Monthly Archives: December 2012

The World of Yiddish Theater, As Seen By Alter Kacyzne

While cataloging the Museum’s Yiddish theater collection, I stumbled across some photographs that stood out among the thousands I had seen. They are beautiful, expertly lit yet not artificial, as some theater stills can seem. They were clearly the work of a master photographer, as I soon found out when I saw what was embossed on the mounts of the photographs: A. Kacyzne, Warszawa, Długa N 26.

Alter-Sholem Kacyzne was born to a poor family on May 31, 1885 in Wilno, then part of the Russian Empire (now Vilnius, Lithuania). As a child he attended kheyder, where he learned the Hebrew Bible, and then elementary school. He was an apprentice to a photographer at the age of fourteen. Although his formal education had ended, he continued to read and educate himself during the eleven years he worked at the photographer’s shop, eventually becoming fluent in six languages.

In 1910, Kacyzne moved to Warsaw to be closer to his literary idol, Isaac Leib Peretz. Peretz wrote plays and stories inspired by Jewish folklore and Hasidic culture. His writing often displayed sympathies to the labor movement that had been gaining momentum across the Russian Empire. Peretz is now regarded as one of the great classical Yiddish writers. Below he is seen with Yankev Dinezon, another revered Yiddish writer and activist.

Alter Kacyzne. I. L. Peretz and Yankev Dinezon. ca. 1910. Museum of the City of New York. X2012.7.365

Alter Kacyzne. I. L. Peretz and Yankev Dinezon. ca. 1910. Museum of the City of New York. X2012.7.365

The Vilna Troupe (or Vilner trupe, as it is known in Yiddish) was an esteemed Yiddish theater company with humble origins in Vilna, Lithuania. It began as an amateur group around 1916 but quickly gained an impressive reputation. In 1917, the troupe dazzled Warsaw audiences with its production of Leon Kobrin’s Yankel Boyle. The group reached its peak of fame in 1920 with a production of S. Ansky’s Der Dibek, or The Dybbuk in English. The Dybbuk’s overwhelming popularity among European theatergoers came at the expense of other Vilna Troupe performances, which played to empty seats. By 1924, infighting over the troupe’s direction had splintered the group into several divisions, each claiming to be the original Vilna Troupe.

Alter Kacyzne. Vilna Troupe. ca. 1920. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.63.403

Alter Kacyzne. Vilna Troupe. ca. 1920. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.63.403

Bella Bellarina, a Yiddish actress from Warsaw, joined the troupe in 1918 and starred in the group’s productions of The Dybbuk, Mirele Efros, Di puste kretshme (Idle Inn), and Grine felder (Green Fields). She traveled with the group in Europe and even to New York in 1924. She can be seen in the far left in the photograph below.


Alter Kacyzne. “Green Fields” theater still. ca. 1921. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.63.342

While in New York, she and her husband, fellow actor and Vilna Troupe member Chaim Schneyer Hamerow, decided to stay in the United States. Bellarina found steady work in Yiddish theater up until World War II, and then began appearing only at social and cultural events until her death in 1969.

Alter Kacyzne. "Green Fields" theater still. ca. 1921. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.63.343

Alter Kacyzne. “Green Fields” theater still. ca. 1921. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.63.343

Alter Kacyzne continued to work as a photographer and writer in Warsaw. He fled with his family in September 1939, when Germany invaded Poland. He survived in Soviet-occupied eastern Poland until the Nazi advance in June 1941. Kacyzne fled even further east in Poland to Tarnopol but was killed in the Ukrainian pogrom on July 7.

What must have amounted to Kacyzne’s immense archive – photographs, manuscripts, letters – did not survive the Nazi occupation. Of this great body of work, only around 700 photographs are known to exist. Kacyzne sent the photographs to New York in the 1920s during the course of two separate commissions by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and the Yiddish newspaper Forverts, to document Jewish life in Poland. These photographs are now held in the YIVO archives. The Museum of the City of New York has four known photographs by Kacyzne in its collection.

Biographical information about Kacyzne was obtained from Marek Web’s introduction to the book Poyln: Jewish Life in the Old Country by Alter Kacyzne. Information about the Vilna Troupe was obtained from Vagabond Stars: A World History of Yiddish Theater by Nahma Sandrow.

