The Temple of Art aimed to bring high culture to the East End. But it was an adventure that would end in tears, as cultural historian David Mazower reveals in a book of essays in memory of Bill Fishman, JEECS’s late honorary president.
What a day it was. Police held back the crowds in Commercial Road and surrounding streets. Never had so many motor cars, horse-drawn carriages, hansom cabs and fancy buggies been seen in Whitechapel. Rothschilds and Montefiores were there; the novelist Israel Zangwill and the dramatist Sholem Asch sent congratulatory telegrams.
The cause of all the excitement that Saturday evening of March 16 1912? The opening of The Temple of Art, otherwise the Faynman idish folks teater (Feinman Yiddish People’s Theatre), in Commercial Road, an opera house for the East End. An excited audience awaited curtain-up for a performance of King Ahaz, a Grand Yiddish Opera in Four Acts, composed by the Ukrainian-born Samuel Alman, choirmaster and organist at the nearby Duke’s Place synagogue.
Yet a bare four months later, it was all over. The theatre had closed, the company was placed in receivership, and the building was eventually sold to become the Palaseum cinema.
The story, brilliantly told by cultural historian David Mazower in An East End Legacy, Essays in Memory of William J Fishman (the late honorary president of JEECS), began much earlier.
Few of the immigrants coming into the East End in the 1870s and 1880s had had much exposure to theatre. But in the Jewish communities across the Russian empire, the grassroots entertainment provided by itinerant singers and actors was developing into something new. A Yiddish stage was being born.
Those itinerant singers and actors put on improvised shows in wine cellars, beer gardens and firefighters’ halls, with songs and satirical sketches based on life in the shtetl.
Then in 1876, the cultural entrepreneur Avrom Goldfaden, one time rabbinical student who reinvented himself as an impresario and playwright, joined forces, with a group of travelling Yiddish players to become in effect the creator of the modern Yiddish theatre.
From eastern Europe the craze for theatre spread to the immigrant communities in New York, Paris, Johannesburg – and London. An early amateur production in a beer hall in Brick Lane in 1876 was performed on a stage of wooden boards nailed over beer barrels and exposed the desperate poverty of the Whitechapel immigrants and the complacency of established Anglo-Jewry. Four years later, the same venue hosted a play by Goldfaden, performed twice a week for 10 weeks.
In 1883, Odessa-born Jacob Adler arrived in London with his company of 20 actors and enjoyed critical success with their Russian Jewish Operatic Society, playing not only in the East End but sometimes in the West End as well.
In 1886, his success prompted the conversion of an old Spitalfields workhouse into a theatre, though the venue was short-lived: a fire scare caused 17 deaths as terrified patrons were crushed in the rush to get out in the dark after the gas lighting was switched off.
But London’s Jewish theatre continued to thrive with, among many other productions, a performance of Verdi’s opera Traviata translated into Yiddish.
Notable venues included the Vine Court Hall, just off the Whitechapel Road, and Wonderland, close by Aldgate, and its troupe of players, the Oriental Hebrew Operatic Sketch Co. The Standard Theatre in Shoreditch and the Pavilion Theatre in Mile End regularly featured Yiddish productions, including in 1901 The Jewish King Lear.
Across the globe, and especially in New York, Yiddish theatre was on the rise. Grandiose plans for a huge new theatre, the Orient, in the East End, however, came to nothing. The big money for Yiddish theatre was in New York.
Then came the return to London of Sigmund Feinman. Born in Bessarabia, he made his name as an actor and playwright in New York. His wife, Dina, had previously been married to Jacob Adler and was an accomplished actress. The couple had performed in London, and when they came back in 1906 the Yiddish stage was enjoying a renaissance. Feinman became the leading actor-manager of the London Yiddish stage. His repertoire for the Pavilion Theatre included Yiddish translations of such classics as Othello and the Merchant of Venice, and plays by Gorky and Strindberg.
His reputation spread well beyond the East End, as did that of Dina, who became known as the “Yiddish Sarah Bernhardt”. But by 1909, Feinman’s star was waning. Overweight and a chain smoker, his health too was suffering. In June 1909, the couple were performing in Lódź in Poland when Feinman collapsed on stage and died.
