Yiddish words and phrases I salted through “The National Yiddish Theatre – Folksbiene,” either by defining them specifically or carefully situating them in context. Still, just to be safe, let me go over some of them again, in the order in which they appear above. Bear in mind that a) English spellings will vary and b) no Yiddish word has a simple, one-dimensional meaning.

Folksbiene, the company’s name, means ‘people’s stage.’ Mame-loshen refers to the Yiddish language, the ‘mother tongue.’ A mavin is an ‘expert,’ a ‘knowledgeable person.’ Haimishe means ‘humble,’ ‘homey,’ ‘comfortable.’ Yidishe (note the single d) is the Yiddish word for both ‘Yiddish’ and ‘Jewish’; only the context reveals the proper sense. (Yid is the word for ‘Jew,’ though it’s usually an offensive name if pronounced with a short i as in ‘kid,’ the way anti-Semites say it; if pronounced in Yiddish, “yeed,” it’s neutral.) Shund means ‘trash’ or ‘rubbish.’ A zayde is a ‘grandfather,’ though it can be used as a term of endearment for any old man. Patrioten (plural of patriot) means ‘fans’ as in ‘devotees’ and shouldn’t be confused with the English cognate it looks like. Yidene is an ‘old woman’ and is always a put-down in the sense that “my yidene” would be the equivalent of a man calling his wife “my old lady.” Klezmer music is traditional Ashkenazi folk music and hymns played by itinerant groups of three to six musicians playing trumpets, bugles, flutes, clarinets, fifes, violins, cellos, or drums. (The name comes from the Hebrew for ‘musical instrument.’) Originally, the players were untrained and the groups informal, though today the musicians are trained and the music is notated. Goy (pl.: goyim) is the way Jews refer to a ‘gentile’ or a ‘non-Jew’ and it can carry a condescending, even insulting connotation, depending on whether it’s spoken with a sneer or a smile.

[There are lots of books and articles about the three main topics I’ve covered in “The National Yiddish Theatre”—the Yiddish language, Yiddish literature, and Yiddish theater—too many to list. For the language, one of the most amusing—and still informative—is Leo Rosten’s
The Joys of Yiddish. It’s principally a vocabulary with wonderful examples of the uses of a word or phrase, but it also has encyclopedia-like articles about many surprising aspects of Yiddish culture and language and Jewish life and history. Another fun book, if you can find a copy, is Martin Marcus’s Yiddish for Yankees. For Yiddish theater, I recommend starting with Vagabond Stars: A World History of Yiddish Theater by Nahma Sandrow. Lulla Rosenfeld’s biography of her grandfather, Bright Star of Exile: Jacob Adler and the Yiddish Theatre is also a fascinating and engaging entrée into that world. Most libraries, especially university collections, have excellent resources on these subjects, and the New York Public Library’s Dorot Jewish Division at the Stephen A. Schwartzman Building (5th Avenue at 42nd Street) is easily one of the best collections of Judaica in the U.S., but for all three subjects, plus anything else about Yiddish culture (food, music, poetry) or Jewish customs and life, check out the Center for Jewish History in New York City (15 W. 16th Street); CJH includes the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.]

23 August 2012

National Yiddish Theatre – Folksbiene, Part 1


[My intention with “National Yiddish Theatre – Folksbiene” is to start with a brief account of the development of the Yiddish language, then, in Part 2, present a précis of the history of Yiddish theater, focusing on its rise in the United States, and then recount the story of the Folksbiene company itself. I want to start with the language because . . . well, for two reasons. First, obviously, there couldn’t be a Yiddish theater, or Yiddish literature in any form, if there weren’t the language. There’d probably be a Jewish theater of some sort under any circumstance—indeed, there are some who quip that Broadway is a Jewish theater (or was a generation ago)—because there are and have been many great playwrights, composers, actors, directors, designers, producers, and theater owners all over the world who are Jews, but of course they don’t all work in Yiddish—very few, I’d venture. Second, the language is itself a fascinating phenomenon and its very existence makes the Yiddish theater a unique human achievement.

[I suppose I ought to confess here that I don’t myself speak Yiddish. Oh, like most assimilated Jews, I know some phrases and because I learned German as a teenager (as well as some Russian), I can decipher some of what I hear. (For instance, I know from German and the way I know that German morphed into Yiddish that
Folksbiene is the equivalent of Volksbühne, which means “people’s stage” or, more colloquially, “people’s theater.”) But I’m a child of what’s known as “the lost generation,” Jews in the diaspora who grew up in cultures like the United States where assimilation was not only possible, but encouraged, and the separateness that demanded its own language and supported it was no longer in effect. My parents never spoke Yiddish (my father’s parents did, though I doubt my mother’s knew more than some phrases), so I never learned it at home—but it has always intrigued me.

[The fascination comes from the fact that Yiddish is a “national” language for which there was never a nation. Yiddish literature, and with it Yiddish drama, Yiddish film, and Yiddish music, is the heritage of a people in the same way that Spanish literature or French literature is—except that no Yiddish “people” ever existed. (I assume the same is true of Ladino, though on a smaller scale, but I know even less about that culture than I do about Yiddish. Ladino is the language of Jews who migrated to Spain and Portugal in the Middle Ages, known as Sephardim. Yiddish is the language of the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe and, subsequently, the nations to which they eventually spread.) Except for the possible exception of Ladino, I can’t think of another cultural development like Yiddish and Yiddish literature. And think of it: a Yiddish movie made in Russia—there was briefly a thriving Yiddish film industry in the Soviet Union—could be seen and understood by a Yiddish-speaking audience in New York, London, or Buenos Aires with as little difficulty as we Americans find watching a BBC series on PBS today. A Roman spectator wouldn’t have been able to understand an émigré Italian talkie made in New Jersey in 1930! Okay, I’m a geek (so what’s new?), but the phenomenon simply astonishes me.]

The origins of Yiddish, the language associated with the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern and Central Europe, principally Germany, Austria, Hungary, Romania, and the Slavic nations to the east, are traceable to at least the 10th century. As Jews migrated into the Rhineland from western and southern Europe after the Muslim invasion of the Middle East and North Africa out of the Arabian Peninsula, fleeing the Christian Crusades and the Black Plague that followed, two impulses combined to make such a development necessary. First, each strain of Jewish migrants ended up in a different country, each with a different native tongue. Not only did families disperse this way, but so did business and trade networks—which would be a benefit as long as the trader in Prague could communicate with his associate in Vienna. The newcomers naturally learned the vernacular the locals spoke, whether it was German, Polish, Russian, Magyar, or Latvian (or, in many case, a dialect of one of those) so by now the Jew in Prague spoke Czech and the one in Vienna spoke German. The only language they had in common was Hebrew. There the second impulse for the rise of a common language came into play: Hebrew was a holy language, to be used only for liturgical purposes, not transacting business or passing along family gossip. So, a common language for Jews became a necessity. (A third dynamic also helped spur the development: formal Hebrew education was available only to boys and men: women, who conducted much of the daily activities of life, had no convenient way to learn the language beyond household prayers. The Ashkenazi women spoke Yiddish at home, in town, and, most influentially, with their children. It was the children, who spoke the mame-loshen, the “mother tongue,” with each other and, in turn, their own children, who drove the spread of the language.) Eventually, local dialects developed based on the regional vernacular, especially forms of medieval German (Mittelhochdeutsch), plus bits of the tongues the Jews had brought with them from the Middle East (including Hebrew and Aramaic), the dialects from the territories through which they’d migrated, and influences from languages spoken by neighboring communities and people who traveled and traded in the region.

