How I Got Five Thousand Dollars from a Theatre Customer
It took a long time for Menashe Skulnik to reach the level of stardom on the American Yiddish stage achieved by other comic actors, such as Ludwig Satz and Aaron Lebedeff. In his memoirs (which were serialized in the Forverts from January to September 1963), Skulnik recalled the many years that he performed at venues in cities outside of New York—including six years in Philadelphia, which he considered to be a theatrical purgatory.
During the 1910s and into the 1920s, Skulnik worked as a jack-of-all-trades, writing out actors’ parts, serving as stage manager, building sets, acting as prompter, and performing in secondary roles as he gradually honed his trademark deadpan-comedian persona. By the mid-1920s, he had become “world famous in Canada” but was still relatively unknown in New York City. Two visits to Argentina, in 1928 and 1929, turned him into a top star in that country. When Maurice Schwartz first visited Buenos Aires in 1930, he seemed astonished to hear of Skulnik’s acclaim there. Success on Second Avenue remained elusive for Skulnik, however.
Skulnik’s New York City breakthrough finally came in 1932, when he starred in the musical comedy Getsl vert a khosn [Getzel Becomes a Bridegroom] at Brooklyn’s Hopkinson Theatre. This was followed by other hits on Second Avenue itself, bearing such titles as Mister Schlemiel and Fishl der gerotener [its English title was The Perfect Fishel]. 1 The libretto for the latter musical comedy was by the veteran playwright Louis Freiman, with music by Joseph M. Rumshinsky, song lyrics by Isidore Lillian, choreography by Senia Russakoff, and set designs by Leib Kadison (of Vilna Troupe fame). It is in connection with Fishl, which ran at the Yidisher folks-teater (aka Folks Theatre) on Second Avenue during the 1935-1936 season, that the events recounted here took place. Skulnik and Rumshinsky were artistic and business partners at the Folks-teater. As such, they were responsible for covering the salaries of cast members and other theatre employees—and (as this installment relates) for paying the federal entertainment tax.
One of the refrains of Skulnik’s memoir involves the constant struggle to make ends meet. As he later commented, “What did I know about business? I must confess that apart from the theatre, I don’t know anything. You could sell me the Brooklyn Bridge, even though I know quite well that the Brooklyn Bridge is not ‘For Sale’.” By his account, he was repeatedly shortchanged when he performed with troupes led by his brother-in-law Misha German. And during the season-long run of Fishl, Skulnik and his partner Rumshinsky (who “knew even less than me” concerning the business side of the Yiddish theatre) were mystified by the weekly shortfalls that the company was experiencing, even though it was a hit production with full houses. They suspected the four box-office managers of skimming off thousands of dollars from the proceeds, and the result was a severe cash crunch. The two partners eventually managed to cover their company’s financial obligations, but how they went about raising the cash was a story that could be told only after a certain amount of time had passed. 2
The gangster and local warlord Misha Yaponchik was one of the pillars sustaining Odessa’s starving Yiddish actors during the Russian revolution. Pimps and prostitutes were among the most devoted patrons of the Yiddish theatres of Buenos Aires. In this installment, Skulnik hints at the informal ties that existed between at least some members of New York City’s Yiddish theatrical community and elements of the criminal underworld.
Installment from the serialized memoir “Menashe Skulnik dertseylt” [The Menashe Skulnik Story], in the Forverts (Forward), New York, June 19, 1963.
I used to have two bankers who’d lend me money. One was Jacob R. Schiff, a bona fide millionaire. 3 He was a friend of mine and the Yiddish theatre was his hobby. He helped William Rolland build the Parkway Theatre. 4 In addition, I know that he helped Oscar Green acquire the Hopkinson Theatre, 5 and that each summer he provided interest-free loans to Yiddish actors, to tide them over the summer without resorting to loan sharks. He’d lend between two hundred and five hundred dollars to each actor. Those who were able to pay him back during the winter always had an open account with Schiff. Whenever I needed a few thousand dollars for thirty days, I’d always get it from Jacob R. Schiff and, thank God, I always kept my word and paid him back on time.
My second banker was Hermann, the busboy at the Café Royal. When I paid my actors by check on Saturday night Hermann would cash their checks, and I’d pay him ten dollars for the service. On Thursday, when the checks were returned by the bank, Hermann would come by and let me know: “Herr Skulnik, the checks haff been returned.” So, I’d give him another ten dollars and tell him to hold onto the checks for three more days and then deposit them again. Hermann was satisfied even if the checks were returned three times, because then he’d get three times ten dollars. He often asked me, “Herr Skulnik, was ist denn los? Vat’s going on? Your checks weren’t returned this week.” (Because in that situation he’d be deprived of ten or fifteen dollars.)