The news sent shockwaves through the Jewish community in the East End. Crowds gathered in the streets, the Pavilion Theatre closed as a mark of respect and then held a huge memorial meeting.
There was a mass public tribute in the Wonderland hall, with the crowd overflowing into the street. And the idea of building a dedicated Yiddish theatre in London in his memory was born.
The proposal was put forward by Yosef Goldshmit (Joseph Goldsmith), a Whitechapel tobacconist and actor who had performed with Feinman’s Pavilion Theatre company. Within weeks The Feinman Yiddish Theatre Society had been established chaired by local businessman and theatre lover Alexander Kennard, originally from Odessa and owner of a Whitechapel piano showroom.
Meeting regularly at the York Minster pub they began soliciting funding. There were big public meetings to garner support, and in July 1910 The Feinman Yiddish People’s Theatre Company was registered, with Kennard as chairman and a board of local businessmen.
A lease option was signed for 226, Commercial Road, between Anthony Street and Fenton Street, the site of a former billiard saloon. A share issue of 12,000 £1 shares was announced and a prospectus published extolling the business potential.
Annual income was forecast at £12,500; annual expenditure at £9,500; and the annual dividend at about 25 per cent. Shareholders poured in from a cross-section of East End society, from barbers to bootmakers and tobacconists to tailors. Three-quarters of the subscribers lived in the East End, but most bought just one or two shares. Largely lacking were West End business owners and established members of Anglo-Jewry.
By 1911, even though fundraising was not complete, an architect and builders had been appointed and a design approved – a wide-fronted theatre in Oriental or Moorish style with a dome and two minarets. In September, the crowd turned out to witness the laying of the foundation stone by Sir Francis Montefiore. Flags and banners were strewn across the road and eminent speaker after eminent speaker hailed the significance of the project – though one expressed disappointment that Yiddish, and not Hebrew, was to be the language of its stage.
Most of those involved with the project had Zionist sympathies; most also saw it as a place for highbrow entertainment. Articles in the Yiddish press stressed that there would be no shund (trashy theatre) or purimshpileray (cheap clowning).
That ambition swiftly drew the attention of the satirist Avrom Margolin, who accurately foresaw what was in store. His magazine Der blofer (The Bluffer) featured a cover drawing of the theatre box office. At one counter, a lonely customer is buying a ticket for Hamlet. At the other, the queue to buy tickets for a popular comedy stretches down the street. The theatre, Dos temple fun kunst (The Temple of Art), has become Dos tepel fun kunts (The Pot of Magic).
Building work continued, but fund-raising fell well short. After six months, there were 2,000 shareholders but share income was less than £4,500 and many who had signed up never paid the full amount owing. Appeals to wealthier members of the community were to no avail. Thousands of pounds were still owed to builders, the architect and two of the directors.
The building plans were scaled down. From a planned 1,850 seater the eventual building accommodated 900. There was no gallery as planned, just stalls, pit and circle. That in turn meant putting off working class supporters for whom the special, often boisterous, atmosphere of the gallery was a major attraction. The company said a gallery would be added when funds permitted.
At the same time, there were competing visions behind the scenes. Was it to be primarily an opera house for Yiddish speakers unable to afford West End prices? Or was it primarily a theatre?
Both camps aimed high. Alexander Kennard, chairman, approached world-renowned baritone Yosef Vinogradov to be his star singer and stage manager. Written to in German, Vinogradov, excited by the project, demanded that in future he should be written to in Yiddish. He feigned sickness to escape his contract with the Imperial Opera in St Petersburg and came to London.
Meanwhile, the directors responsible for the theatre company secured top stars from Perets Hirshbeyn’s troupe at the Yiddish Arts theatre in Odessa alongside some of London’s leading Yiddish actors.
A 24-strong orchestra was hired and plans went ahead for opening night staging of King Ahaz, a Biblical extravaganza that was the world’s first original Yiddish grand opera, composed by London-based choirmaster Samuel Alman, with costume designs based on the Victoria and Albert Museum collection.