To further this development, the European Christians prohibited Jews from living near them, establishing designated parts of cities where Jews could live and where they’d have to return by curfew. Within these ghettos, the Jews were essentially isolated from their Christian neighbors and had to find their own ways to educate themselves and their children in order to survive. They could learn the local vernacular well enough by ear, but the only written alphabet they knew was Hebrew, so they began to transcribe the local tongue using Hebrew letters. It had long been common for Jews to write local languages, including Arabic, Persian, Greek, or Latin, in Hebrew letters. (Little is known about the vernacular of Jews in the regions from which they came before the migrations of the Middle Ages. Aramaic, the language of the Middle East in Biblical times, had essentially died out as a common language by the third century CE.) Medieval Jews shunned the Latin alphabet for its association with Christian priests.

The German Jewish community was the oldest, largest, and strongest (and, eventually, the most prosperous as well), probably because the societies of Austria and the German states were more stable than those of Poland, Romania, Hungary, and the other eastern nations. For whatever historical reasons, as the Ashkenazi Jewish culture was forming, the medieval German the Jews were transcribing in Hebrew letters became the foundation for Yiddish. (‘Yiddish,’ in fact, is a corruption of jüdisch, German for ‘Jewish.’ ‘Ashkenazi’ is medieval Hebrew for ‘German,’ by the way, though the derivation is somewhat circuitous.) By the middle of the 18th century, what can be recognized as modern Yiddish had arisen. The written form of the new language, based on phonetics, was regularized and is fairly consistent today, but the transcription into English remains haphazard and idiosyncratic. (In the mid-20th century, scholars, philologists, and even press organizations made many attempts to standardize the English spelling of Yiddish words, but none ever reached general acceptance.) As trade among the Jews of the Eastern European diaspora increased, the need for a commercial language became stronger, and the new vernacular began to absorb vocabulary, idioms, and grammatical influences from other languages spoken by the Jews. There is, of course, no “standard” Yiddish as there is in English or French, since each region developed its own version of the tongue, but the new language was common enough across the area that it became the lingua franca among the Ashkenazim.

By the 16th and 17th centuries, writers and poets began publishing in Yiddish and a literary tradition was established alongside the commercial and street parlance. As the Jews of Eastern Europe migrated farther, escaping oppression, discrimination, and deprivation, the pogroms of Czarist Russia, and ultimately the Holocaust in Eastern and Western Europe, they took their “native” language and literature with them to North America, South America, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. The Yiddish culture flourished from the mid-19th century through the early 20th century—which, not coincidentally, is the heyday of Yiddish literature and theater. As you might guess, however, the Holocaust took a heavy toll on Yiddish literature as it did on almost all aspects of Jewish life and culture. Before the Nazi Holocaust, there were more than 11 million Yiddish-speakers, but today, probably no more than two million people in the world speak Yiddish. (Fewer than 200,000 people in the U.S. speak Yiddish at home, of whom about two-thirds live in New York State. Most U.S. speakers of Yiddish are Hasids.)

Though Yiddish literature developed through several stages from the 14th century to the Enlightenment (coinciding with the rise of Hasidism, an important force in the use and spread of Yiddish) and then from the Enlightenment through the Victorian era, the height of Yiddish writing, including drama, began in the 1860s and peaked at the turn of the 20th century. The impetus to create a Yiddish literature was clearly the desire for Jewish writers to reach readers outside their native communities. Writing in Hebrew had long become confined to Biblical or Talmudic theses and writing in the local tongues, even German, restricted the audience only to those who spoke the language. Writing in Yiddish, however, meant that an author in Bohemia could have readers in Minsk or Berlin, even London or Paris and, later, New York and Sydney. Yiddish, of course, lent itself splendidly to the literature of the Jewish people. Hebrew, in the centuries before the establishment of Israel returned Hebrew as a living tongue, was inadequate to express the feelings of a highly emotional and vibrant culture; indeed, there are virtually no curse words in classic Hebrew (though I presume modern Israelis have remedied that lack). Leo Rosten, novelist and mavin of the Yiddish language, explained:

Yiddish possesses an incomparable vocabulary of words to express shades of feeling; a juicy catalogue of praises, expletives, and curses; and a richer array of characterization-names than can be found, I think, in any other language on this globe . . . .

As many Americans know, especially if you live in New York City or work in film or theater, no Yiddish word has a simple, one-word equivalency with English (or any other modern language); it not only takes a phrase to define a Yiddish term, but you need to do it with attitude and tone of voice. Yiddish, as the Folksbiene webpage puts it, “speaks with humor and passion of the human condition, our strengths and frailties, our hopes, fears and longings.” Because the language “has embodied the hearts and minds of the Jewish people,” it was ripe as the medium of a new literary tradition.

The turn of the century, then, became the Golden Age for Yiddish writing, the era of Sholem Aleichem (1859-1916), S. (Solomon or Sholem) Ansky (1863-1920), David Pinski (1872-1959), Sholem Asch (1880-1957), and the brothers Singer, Israel Joshua (1893-1944) and Isaac Bashevis (1904-91), many of whom wrote both prose and drama. Yiddish literature, in fact, may have reached its pinnacle in terms of world acceptance and recognition with the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Isaac Bashevis Singer in 1978, the only Nobel laureate to write principally in the language. (U.S. Novelist Saul Bellow, who won the Nobel in literature in 1976, was fluent in Yiddish and translated many Yiddish works, including some of Singer’s, but didn’t write in the language. Shmuel Yosef (“Shai”) Agnon, 1888-1970, who shared the prize in 1966, wrote in Hebrew.)

The modern era of Yiddish writing established two important characteristics. First, it broadened the subject matter or themes from the predominantly religious and scholarly Judaica of the early period and the didactic parochialism of the Hasidic-dominated early middle period and the intellectually inner-directed criticisms of the Jewish Enlightenment (Haskala) to a more outwardly-directed and universal humanism that made room for entertainment as it made its points. Though the 19th- and early-20th-century authors still habitually wrote about Jewish communities and lives, the themes became more diverse, depicting the characters as mostly ordinary folks just like their non-Jewish neighbors.