Digitization of the Collection on Yiddish Theatre Collection was made possible by the generous funding and support of the David Berg Foundation and the Lemberg Foundation.

Beefsteaks – A 19th-century Dining Craze

Do you remember several years ago when some New York restaurants actually had their patrons dining on beds? That short-lived phenomenon is just one of many dining fads that have come and gone over the years. The William S. Miller Papers housed at the South Street Seaport Museum Library and Archives provides a glimpse into one fad that experienced a heyday in New York City and other cities across the country from the mid-nineteenth century through World War I: The Beefsteak Dinner, or “Beefsteak.”

Beefsteaks were initially all-male gatherings, with small groups of men gathering in rustic taverns or dingy cellars where, sitting on crates or stools, they would sing, tell stories, eat steaks, and drink ale with abandon. In these “dungeons,” etiquette was set aside. No knives or forks were allowed. The participants ate tender morsels of beef steak, accompanied by gravy-sopped slices of bread, with their hands, wiping the grease on large napkins or aprons.

Beefsteak Dinner, c. 1890. South Street Seaport Museum, William S. Miller Papers.

In addition to dinners thrown by individuals for small groups of friends or business associates, there were Beefsteak Clubs that met regularly in restaurants or clubhouses. Dinners were also thrown by businesses and political and fraternal organizations.

Invitation, The Brotherhood of the Blood Rare Circle, 1893. South Street Seaport Museum, William S. Miller Papers.

Although there were a number of venues for Beefsteak Dinners throughout New York City, beginning in the 1890s, the carpenter shop of William S. Miller on East 40thStreet was a popular and well-known place to enjoy this entertainment. Miller, a well-known carpenter and builder, followed in the footsteps of his father, Anton W. Miller, who was, by some accounts, the “father” of the New York City Beefsteak. Known as “Uncle Billy,” Anton Miller was the affluent proprietor of a tavern at the corner of Market and Monroe Streets in Lower Manhattan originally known as Shannon’s Corner.

License to William Shannon, 1852. South Street Seaport Museum, William S. Miller Papers.

The earliest beef steak dinners held at Shannon’s Corner were organized by The Birth Day Union, an association of thirteen men dedicated to the memory of George Washington. William Shannon, the original proprietor of the tavern, was a charter member of the association, which met annually on Washington’s Birthday.

Constitution of The Birth Day Union, 1844. South Street Seaport Museum, William S. Miller Paper.

“Uncle Billy” Miller was renowned for his beefsteaks, which he personally broiled to perfection on a hickory wood burning stove. As Miller’s, his tavern became a popular meeting place for Beefsteak Clubs from around the city, and elsewhere.

The Utah Beefsteak Club, 1884. South Street Seaport Museum, William S. Miller Papers.

Newspaper clippings in the Seaport Archives collection report the gatherings of many of these clubs, including the Wall Street Club, the Dry Goods Men’s Club, and the Staten Island Beefeaters. Many give detailed descriptions of the gatherings and name the participants and their occupations. One newspaper article from the 1890’s raved “Will anybody who has ever eaten one of Uncle Billy’s beefsteak dinners forget it? The very remembrance makes one’s mouth water. The picture sticks in the memory – Uncle Billy on his low stool before the fire, with his broiler and his big shakers of pepper and salt, his face beaming, the guests seated about on boxes and stools and kegs; the big pewter tankard of ale that never got a rest for a moment.”

Upon his retirement in 1888, Anton removed the wood-burning stove  from the tavern and placed it in the cellar of William’s uptown carpentry shop, where he continued to cook the occasional beefsteak dinner for groups of friends. He also cooked for dinners scheduled in advance by individuals and organizations. His selectivity was acknowledged by William who is quoted as saying, “It pleases father to be asked to do it, but it isn’t everybody he will cook for.”

Anton W. Miller, c. 1885. South Street Seaport Museum, William S. Miller Papers.

William Miller kept up the tradition after his father’s death.

William S. Miller, c. 1900. South Street Seaport Museum, William S. Miller Papers.

Included in the collection are letters to William Miller from business leaders, club presidents, and individuals requesting his preparation of Beefsteak Dinners.  One 1894 invitation from Miller himself invites members of an organization to “the enjoyment of Beefsteak and Ale, to be prepared and devoured in old original style.”

