From 1922 to 1944,
New York City's thriving Second Avenue Yiddish theatre had its counterpart on a
Newark Third Ward street in the heart of the city's vibrant and thickly
populated Jewish community.
It was Elving's
Metropolitan Theatre at 117 Montgomery Street, corner of Charlton Street, just a
block up from the Prince Street Jewish shopping mecca. It was the street
on which I grew up.
The theatre was built
and operated by the Elving Brothers, Bernard and Israel, both Polish-born, and
both veterans of the New York City Yiddish theatre.
Bernard was the lead
actor in a majority of the plays, frequently playing opposite his wife, Rose,
who not only acted, but also co-wrote many of the plays with her husband.
Israel was the
theatre manager and operator. It was he who ensured that all the facets of
a successful theatre operation, which Elving's was, were meticulously attended
The theatre opened in
1922 when Newark's Jewish community was already large and growing. It
boasted a large and expanding population of Eastern-European Yiddish-speaking
immigrants, for whom Yiddish was the "mamaloshen" (mother-tongue) and the
language spoken in the home.
immigrant community, the theatre served a critical role and was their favorite
place to go for Yiddish plays and operettas.
For the immigrants,
just short years from their Eastern European roots, the plays reflected the
problems faced by their audience -- adapting to life in America ... broken
romances ... ungrateful and rebellious children ... intermarriage ... and
bringing the whole family to America from the shtetl (European home village).
featured many 'greats' of the Yiddish stage, such as Menashe Skolnik, Moishe
Oysher, Aaron Lebedof, and even such "name" actors as Paul Muni and Molly Picon,
who went on to fame on the American stage and in Hollywood.
Theatre Building Details
The theatre building
was a brick structure with accommodations for 1,200 - 1,400. As you
entered the lobby from Montgomery Street, there were two sets of double doors
that led into the theatre. To the left of the doors was an alcove with a
The lobby candy stand
was run by Louis and Rosie Zlotin. They did a good business during
intermissions. They also employed a candy butcher, a pre-teen from the
neighborhood to hawk candy up and down the aisles between acts.
Recollections of a Candy Butcher
Seymour Pierce, 83, a
retired Newark Post Office employee, recalls working at Elving's as a candy
butcher "when I was 11 or 12 in the 1930s, I sold candy through the aisles.
I was able to watch the performances from the back of the theatre.
"Some shows that I
especially remember at Elving's were Greene Cousine ... Yankele ... Yiddishe
Mamme ... and a Brevele der Mamme."
Bernard Elving -- the Lead Actor
Aaron Elving, son of
theatre manage Israel Elving, recalled to me that Bernard Elving was a powerful
stage presence in drama and tragedy, equaled only on the American stage by John
Before a performance,
he told me, the actor would talk into a full-length mirror for 15 to 25 minutes
to work himself into the mood of the play before going on stage.
daughter, Eleanor, used to watch her father perform from the box adjacent to the
stage. Sometimes, I was told, her father's performance was so powerful
that his daughter would dash out of the theatre in tears during the performance.
Show Schedule and Ticket Pricing
Shows at Elving's
took place on Saturday nights, and matinees and evenings on Sunday. Israel
Elving's son recalled for me that when he was a young teenager, orchestra seats
went for four or five dollars and balcony seats were a dollar to a dollar and a
Even in the worst of
the Depression years, Saturday night performances were always sell-outs.
patrons, he recalled came 'dressed to kill' -- the men in business suits, shirts
and ties, and all wearing a hat. There were wire hat-holders under the
The ladies with them
were also in their best dresses and many wore furs and fur wraps.
Elving said "I remember hearing President Roosevelt on the radio telling the
radio audience how bad the economy was, and its so surprising to me to see such
luxury displayed during a depression time."
Zwillman's Act of Generosity
One of Aaron Elving's
further recollections involved the Third Ward crime boss (and leading
Prohibition-era rum runner), Longy Zwillman.
that periodically, Zwillman would drop by the theatre to see my father (Israel
Elving) and give him money for an entire row of choice orchestra seats. He
would then tell "my father" to take the tickets up to the balcony where the poor
patrons sat and to distribute them so that people in the balcony who appeared to
be needy could enjoy the show from up-front orchestra seats, usually in the
second or third row.