Perhaps because of the repression under which Jewish communities lived during much of the first decades of the modern period, essentially from the American Civil War to the end of World War I, the Yiddish literary movement tended to take on a leftist or at least strongly liberal bent, which we’ll see had a practical effect on the Yiddish theater, but the topics, themes, and characters aligned with European modernism. Yiddish writers took up social and cultural issues such as social injustice, children’s education, and women’s position in the home and community. Second, the new writers brought more sophisticated techniques and styles to their work, paralleling the writing of their gentile counterparts elsewhere in Europe and the Americas. These twin impulses brought Yiddish literature into line with the established literatures of other world cultures, raising its esteem in the world of reading. The new, mature Yiddish literature quickly became a legitimate subject for literary criticism. Singer’s Nobel was, in this sense, the stamp of acceptance of Yiddish as a full member of the literary universe. Yiddish drama echoed this modernization as well, of course.
[Well, that takes us up to the development of a Yiddish theater, a parallel to the Golden Age of Yiddish literature. I will post the second part of this exploration in a few days, so come back next week to read about the excitement among Ashkenazi Jews over an indigenous theater, the establishment of the most vibrant center of that theater activity in New York City, and the formation and development of the longest-lasting professional Yiddish theater company, the Folksbiene.]

18 August 2012

Berlin Stories: Three SNAFU's

[Sometimes, no matter how well trained you are or how carefully you plan, things go haywire. The best-laid plans and all. (And sometimes people are just incompetent.) You know the term: SNAFU—“Situation Normal: All Fucked Up.” In my unit in the army, we had a phrase to describe the little mess-ups and unplanned distractions that occurred with sporadic regularity: The Five-To-Five Friday Flap—because they always seemed to occur at 4:55 on Friday afternoon, just as we were all leaving to go home for the weekend. While I was in Berlin, this happened a few times, at least once to major effect on the city and the Forces. I’ve related that big one, which resulted in the closing of the exits and entrances to the city, in “Berlin Station, Part 2,” on ROT on 22 July 2009. Here are the tales of three more SNAFU’s to which I was a party.]

One of my Berlin Station colleagues was running an investigation of an American civilian who was known to be buying popular items from the PX and selling them on the black market. This was illegal for numerous reasons, not the least was that PX merchandise is sold tax- and duty-free. Reselling them to Germans or others not entitled to shop at the government-subsidized stores was against both U.S. and German law, not to mention Army regs. Illegality, however, wouldn’t have made this case one of interest to Military Intelligence; there had to be some other aspect to it. The black-marketeer under investigation was also suspected of using the same contacts he made for his merchandise enterprise to sell sensitive and classified documents and information to anyone who’d pay for it. The investigation, in which I had had no part, had proceeded to the point where the Special Agent in Charge decided it was time to set up a stationary surveillance of the subject’s apartment in Kreuzberg. He had arranged to rent a vacant second-floor (that is, German first-floor) apartment in a walk-up across the street and a few doors down from the subject’s, and Tech Support set up a whole slew of electronic surveillance equipment: video camera, monitors, VCR’s, microphones—whatever was state of the art in the early 1970s. Then the Ops Officer recruited all available agents to man the surveillance 24/7, each pair of us taking eight-hour shifts. My partner and I had the red-eye shift, midnight to 8 a.m.

Kreuzberg, a rough district of West Berlin, comparable to the South Bronx in New York City back in the ’80s, isn’t close to the Dahlem district where our office and residences were located, so we drove to the surveillance location. However, since an American car (especially my candy-apple red 1970 Torino) or even a German car with green POV plates would be immediately recognizable and draw attention to our presence in the area, we drove to the HQ compound where we signed out one of the Station’s indigenous cars—German Fords or VW’s—and a set of German license plates. (A POV is a “privately-owned vehicle”—a civilian car owned by a GI, in other words; the alternative is a “government-owned vehicle,” such as a staff car or a jeep. The Station also had “spook” cars that looked like German civilian vehicles but equipped with a two-way radio. These cars all had dual registrations: one for a POV and one for a German vehicle; the plates were quickly exchangeable depending on our need.) We drove the German-plated GOV to a spot a few blocks and around the corner from the apartment and walked to our post. (Walking alone in this part of town at night was itself a little scary. We weren’t armed or even carrying walkie-talkies. Cell phones, of course, hadn’t been invented yet.)

Our POV’s were parked back at the HQ area, of course, and it was common to park in the auxiliary PX lot across Clayallee from the compound. There was insufficient space for POV parking on the compound grounds, and the POV lot was at the far rear of the compound, a distance from our offices at the front of the main HQ building. It happens that was the same lot where we kept our indigenous vehicles, so we’d have had to park back there, walk across the compound to the office, sign out the GOV and get the plates, and go back across the compound to rig the car for clandestine use (and then do the whole procedure again in reverse at the end of the shift). During the day, leaving our cars in the PX lot was no problem—we did it all the time—but in this instance there were complicating circumstances.

I parked my POV at about 11 p.m. or so. The ’X was closed at that hour, of course, and the lot was empty—except now for my big, red Torino. Now, because of a spate of bombings and sabotage attacks by the likes of the Red Army Faction (AKA: the Baader-Meinhof Gang), some of which had been fatal, the U.S. Forces had increased their security procedures and vigilance. Cars entering the HQ compound, for instance, were thoroughly inspected, including using a giant mirror on a dolly to inspect the undercarriage. A car left unattended in the PX parking lot well after hours attracted suspicious attention from the MPs, and they attempted to identify the registered owner and find out why it was sitting there close to midnight. Now, for security reasons, Berlin Station’s POV’s were all registered in Munich, MI headquarters in Europe, not in Berlin, so the MPs were unable to identify my car from the local records. There were no computerized records available in the early ’70s, so determining after hours that the car apparently abandoned across from the U.S. HQ in Berlin was registered in Munich and then finding out to whom it was registered—remembering, too, that we were a high-security unit—was a slow process, and it was taking too long for the MPs’ sense of urgency. They decided they had to blow up the car on site rather than take a chance it might be loaded with explosives. (This was no joke and it’s not an exaggeration. The MPs were actually going to blow up my car.)

I don’t know how it happened, but the Duty Agent (the guy who sits up all night) at the Station got wind of this impending action. Because the 66th MI offices were right at the front of the building and compound, and the DA’s office was potentially vulnerable if the explosion was a large one—no one knew what was in the car—perhaps, he was warned by the MPs what was about to happen. In any case, the DA knew the car in question was mine and got the MPs to abort their plans. Of course, due to the security measures in place for the surveillance operation, there was no way the DA could get in touch with me to tell me what had almost happened, so I never learned that I almost lost my car big time until after I returned to the Station after 8 in the morning to sign the GOV and the German plates back in. I was mightily relieved that things had turned out the way they did instead of the way they might have. (The car had been a college-graduation present from my parents—and Road and Track declared it their 1970 Car of the Year. I really loved that car.)