It’s worth noting that I had to carry out these maneuvers even when the plays met with success and packed houses. The top stars from Broadway came to admire us and would then return a second time together with their friends, to show us off to them. Major Sarnoff of the National Broadcasting Company came repeatedly with different friends of his in tow. 6 He always paid at the box office with a crisp new hundred-dollar bill.
Once, he brought along the world-renowned writer Emil Ludwig, who wrote biographies of some of the world’s most important personalities, whereupon Ludwig became one of our fans and brought along his friends. 7 He had a habit of getting up from his seat and approaching the stage in the middle of the performance, clapping all the way. The audience, watching him, would keep up their applause longer than usual. (This was doubtless a custom back in Germany.) At any rate, our success with Fishl der gerotener was extraordinary, and with this great success came my need to raise cash every Monday.
As the old joke has it: On Monday I borrowed from Moishe to pay Chaim, and on Shabbos I borrowed from Chaim to pay Moishe.
One fine day, Rumshinsky said to me, “Menashe, I want to tell you about a place where, if you go there, you can get whatever you ask for. I’d go there myself, but he won’t give me anything. He’ll lend you however much you want.” “Who is this man?” I asked. “He’s one of your fans. He comes every week to see you. Each time he buys up the entire front row and brings along his friends.” 8
At first, I didn’t want to go to someone I didn’t know and borrow money from him. But we had to write checks to the Revenue Department for admission taxes and we wanted the checks to clear. Rumshinsky gave me a name and the address of a restaurant on Broadway. Before going there, I wanted Rumshinsky to tell me who this man was and what he looked like. He explained to me that the man always comes into the theatre five minutes after the performance begins and always leaves five or ten minutes before the performance ends. During the intermissions he never remains in his seat.
Some kind of oddball, I thought, but I was interested in meeting him. I rode to the café on Broadway. It was across the street from the Metropolitan Opera House—Gertner’s Café, if I’m not mistaken. 9 Whatever—I asked the cashier to point out the man.
I didn’t have to look for very long because the man had spotted me earlier and recognized me. He came right up to me and embraced me like a long-lost brother. He escorted me to the tables and introduced me to everybody. “Do you know who this is?” he asked each and every one of them. “This is Menashe Skulnik, the greatest actor in New York, the greatest comedian in the whole wide world!” He slapped me on the shoulder and thanked me for coming to see him. “Your friend Rumshinsky promised me that you’ll come to see me.”
We sat down together; he struck me as a highly intelligent person in his forties, very well dressed, with a sympathetic face. And he asked me, “What can I do for you?” I was barely able to stammer that I needed five thousand dollars. His facial expression suddenly turned stern, and his tone completely changed. “For how long?” he asked me, sounding angry. I didn’t know what to say to him, but the words “for ninety days” somehow tumbled off my tongue.
I was certain that he was going to bargain with me for a shorter term, or that instead of five thousand he might give me half the amount. He got up, went into the phone booth, and signaled me to join him there. I slipped inside and he took out a pack of hundreds and fifties and counted out five thousand dollars. “Remember,” he said to me, “only ninety days. And I want it back in cash. No checks!” he warned me.
I placed the five thousand dollars in my pocket and took out a promissory note which I was about to fill in. “What’s that?” he asked. “A note,” I said. “I don’t want any notes,” he said to me. “And I don’t want any publicity. Don’t tell anyone that you’ve borrowed money from me. Ninety days from now, I’ll expect you in the same place with five thousand in cash.”
I thanked him from the bottom of my heart, shook his hand, and said that it was a real pleasure to meet him – and I sincerely meant it. He then said to me, “I’ll be seeing you. I come to the theatre every week with my friends.” “Good-bye,” I said. “Thank you very much.”
I went off and immediately deposited the five thousand dollars in the bank. I thought that the five thousand would free me from any worries during the next three months, and if it turned out to be difficult to pay back the entire amount, I’d pay back half of it, and he’d wait another thirty days for me to give him the balance. That’d be fine, I told myself.
When Rumshinsky saw me, he gave me an impish smile and didn’t even ask if I’d received the money. He knew perfectly well that I had.