Another Preferential Patron
Another Elving patron
who always got a seat for shows first row center was Rebecca Bedrock from
Newark's Clinton Hill section. she was an Elving regular. She owned
a fleet of about 15 Brown and White cabs, and her brother owned five more Brown
On Elving show
nights, her cabs would line up at the Montgomery Street curb in a line
stretching up to Belmont Avenue, starting around 10:30 PM, and await the
departing theatergoers to take them to their home in Clinton Hill or the
Cab fares in those
days, Aaron Elving recalled, usually ran 50 cents to a dollar.1
Elving Orchestra and Chorus
orchestra consisted of six or seven pieces, led by Sam Grossman, who was also
the violinist. He held that position during the entire lifetime of
orchestra played not only for the stage shows, but also provided light Yiddish
music while the incoming guests were being seated, and at the end of the
show, while they were departing, until the theatre was empty.
Elvings also had a
chorus of six girls who were available for those types of plays that called for
their services. Although they sang in Yiddish, only two of the six were
Elving Recollection of a Pre-Teen Patron
When I spoke with
Bernice Kessler of Union, a former journalist with the Elizabeth Daily Journal,
and told her of plans to write about Elvings, she recalled for me her early
childhood visits to Elvings in the early 1930s.
"Elvings was one of
my favorite places. On Sundays, when my brother and I were taken from our
farm in Mountainside for visits with my grandparents on Aldine Street in Newark,
we were given a choice of either going to a neighborhood movie with my cousins,
or to the Yiddish theatre with Buba and Zaida (Grandmother and Grandfather).
I always chose Elvings. I was about 8 or 9 at the time.
"And I vividly recall
a number of the shows. They were so melodramatic -- the soap operas of the
day. One, I believe, was a Yiddish version of Stella Dallas, about a
mother who gave up her baby and near the finale was standing outside the window
tearfully watching the marriage of this now adult child. I can still hear
the brokenhearted woman singing."
Another "Patron" Recollection
I also mentioned
working on this 'Memory' to Arthur Herberg, 89, a retired Newark pharmacist.
I asked him if he had ever gone to Elving's.
"No," he told me,
even though I lived only a few blocks away at 74 Barclay Street. But my
"She told me one day,
when I came home from school, that she was going to Elvings because Molly Picon
was playing there and Molly was from her home town in Europe -- Warsaw."2
How Elving's Advertised
Israel Elving reached
potential audiences before each new show with advertisements in the Jewish
Chronicle, an English-language weekly published for Newark's Jewish community,
and in the Newark Edition of the Jewish Daily Forward, printed in Yiddish.
But the most
effective way he targeted Elvings prime audience was with colorful window
posters, printed at the West Side Printing House, and placed in the windows of
kosher butcher shops in Newark, and in outlying communities in Passaic and Union
counties with sizeable Jewish populations.
free passes for displaying the poster in his window.
Elving's Building Sold in Changed Neighborhood
The twenty-two year
run of Elving's Metropolitan Theatre at 117 Montgomery Street ended in 1944 when
the building was sold to Father Divine, founder and director of the Peace
By the time of the
sale in 1944, Newark's large Jewish population had already moved away from the
once heavily-Jewish Third Ward, where Elvings had a large walk-in attendance,
and their more prosperous orchestra patrons had moved to the outlying suburbs
and would no longer come into that Newark neighborhood4.
Israel Elving's Death
When Elving's general
manager, Israel Elving, died in 1947, funeral services were held in New York
City and his son, Aaron recalled for me that the mourners at the service were a
veritable "Who's Who" of the Yiddish theatre.
Many had played on
Elvings stage in its early years when road companies from New York's Yiddish Art
Theatre were booked for Newark performances.
A few of those in
attendance, he recalled, were Moishe Oysher, Aaron Lebedof, and Mickey Katz.,
father of Joel Gray.
Israel Elving is buried in Elmont, Long
Molly Picon Remembers
In late 1963, Molly
Picon, who reigned as the Yiddish Theatre's "Sweetheart of Second Avenue,"
during the 1920s and 1930s, was starring in the stage production "Milk and
Honey" at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn.
Aaron Elving, then
40, decided to pay a courtesy call on Miss Picon, in appreciation for her
earlier appearances at Elvings. While attending a performance, he stopped
by her dressing room and after introducing himself, was warmly received.
He recalls her
calling to her husband, Jacob Kalich, and informing him of her visitor "It's an
Then she turned to
Israel Elving's son and asked "Tell me -- Is the schvitz still across the
By that time, Elvings
Theatre was no more, nor was the old Charlton Baths on Charlton Street.
The Elving Children
Bernard Elving's son,
Philip, attended Princeton, became a leading authority on analytical chemistry.
He had been a professor for decades at the University of Michigan. Bernard's daughter, Eleanor,
made a career in library science and retired as a professor at Kean University
in the early 1980s.
Israel Elving's son,
Aaron, graduated from South Side High School, and enjoyed a long career as a
sales representative in the electronics industry, from which he is retired and
living in Florida.
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