That was a close one—but the next slip-up went over the line into disaster. I was still on the red-eye shift at the surveillance, and we’d been at it for a week or so. As I said, I was just a recruit on this gig, so I didn’t know anything about any of the tactical arrangements that had been made—or hadn’t been made. I just reported for duty at midnight and went home at 8 the next morning to get some sleep. One night, after parking the GOV around the corner from the apartment, I had no sooner entered the room when someone out on the sidewalk below started shouting and screaming. The previous shift hadn’t even left yet, so there were four agents in the apartment still. (That, actually, turned out to be part of the problem, as we were about to learn.) Now, the tech set-up in the surveillance apartment included video cameras aimed at the subject’s apartment across the street so we could watch on monitors without posing in the window. But this yelling was coming from right below our apartment on the sidewalk out front so we rushed to the window to see what the commotion at such an hour was all about. It was the landlady of the building, screaming and pointing up at the surveillance apartment, gathering a crowd and, pretty quickly, the Berlin police. We immediately radioed into the Station and got our police liaison officer to come out and help us handle whatever the matter was. Whatever was going on, it was obvious we were in some kind of bind—the attention on our apartment alone was certainly a bad development, aside from whatever else might be happening.

It turned out that the landlady began to suspect something nefarious and probably illegal was going on in her apartment. Her clue was that though the apartment had been rented by one young man—the SAIC for this operation—she had been watching as a parade of different men kept coming and going at all hours of the day and night. She never saw the guy who had rented the place, but she noticed that there were half a dozen other men, and no women, who entered and left the apartment and no one seemed to be living there. (Berlin Station only had one female agent when I arrived, but I don’t remember if she was even still there by this time.) The Hauswirtin concluded that there was a brothel operating in the apartment, or maybe a smuggling ring, and she wanted it—us—out of her building.

Well, we managed to keep the cops at bay for a while until the liaison officer arrived, and then we pretty much had to let them in. As soon as they looked inside, they all knew what had been going on: all that high-tech equipment and the lack of any other furniture or other amenities—no fridge, no stove, no food except for thermoses and bags of food brought from home—told these savvy cops that they’d spoiled an intel op of some kind. (Berlin’s being Cold War spy central, the local cops were pretty cognizant of what was happening around them. Besides, these guys were pretty competent anyway.) Everyone pretty much laughed—there wasn’t much else we could do. We knew we had gotten caught—the Army expression is very vulgar, but very apt: we stepped on our dicks. It hadn’t helped that the SAIC had neglected to inform the police liaison what he was setting up so the cops could be briefed if it became necessary. As I said, I was just a hired hand on this one, so, after the SNAFU, I just went on home after returning the GOV and the local plates. End of operation. (I don’t remember if we ever caught the guy, or even if we even proved he was passing info. He certainly would have discovered he was under surveillance after this public exposure of our little spook operation on his block. As I said, it wasn’t my gig.)

[Not all the SNAFU’s were military or even intelligence. Civilians and dependents sometimes got into messes because they didn’t think, or, more likely, thought like civilians back in the land of the round door knobs. (European doors mostly had handles, so . . . .) But when you’re stationed in Berlin and the Cold War’s on, everything takes on a more portentous edge, even an ostensibly innocent, thoughtless act. Not infrequently, when something like that happened in Berlin, an MI agent gets involved whereas back home, or even anywhere else in the military, nothing would happen at all.]

Helmstedt, West Germany, was a peculiar place in those Cold War days. It was just a small town—a large village, really—but it happened to be situated right at the spot on the Autobahn designated as the official crossing point, Checkpoint Alpha, from West Germany into East Germany. (Ordinary civilians could cross over at any number of border crossings, but Allied personnel, both civilian and military, had to use this route. Checkpoint Bravo was the other end of the highway where it crossed from East Germany into West Berlin, 110 miles from Helmstedt. Charlie, of course, was the infamous crossing point at Friedrichstrasse between the Berlins.) As a result of its location, Helmstedt was the site not only of a large MP unit, a satellite of the Berlin Provost Marshall’s Office (military talk for police headquarters), but of a huge “listening post” run by the ASA. (The Army Security Agency was the division of the Army that was responsible for signals intelligence, or SIGINT, and electronic intelligence, or ELINT—otherwise known as electronic eavesdropping. I was engaged in what was known as HUMINT, or human intelligence.) Several of the enlisted GI’s from my Russian class in Monterey were stationed there. They spent 24/7 eavesdropping in eight-hour shifts through immense antennas and other electronic listening gear on Russian and East German transmissions and telephone communications. There were enough microwave transmitters and receivers on top of the compound to cook a large herd of cattle into roast beef! But except for the ASA and the MP’s, the town was just this sleepy little village. (I visited one of my former Russian-language classmates who’d become a friend.) That’s probably all it is now. It’s not even a border town anymore!

That route between the Zone, as we called West Germany (because it used to be “the Allied Zone of Occupied Germany”), and West Berlin was actually a series of three Autobahns, and it was very possible to go astray at the two interchanges and wander off into East Germany. That, of course, was a major no-no. Every week or so there’d be some problem with a GI getting lost on the road or having some other trouble with the East Germans or the Soviets on that highway and one of us would have to interview the guy, find out if there was any real security breach—there almost never was—and scare the hell out of him so he didn’t do it again. The same was true for GI’s who went over to East Berlin and got into one kind of difficulty or another. The Soviets loved to approach GI’s in the S-Bahn stations and try to get ID cards or some other low-level document. (The S-Bahn, for Strassenbahn, was a sort of commuter rail system. The U-Bahn, for Untergrundbahn, was the ordinary subway system. Both systems predated the war and, therefore, the Wall, and traversed the entire city. The Occupation Agreement gave the Soviets control over the S-Bahn and the western allies control of the U-Bahn, hence the Cold War dichotomy.)

Travel to East Berlin was not only permitted but encouraged—“showing the flag,” the brass called it—but since any contact with an East German or Soviet agent had to be reported, we were constantly interviewing GI’s who’d been approached. Most soldiers in Berlin knew better and walked away, then reported the incident when they got back to the West—but every now and then, when some unit in the Zone would send a busload of GI’s for a Berlin Orientation Tour, there’d be some screw-up because they were never properly briefed before they were let loose in the city. No one told them, for instance, that the S-Bahn was East German and that the big station, Friedrichstrasse, was under East Berlin and loaded with East German and Soviet agents just waiting to compromise them. Their purpose wasn’t really to gain anything valuable—just to cause trouble. The poor GI’s were usually scared shitless, often even before we talked to them. (It was our job, aside from determining that there wasn’t any serious security problem, to scare them some more. These talks were called SAEDA briefings—Subversion and Espionage Directed Against the Army; they were pretty much pro forma.)