Two days later, my theatre’s accountant, David Kulak, came by. He helped us out with money from time to time. When he noticed the five-thousand-dollar bank deposit he naturally asked me, “Where’d you get the five thousand dollars?” I took out the slip of paper and showed him the name – Mr. Buchalter – and the address. Kulak grew pale. “Menashe, do you know who you took money from?” “Of course I know,” I said. “He’s a fan of mine.” “That’s Lepke Buchalter,” Kulak informed me. “He’s the biggest gangster in America, the head of Murder Incorporated. We’ve got to do everything in our power to have five thousand dollars on hand to give back to him, exactly ninety days from now. If we don’t, not even the slightest trace of you will remain.”
What can I say? For ninety days I wasn’t able even to shut my eyes. I didn’t sleep; I didn’t eat. I was upset with Rumshinsky because he knew full well where he was sending me. In short, when the ninety days were up, I put fifty hundred-dollar bills in my pocket and went to the same café, and with a palpitating heart I approached Mr. Buchalter. He extended his hand to me, took me from table to table, and introduced me as the world’s greatest comedian. I summoned up my courage and smiled. He then asked me if I had the money. “Yes,” I said. And once again he took me into the phone booth, and I gave him the pack of hundreds. He didn’t even bother to count them out. And when we stepped out of the phone booth he said, “And now, treat me to breakfast.”
I sat down with him, and he had breakfast, for which the waiter gave me the check.
“Now that you’ve returned the money in time,” he said to me, “I want you to know that it’s been a great honor for me to help you out. I did it because I like you, and you’ll have an open account with me as long as I live.”
But he didn’t live long; a little while later he was shown the electric chair. 10
A few months after he met Skulnik, Lepke Buchalter (along with several other mobsters) was indicted for the murder, on September 13, 1936, of a candy-store owner named Joe Rosen. Meanwhile, in November 1936, Buchalter was convicted for violating federal anti-trust laws in the rabbit-skin fur industry and sentenced to two years in federal prison. Rather than serve time, he and his partner in crime, Jacob “Gurrah” Shapiro, jumped bail. Buchalter remained at large until August 1939, when he surrendered to J. Edgar Hoover. Two years later, while serving time for a narcotics charge, he was tried for murder and sentenced to death. Louis “Lepke” Buchalter and two of his partners in crime, Emanuel Weiss and Louis Capone, were executed at Sing-Sing on March 4, 1944.
1As William Schack, a journalist who covered the Yiddish theatre for The New York Times during the 1930s, wrote concerning this play: “Translated literally but inadequately, ‘gerutener’ means ‘capable.’ In this case it is used ironically, for Fishel never can do anything right. He was born with his elbow in his mouth, and much as you like him, because he is good-natured and well-meaning, you can’t help dubbing him just a plain damn fool. The funny part of it is that, modest as he is, he thinks himself a pretty smart fellow.” William Schack, “Second Avenue Comics: Regarding Three Stalwart Figures of the East Side Theatre,” New York Times, December 1, 1935, Drama section, 7.
2Skulnik’s reflections on his aptitude for business—or rather, the lack thereof—are found in the June 16, 1963, installment of “Menashe Skulnik dertseylt,” in the Forverts.
3Jacob R. Schiff (1879-1949) was a Lithuanian-born attorney and philanthropist in New York City, and a patron of the Yiddish theatre—not to be confused with the German-born banker and philanthropist Jacob Henry Schiff (1847-1920).
4William Rolland (1885-1960) was a Yiddish theatre impresario and manager in New York City. The Parkway Theatre was located on Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn.
5Oscar Green, (1893-1966) was a Yiddish theatre manager who was based in New York City. The Hopkinson Theatre was located on Pitkin Avenue in Brooklyn.
6David Sarnoff (1891-1971), born in present-day Belarus, immigrated to the US as a child and later became President of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), the parent company of NBC. During World War II he was commissioned as a Brigadier General in the US Army.
7Emil Ludwig (1881-1948), a native of Breslau (now Wrocław, Poland), became a Swiss citizen in 1932 and wrote biographies of notable statesmen and historical figures. His best-known book in English is probably his biography of Napoleon.
8Joseph M. Rumshinsky (1881-1956) was one of the leading composers for the Yiddish theatre. He was Skulnik’s artistic and business partner for their production of Fishl der gerotener.
9Gertner’s Restaurant was located at 1446 Broadway (between 40th and 41st Streets, in Manhattan). The old Metropolitan Opera House was located at 1411 Broadway (between 39th and 40th Streets).
10Louis “Lepke” Buchalter (1897-1944) was indeed one of New York’s top gangsters, responsible for numerous high-profile contract killings as head of a group that was referred to as Murder Incorporated. See the Wikipedia articles “Lepke Buchalter” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lepke_Buchalter) and “Murder, Inc.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murder,_Inc.).