But behind the scenes all was not well. Vinogradov was shocked by the backstage chaos as he rehearsed for King Ahaz and the production to follow, Verdi’s Rigoletto in Yiddish translation. Adding to the problems, the Yiddish pronunciation of many of the English-born singers left much to be desired.
Rehearsals also proceeded for the first theatre production, Der vilner balebesl (The Little Householder from Vilna), the story of a 19th century cantor from Vilna unable to cope with success as an opera singer in Warsaw.
Finances remained a cause of concern. There was talk of a subscription scheme, and confidence was expressed that wealthier members of long-established Anglo-Jewry would eventually come on board. Nearer the mark, though, was the journalist A B Levy who wrote that the wealthy and anglicised were unsympathetic “simply because they despised Yiddish”.
Opening night arrived. The building, with its minarets and domes, its gold-lettered banners, its bust of Feinman backstage, looked magnificent. The audience included critics from the leading English-language press, who were lavish in their praise for King Ahaz.
The Yiddish Rigoletto followed in April. Meanwhile, the play had had its opening night on March 25, again to critical acclaim, and more drama productions followed – about 20 in all. Night after night, the theatre was packed despite high ticket prices.
That apparent success hid chaotic administration. Proper books were not being kept, debts were rising, and, on May 5, a public meeting was told of a £6,000 cash shortfall, although, it was said, the problem would be overcome. A new star, the actor Maurice Moskovitch, was hired, to public acclaim but at considerable expense, probably worsening the financial situation.
In May, the East End was gripped by the Jewish tailors strike. Many of the shareholders were tailors, and the management announced that two days’ takings would be donated to the strikers – probably good public relations but another drain on finances.
There was more bad news: the Empire Theatre in nearby Mile End announced that it had secured the American Yiddish theatre star Joseph Kessler who would be opening there a month later.
More operas were staged and more plays. Dina Feinman, who had spent longer than expected recuperating in the US and who was relied on as a box office attraction, finally arrived at the end of May for her debut at last, to some critical disappointment.
In June the theatre put on Israel Zangwill’s play The Melting Pot; it coincided with the rival Kessler company’s opening in Mile End. The Mile End productions changed nightly; there were singers and comedians as well as occasional adaptations of Hamlet and Othello. They were the clear winners in the battle for audiences.
The Feinman theatre was close to collapse. At the end of June, all future performances were cancelled. A shareholder meeting on July 2 heard a sorry tale of mismanagement. Staff had not been paid, the books had not been kept properly. There were resignations, and still hopes that it could be saved. But, on July 11, a petition went to the High Court seeking the Feinman Company’s winding-up. And on July 23, the receivers moved in.
Attempts to revive the theatre came to nothing; the building was bought by a consortium that a few months later reopened it as the Palaseum Cinema. There were more attempts to keep opera in the East End, including a short season at the Pavilion Theatre in 1913.
But it was not to be.
It took three years to unravel the financial mess. Meanwhile the Palaseum Cinema expanded its facilities before closing in 1960 and then rising again as the Essoldo in 1961, before again becoming the Palaseum in the 1970s with a diet of Bollywood films within an increasingly dingy and crumbling exterior. Demolition came in 1987, and a block of flats and shops was constructed on the site in 2008.
But The Temple of Art should be remembered. Never again would Yiddish theatre in London see so ambitious a project; never again would such a galaxy of international theatre and operatic talent be attracted to the East End. And nowhere else in Europe would a purpose-built Yiddish theatre ever be constructed.
This article has been condensed, with the author’s permission, from Whitechapel’s Yiddish Opera House by David Mazower, one of the superb essays in the lavishly illustrated An East End Legacy: Essays in Memory of William J. Fishman.
An East End Legacy is edited by Colin Holmes and Anne J Kershen and is published in the Routledge Studies in Radical History and Politics series. ISBN: 978-138-12318-2 (hbk); 978-1-138-18604-0 (pbk); 978-1-315-64848-4 (ebk). It is available via www.routledge.com/An-East-End-Legacy-Essays-in-Memory-of-William-J-Fishman/Holmes-Kershen/p/book/9781138186040 at £17.49 (pbk); £59.50 (hbk) and £17.49 (ebk).