I remember one occasion very specifically because it involved a teenager, a high school boy whose dad was a GI in Berlin. The boy had driven into the Zone with a teacher—I forget why now, some perfectly innocent field trip—but on the way back into Berlin on the Autobahn, when they stopped at one of the checkpoints along the route, the kid decided to practice the Russian he’d been learning. While the teacher was getting the papers attended to, the boy started a conversation with a guard and gave him a pack of American cigarettes. (Russian cigarettes—papyrosi, to be precise—are disgusting things; American ones were a prized acquisition.) Well, someone in another car at the checkpoint saw this exchange and reported it at the MP station at Checkpoint Bravo (where you cross from East Germany into West Berlin). The MPs immediately reported this to us, and we got the crossing lists—the document kept at each checkpoint on which the cars of all GI’s and civilian or military staff were registered as they passed through. We ID’d the car in the report, found out who owned it, tracked down the teacher and ID’d the student, and called him in for a SAEDA talk. I was the agent assigned to talk to the kid, and because there’s no criminal issue involved, the kid didn’t have to be accompanied by his dad. Man, he’d have liked to piss his pants, he was so scared. No matter how much I assured him that nothing was going to happen, he was sure his father was going to get shipped home at the very least. It was quickly obvious, of course, that nothing serious had happened—though contact with a Soviet guard was against regs for obvious reasons. (It’s one of the excuses the Soviets would use to shut down the road and cause a diplomatic incident if they were in that mood at the time. This isn’t paranoia—it’s realism.) I did the Dutch Uncle routine—me being not much older than the kid was, you understand—and sent him home. I sure wouldn’t have wanted that kid’s dreams that night! (Me, I felt like a big shot!)

[I’ve written a few times about my military service in Berlin in the 1970s. Aside from the two-part “Berlin Station” (19 and 22 July 2009), I revisited that period of my life in “The Berlin Wall” (29 November 2009). The experience also got passing mention in my discussion of a German TV miniseries, “Der Illegale” (5 July 2009) and of a series of Washington Post articles on the intelligence complex in “Top Secret America” (17 September 2010). A few other anecdotes, not quite SNAFU’s, are also related in three “Short Takes” posts (6 December 2010, 11 November 2011, and 8 February 2012). Readers might find it interesting to go back and look at the ancillary material, as it were.]

13 August 2012

“A Wonderland of Stage Toys”

by Caroline H. Dworin

On summer evenings in the 1980s, in the garden of our home in London, my little brother and I would scale the stern of the H.M.S. Bounty. We would hoist ourselves up her sides and climb her invisible rigging. From high in the crow’s nest we could see Tahiti on the horizon. I would be Fletcher Christian; my little brother, William Bligh. Armed with a half-dozen wooden spears, he fought valiantly against the mutinous children and the natives from down the street and across the gardens, until the sun cast the sky red-violet and we were avenged, or called in for dinner, battle-weary.

This was make-believe, of course, except that it really was the Bounty. My father worked in the theater, and when a 1985 production called “Mutiny!” ended, he brought home a great chunk of ship the size of a Mini Cooper, part of an impressive replica that was built for the Piccadilly Theater. He settled it in the garden against the back of the house, built a platform on top of it and a cabin underneath, and it was ours.

Below the cabin windows, the vessel declared its name in grand gold letters: “nty.” My father had not managed to secure the piece that had the “Bou.”

Both our parents worked in the theater, and my father, a stage or company manager in the West End, could never leave his work behind. He returned to our home like a magpie, with the strangest objects in his beak. Backstage remnants became part of our lives. When a show ended its run, scattering its cast and crew onto the street, and occasionally leaving him jobless, he would be cheered by the recovery of leftovers, any props or trinkets he could snare. My mother indulged this.

We had a black feather boa, and a cane and some opera glasses that both once belonged to Hermione Gingold, and a replica bottle of Moët & Chandon, which opened from its middle to become part cigarette holder and part music box. The piano I played was once used in a Gershwin review. There was a .32-caliber starting pistol that fired blanks offstage in Act II of “A Little Night Music,” and in our mother’s wardrobe, buried out of sight, hung a fox fur stole with the face still on it. When bored or in search of danger, I would hunt it down, take it in my hands and look it dead in the eye. It looked right back at me with its dreadful, flattened scowl.

Our friends’ parents had jobs, too. But we saw no evidence to support this when we visited their houses, and we couldn’t even imagine what lawyers would bring home for their kids. (That lawyers might bring home money did not occur to me for at least another decade.)

Most of my father’s recoveries made their way to the playroom. A fireplace, a bookshelf and a set of French doors that opened to the garden were the only reminders that this spot had once been a back room in a four-bedroom Victorian house, before it became the backstage of all backstages.

In the middle of this clutter stood an item of particular appeal: a sound-effects door. This was a free-standing, miniature door leading to nowhere, used offstage to create a natural slamming or rattling, or maybe the sound of fumbling keys in a lock. Child-size and painted black, and with the number 10 on it as a nod to Downing Street, it allowed my little brother and me to elevate our fort-making to heights of unusual realism. We could ring the doorbell and let each other in, or let each other out and slide the deadbolt home. The door allowed for an extensive study of lock-picking, in which my brother excelled, and we especially enjoyed slamming it shut in each other’s face.

In the event we needed to settle a score, as we very often did, between ourselves or with the neighborhood children, we could find an épée, foil or saber in the attic or in the cupboard under the stairs, along with a dagger used in “Treasure Island”; two lambskin Beowulf-style shields; and some spears from “Mutiny!”

There was also a huge wooden chest brimming with treasure — once the property of “Robinson Crusoe” at the Piccadilly, now the property of the playroom. Filled with gold-colored metal coins, it shimmered in the light from the windows. You could lift the coins up with both hands full and let them fall like treacle between your fingers, thousands of them, glistening, jingling.

Our family marked time by the staging of shows. My parents met at the Mermaid Theater when my mother was the stage manager for a Noël Coward production. When I was born, my father was working on “Chicago.” I was 4 when “Starlight Express” opened, and 9 when “42nd Street” closed. At 11, I put this entry in my diary: “Yesterday, Lord Bernard Miles and Dame Peggy Ashcroft both died!!”

Each night, after waiting up past midnight for my father to return, I slept beside Otto, a soft green frog with a belly stuffed with beans. My mother brought him home one day before I was born, after he had starred with a British teenage heartthrob named Tommy Steele in a production called “Hans Christian Andersen.” Otto, she told me, received a kiss each night from a maiden fair and then, in a puff of smoke, was dropped promptly through a trapdoor, to be replaced by a handsome prince.

Our way of life not only felt different from other children’s; it also felt, somehow, dangerous. London theaters are ancient places, inhabited for centuries by unusual human specimens and, my father and his colleagues told us, by their ghosts.

For instance, I loved the Theater Royal Drury Lane the way I loved my house. I knew the roughness of the seats on the backs of my legs and how eerie-quiet it could be when the audience had gone home. The theater, founded in the 1600s, was also the most haunted of all the theaters in which we spent our days, we were told. The Lavender Ghost was a “pantomime dame” — a male actor playing female roles — who went mad and died young. Legend said he would trail about the theater, frightening actors with the scent of perfume on his clothes. Then there was the Man in Gray, who stalked around the upper circle dressed in powdered wig and tricorn hat. Sometimes, we heard, he would walk right through a wall.

With all the Broadway, Shakespeare, Sondheim, Cole Porter and Olivier, we often went to bed late and overslept for school. Ours was a nighttime life. I used to plunge my face into the dozens of coats that hung in the hallway downstairs, breathing in the perfume and cigarettes of the West End evenings that lingered on my parents’ clothes.

My brother and I relished it all, and it also helped us obscure certain truths: We had very little money, our clothes were old, and our mother was dying of cancer.

Many nights during the worst of it, the theater was our baby sitter. We sat front and center at a sold-out show, swaddled in the light and the music for a few blessed hours, while our mother lay in a hospital ward and no one else was home. We knew every line and every cue and the difference in any understudy’s performance. When the house lights dimmed, and the orchestra in the pit stood ready in crackling silence, I remember hearing my father’s voice address the darkness from above: “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to Her Majesty’s Theater.”

At home, it was not until the last year or so that the artifacts of illness overshadowed our toys and props. At the very end, our playroom became a hospital. My father put a bed in there and a high-back orthopedic chair. He built a second handrail up the staircase; our clutter gave way to bottles of pills.

After it ended, it all seemed quite unreal. Our mother died young, her children 10 and 12. My father remarried within three months, and we found ourselves suddenly heartsick in Los Angeles, the land of movies and television. It was as if someone had dropped the curtain on that house, shut off the lights and struck the set. And the whole production of childhood was gone in a moment.

[Dworin’s charming memoir of a theater childhood ran in the “Domestic Lives” column in the “Home” section (sec. D) of the New York Times on 1 December 2011. Caroline Hannah Eve Dworin was born in London and moved to the U.S. at 13. She received a B.A. in cultural anthropology at Bard College in upstate New York, and an M.A. in arts and culture from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. For several years, she wrote for “The City” section of the New York Times and she’s written about culture for Newsweek.com, the Huffington Post, the Columbia Journalism Review, and the New Yorker's “Book Bench” blog. Currently living in Manhattan, Dworin’s working on a book.

The musical
Mutiny!, from which the prop ship’s stern came, was an original play composed by David Essex with book and lyrics by Richard Crane, based on the story of the historic mutiny on the H.M.S. Bounty, the same source for the novel and several films. It opened at London’s Piccadilly Theatre in July 1985 and ran for 500 performances.]

08 August 2012


[Back in August 2003, I took a 12-day land-sea trip to Alaska, principally to see the fjords along the coast, something I’d wanted to do for a long time. My mother and I booked the trip with Holland-America Line which offered a combined tour-cruise. The landscape and scenery, including the wildlife, in Alaska is truly magnificent—whatever you’ve heard, it falls way short of the reality. Our first real stop was Denali National Park and Preserve, the home of Mount McKinley, and a little while ago, the younger daughter of a friend spent the summer there as a member of a performance troupe at the same lodge at which I stayed. I’d hoped to get her to write something for ROT to which I’d add my journal as a kind of supplement, but the young actor was just too busy starting her career (she’s now in California studying with The Groundlings), so I’m just going to brush off my old account, written right after I got back east, and run it on its own—just for fun. For now, I’m skipping all the other parts of the trip, including the sail down the Inside Passage, the views of the fjords and glaciers, and an exceptional whale-watch in Juneau (after which we learned of the black-out back home, where my friend’s older daughter was apartment-and-dog sitting for me).

[Now, sit back and, to put yourself in the proper frame of mind, imagine hearing Johnny Horton’s “North to Alaska” in the background.]

The United Airlines flight—flights—out to Anchorage was miserable, except that we did finally get there. We left New York at just shy of 2 p.m. on Thursday, 7 August, and, due to a delay in Seattle, arrived at 2 a.m. Friday, about three hours late. Ironically, though, if our flight from Seattle had left on time, earlier in the evening before darkness fell in that part of the world, we might not have had one remarkable experience. On the flight up to Anchorage, out over the horizon, we saw the northern lights out the plane window. Either because of the atmospherics, or because we were up looking down instead of down looking up, these lights weren't colored like some pictures you see. It was all sort of greenish, like the image on a radar screen or through a fluoroscope. But it was still an eerie sight—like something that really shouldn't be happening. A close encounter of the weird kind!

We got to the Anchorage hotel only to learn that the departure for the train to Denali was 7:30! I had called Holland-America Line from New York to find out when that train left, and the HAL representative at the other end of the line told me very specifically that it left at 12:30 p.m., though they wanted us at the station at noon. (This turns out to be the time the return train from Denali to Anchorage leaves—which we weren’t even taking as we were going on to Fairbanks, not coming back to Anchorage. It wasn’t the first time HAL was unhelpful—or the last.) We had thought we’d have a little time to catch up with ourselves, since we were getting in so late (early?)—even without the Seattle delay. WRONG!!

So we had our hour-and-a-half nap, hardly enough time to warrant being charged for the room, and got to the McKinley Explorer, the Alaska Railroad train to Denali. It’s called a national park but it’s really a huge wilderness, home of not only Mount McKinley, North America’s highest mountain, but a lot of wildlife. Now, the train itself is kind of interesting. First of all, Alaska’s the only state that still has its own railroad (aside, of course, from commuter trains and subways). Of course, it doesn’t go very many places—Anchorage to Fairbanks to Seward, with stops along the way. (In the winter, apparently, passengers can actually flag the train to stop anywhere along the track. I’m not really sure how that’d work, actually.) Alaska Railroad is basically a regular, though limited, railroad, except that the big tour companies (HAL and Princess) had special cars that they paid ARR to pull. These cars—I assume the Princess cars were about the same—were quite luxurious, with big seats, a bar, a restaurant, a guide, and (of course) a shop. They were double-deckers, with the seats up on top and glass all around—including the roof. (The restaurant, galley, bathrooms, and shop were all below in one or the other of the two cars each cruise line runs. Each car had its own guide/narrator and bar.)

The 237-mile trip north to Denali is about five hours, with stops at Wasilla (now famous—or, perhaps, infamous—as the place that gave us all Sarah Palin, but in 2003, just an unknown little Alaska town) and Talkeetna (the frequent staging area for those starting out to climb McKinley) before reaching Denali and Fairbanks. The trip’s always over a meal (lunch up, dinner back), though it comes pretty early by our standards. Still, it was a pretty decent meal. But the real attraction of the train ride was the scenery between Anchorage and Denali. The train runs along a river, mostly the Susitna and several of its tributaries (the Knik and Matanuska Rivers), for most of the trip, sometimes on one side and sometimes on the other, so there are lots of vistas of mountains, forest, and river landscape, especially as the train rounds a curve or crosses a bridge and you can see way up ahead. We were extremely fortunate because we had magnificent weather on our arrival. The summer weather in Alaska is often rainy and foggy; August is the driest month, but it still gets a little rain at least most days of the week. (Alaskans call this “liquid sunshine” and just go about their business regardless. Only we tourists get discommoded by the wet. All the tour busses were stocked with umbrellas for the passengers, just in case.) But when we got there, Anchorage was having record-breaking high temperatures—75 degrees! And bright sun and blue, cloudless skies, with unlimited visibility all around. You’ll pardon the cliché, but the scenery between Anchorage and Denali was breathtaking. That’s no exaggeration. And as we got near Denali, just past Talkeetna, we got several views of McKinley—a sight all the guidebooks warn might not be available because the mountain is usually shrouded in mist most days. (The weather in Denali can be so unpredictable, the guides all tell you, that snow has been known to fall in August.) But as the train came around several curves, the guide warned us what was coming, and towering above the surrounding terrain was this huge, white mass glowing among the other, brown and green mountains. You can think it’s just another mountain and be prepared not to see anything special—I’ve seen Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn many, many times—but all the preparation aside—McKinley gets a lot of word-of-mouth—the sight itself will subvert any sense of blasé déjà vu you might have: it’s truly majestic—another cliché that turns out to be accurate here. When we saw it that day (we saw it again several times the next day, too), with the unusual weather, it was as if a huge spotlight were focused on the mountain—it actually glows in contrast with the surrounding mountains, which are mostly not covered in snow. It looks like a postcard—a doctored photo for tourist consumption.

Once again, the specter of HAL (isn’t that the name of the renegade computer in 2001? Fits) arose to spoil this part of the trip, too, a little. First, while we were on the train to Denali, a Gray Line/HAL salesperson was aboard, selling tours at the park. Since we were arriving at about 12:30 or so on Friday and our pre-scheduled ride into the park wasn’t until Saturday morning, Mom and I considered some of the offerings. We didn’t want to go rafting, golfing, horseback riding, or fishing, and the plane and helicopter rides seemed very expensive despite the magnificence of the views. But there was a sort of dinner tour that was a carriage ride into the park—remember, during Alaskan summers, it stays light until 9 or 9:30—to a restaurant. We thought it would be a pleasant way to spend the evening, until we got to the lodge and realized how tired we were and that we really didn’t want to go on the ride after all. Aside from the fact that we’d been sold on the package a little too enthusiastically at the time, the salesgirl didn’t tell us that we couldn’t back out. Mother, who can be really annoying when she wants to be, argued with the Gray Line manager at the lodge, and probably to get rid of us, he canceled our reservation. The lodge—called the McKinley Chalet, which sounds a little over-grand for what it actually is—is on the edge of the park. (I’m not actually sure if it’s in the park or just outside it—in any case, the terrain is identical and contiguous anyway.) Unfortunately, the little “village”—it’s really a collection of shops (souvenir, for the most part) and eateries (not quite restaurants, more like snack shops)—was undergoing a major road-construction and everything was heavy equipment, dust, and dirt. We looked around a little, then went in search of some place to have a very light supper.

The choices for dinner being minimal in the immediate range of the hotel, we ate in the lodge bar, the Nenana View Bar & Grille, which did have a beautiful view of the mountains and, just below us, the little Nenana River. The rafters go by below the bar as they round a bend in the river, which, like many in Alaska, is grayish because it’s glacier-fed. (The glaciers grind up the bedrock as they move along, making glacial silt—a fine, gray powder—which colors the rivers and lakes whose sources are the glaciers. The other streams and lakes are clear, and as we rode past one confluence of two rivers on the train, the guide pointed out that one was clear and the other cloudy as they ran together at that point: one river was spring-fed and the other glacial. When we were whale-watching in Juneau later in the trip, the naturalist on the boat pointed out the part of the bay into which the glacial Mendenhall River ran—the river actually runs out into the bay several miles—which is visible because the river is opaque and the bay is clear. And they stay that way—they don’t blend! It sort of looks like Elsa Lanchester’s wig in Bride of Frankenstein.) So, we sat and had a drink—Alaska beer, which is very, very good, by the way—and ate our supper—salmon, which I ate as often as I could (including salmon chowder on the train); we originally ordered reindeer sausage, but they were out of it!—and watched the rafters and the scenery. (Later in the trip, we did get reindeer sausage. So, yes, in my life I’ve eaten Bambi, Thumper, and now, Rudolph. Wanna make somethin’ of it?) It was still bright daylight—dusk didn’t come along until after we’d retired.

And that’s what we did, after a short stroll along the Nenana riverbank—which is several hundred feet high above the rushing little stream. We were still exhausted from our flights the day before (well, earlier that same day, actually). We had sort of thought we’d nap on the train, but even at five hours, there was too much awesome scenery to take in, so we never closed our eyes. I guess we knocked off about nine o’clock, while the sun was still shining outside. The park drive was scheduled early the next morning, anyway.

The next day, Saturday, 9 August, we drove through part of the park—Denali is the native Athabascan name for McKinley; it means “The Great One” (an homage to Jackie Gleason perhaps?)—which, as I said, is vast. Mount McKinley is the official name of the 20,320-foot peak (at the South Peak; the North Peak is only 19,470 feet high), part of the 600-mile-long Alaskan Mountain Range, but Alaskans use both names and prefer Denali—though sometimes it’s just called “the mountain.” The park is principally forest, and it’s a preserve as well as a park, which means that it’s pretty much left natural with minimal interference by humans. Trees that fall are left (unless they block a road or path), hunting is prohibited (except for some “subsistence” natives who are allowed to take what they need to live on, but not to sell or trade), and there are minimal roads and constructed facilities in most of the park. (There are a few small cabins or huts, now used for park maintenance—though one is kept as it might have been as a hunting cabin back at the turn of the 20th century—but they all predate the establishment of the wilderness preserve in 1980.) You’re not even allowed to take away a rock as a souvenir or pick the wildflowers. (This sort of contrasts with Israel when I was there: They fairly begged us to take a rock home as a souvenir!) The use of motorized vehicles within the park is limited to maintained roads and parking areas. Private vehicles are not permitted past the Savage Check Station, 14 miles along the 92-mile Park Road (of which only 15 miles are paved because the alternate freezing and thawing of the ground makes maintaining the road prohibitively costly). Only busses (and bicycles) are allowed past a certain point to keep vehicle traffic and pollution to a minimum—and the busses have to be old school busses, not the big, heavy tour or city busses. As far as I could learn, the interior of the park is pretty much free of anything artificial—open only to hikers, campers, rafters, and climbers. (You can fish in Denali, but it’s catch-and-release.) I believe Denali, a little smaller than the entire state of Vermont, is the third largest national park in the country.

Six million acres (9,420 square miles) of rich and diverse terrain, Denali National Park and Preserve is home to large mammals—wolves, moose, caribou, Dall sheep, and grizzly bears—which roam freely in the park, sharing the land with a host of smaller mammals including ground squirrels, hoary marmots, pikas, and snowshoe hares. More than 650 species of flowering plants and a wide variety of other flora adorn the slopes and valleys of the park’s dynamic landscape. The lower altitudes of Denali are forest, the middle elevations include tundra, and at the highest levels are glaciers. Among the many peoples who originally called Denali home were the Ahtna, Athabascan, Koyukon and Tanana. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, prospectors rushed to the area too search for gold. President Woodrow Wilson established Mount McKinley National Park in 1917 and the United Nations designated the park an International Biosphere Reserve in 1976. In 1980, the original park was designated a wilderness area and incorporated into Denali National Park and Preserve.

We had only a small amount of luck in the wildlife-sighting department. No bears or moose, but we saw some Dall sheep and one caribou that actually came down to the road, practically right up to the bus. Of course, we saw lots of eagles in flight, but none perched or close enough to get anything more than an impression. The Dall sheep, a noble-looking, long-haired, white sheep with immense curled horns that lives way up in the hills among the rocks and scrub to keep them safe from wolves and pumas, were pretty far away—how anyone spotted them, I’ll never know—but our driver came equipped with a telescope (we’d brought binoculars, which were also helpful on the whale-watch later) and he set it up at the roadside and we took turns looking up at the small herd. These big sheep, named for William Healey Dall (1845–1927), the same naturalist who’s also the namesake for the black-and-white Dall porpoises we watched frolicking in the wake of our ship’s bow later in the trip, just have a wonderfully serious, stern look, set off by the great, curled horns that look almost too big to be real. (Think of the biggest Shofars you’ve ever seen.) The caribou, on the other hand, looks very ungainly. His horns are tremendous, too—way out of proportion to his head and body; it was hard to see how he kept from toppling over. He was standing in some low vegetation near the roadside when we first saw him—it was tall enough to hide him when he put his head down to eat—and he just hung out, eating and loping along in a meandering path in front of us. Little by little, he moved toward the edge of the road, and we wondered if he’d actually climb down—the road was below the ground level by four or five feet—and eventually, he did. He sort of slid down the cut, loped across the road and continued his lunch on the other side. He pretty much ignored us.

Many of the animals, such as the caribou and the moose, are unafraid of the busses—drivers keep the engine noise down and move very slowly or stop when an animal is spotted—but people are admonished not to get out of the bus, make noise, or even lean out of the windows. This is ostensibly to prevent the animals from becoming used to humans too much; the park people don’t want the wildlife to be panicked by human contact, but they don’t want them to become too people-friendly, either. Human-animal interaction is kept to a minimum and feeding the wildlife is entirely taboo. Parts of the park are even closed to tourists from time to time if there’s increased wildlife activity, either by dangerous animals or vulnerable ones. Seems wise. (Ironically, the Alaskans we met or heard about on our visit all demonstrated deep concern for their environment and wildlife. The ones who seem to give the reputation to the state for rapaciousness, the drive to profit extrinsically from the resources in oil, minerals, and timber at the expense of the state’s natural beauty and pristine wilderness, are apparently all big businessmen and the state’s government representatives and officials. The folks, even—maybe especially—the hunters, want to preserve what they have, barring letting a bear wander into their yards and eating their dogs.)

The timing of the park visit was the next little complaint we had. The various park tours, which were prearranged by HAL, not selected by the passengers as some of the shore excursions from the boat were later, were all scheduled for early in the morning, even though the train to Fairbanks wasn’t until late that afternoon. We tried to switch to a later bus, but there wasn’t one available until too late to get us back in time for the train. The runs were all mostly in the morning anyway, then late afternoon—there’s a big gap in the middle of the day. The explanation is that there’s more chance to see wildlife early or late than there is in the middle of the afternoon. Considering how little we saw anyway, I’d have taken the chance and spread the activity out a bit better. As it was, we got back to the lodge in the late morning, but had to vacate the room by 11 so we couldn’t even take a short nap. There wasn’t really enough time to get on some other excursion, even if there had been one that appealed to us, and we’d already explored the “village” as much as we wanted to. (Besides being mostly shops—it’s not really a village; no one lives there—and all that construction dust, it’s spread along the highway like a strip mall so it’s a long trek even just to poke around.) The “tour” aspects of the trip, the part organized by HAL, left much to be desired, even if the Alaskan aspects, the natural scenery and the people, tried to make up for it.

So we killed some time in the chalet lobby until the train for Fairbanks, which actually left a little early to everyone’s surprise. (Indeed, one couple had booked a plane flight—”flightseeing,” they call it—over the park and McKinley for the afternoon, and got back just in time to see the train depart! They would have been fine if it hadn’t left earlier than scheduled, and people on the trip who knew the couple even reported that they weren’t aboard when the train started to pull out. The tour people put them on a helicopter, called the train, and we waited at a siding down the track several miles as they were delivered to the train. Pretty stupid.) Anyway, the second train ride was nothing like the first. The cars were the same, of course, though we had a real nebbish of a guide this time—our first guide was quite wonderful, even though she wasn’t a native Alaskan; she came up from Southern California for a break just to take this job—but the terrain is ugly and uninteresting along the 120-mile route from Denali northeast to Fairbanks just as soon as you leave the park area. (For the first couple of miles—until we stopped for our delinquent passengers—there were spectacular cliffs as we rolled along the Nenana River.) This time, we did nap. And since the dinner was going to be served so early—around 5:30—we skipped it and opted for the chance we could get something at or near the hotel in Fairbanks when we arrived at about 7. We did have a nice drink en route, though!

[I may pick this account up some time in the future, including perhaps the disappointing visit to Fairbanks and then the cruise down the coast from Seward to Vancouver, British Columbia, which included visits to Sitka (the capital of Russian America), Juneau, and Ketchikan, as well as stops in College Fjord and Glacier Bay.]