Invitation from William S. Miller, 1894. South Street Seaport Museum, William S. Miller Papers.

In later years, Beefsteaks became coed affairs. Instead of “dungeons,” the dinners were held in hotels, restaurants, and even on apartment building rooftops.

“Perry Belmont Shows the Cake-Walk to English Aristocracy,” undated. South Street Seaport Museum. William S. Miller Papers.

Eventually, women not only attended dinners hosted by William Miller but also contacted him to make arrangements for dinners. Correspondence addressed to “Mr. and Mrs. Miller” indicates that William Miller’s wife was involved in preparation of dinners in later years.

Undated letter. South Street Seaport Museum, William S. Miller Papers.

Noted writer Joseph Mitchell, who chronicled New York City life and culture in his New Yorker magazine articles, memorialized Beefsteak Dinners in a 1939 essay entitled, “All You Can Hold for Five Bucks.”

Beefsteak Dinners continue today, albeit in a tamer fashion, in some New Jersey communities, usually sponsored by local service organizations and social clubs.

The Great Crystal Palace Fire of 1858

The New York Crystal Palace was a cast-iron and steel structure completed in 1853  on the site of current day Bryant Park, located between 42nd and 40th streets to the north and south, the Croton Distributing Reservoir (current location of the Stephen A. Schwarzman  Building of the New York Public Library) to the east, and Sixth Avenue to the west.  The structure, designed by architects Georg J. B. Carstensen and Charles Gildermeister in the shape of a Greek cross, featured a dome at its center and was reputed to be fireproof.

Print issued by John Bachmann. Birds Eye View of the New York Crystal Palace and Environs. John Bachmann, 1853. Museum of the City of New York. 29.100.2387

Program for the Inauguration of the Crystal Palace, 1853, in the Ephemera Collection. Museum of the City of New York. 29.100.3357.

The Crystal Palace was built to house what is often thought of as the first United States world’s fair — known as the “Exhibition of Industry of All Nations” —  which opened to the public  on July 14, 1853.  The building and the exhibition were inspired by similar events held in London in 1851 and Dublin in 1852, featuring agricultural products and industrial innovations.  Elisha Otis first obtained widespread attention for his new invention, the elevator, at the fair in 1854.   The fair also celebrated the fine arts, showcasing a collection of sculpture and paintings.   While the fair included exhibitors from around the world, those from the United States were most numerous.

Initially, the fair was very popular and no visit to New York could be complete without a visit to the Crystal Palace.  Attendees purchased souvenirs that included canes, clothing, ash trays, medals, spoons, thimbles, and objects such as the plaque pictured below.

Souvenir plaque of the Exhibition of the Industry of all Nations, New York, 1853-1854, in the Ephemera Collection. Museum of the City of New York. 43.118.14.

However, by the latter part of its first year, the Crystal Palace exposition began to suffer from declining attendance.   Theodore Sedgwick, the first president of the Crystal Palace Association, resigned and was replaced with the grand entertainer Phineas T. Barnum.  When the exhibition finally closed on November 1, 1854, despite the change in leadership and paid attendance exceeding 0ne million, the sponsors of the fair were left with $300,000 in debt.  When the Crystal Palace reopened, it was leased as a space for special events and continued to host the Fair of the American Institute, previously held at Niblo’s Garden, for the next few years.

Judge’s ticket during the 29th Annual Fair of the American Institute at the Crystal Palace, 1857, in the Ephemera Collection. Museum of the City of New York. 36.409.58.

Attendance to events at the Crystal Palace continued to dwindle and by 1856, according to The New York Times, it was considered a “piece of dead property.”  Perhaps the low attendance was considered a blessing when, on October 5, 1858, the Crystal Palace caught fire while hosting the American Institute Fair.  A letter in the Museum’s collection from Franklin Harvey Biglow to his sister Elizabeth Biglow describes being present at the Crystal Palace on the day of the fire, and how the entire structure collapsed in “not more than ten minutes from the time the alarm was given.”   Biglow was likely an exhibitor at the 30th Annual American Institute Fair, as suggested in his statement in the letter: “Very little of the immense value in goods & merchandise was saved.  My cases and contents went with the rest, my actual loss will not vary much from $900 dollars”–the equivalent of $23,050 in 2012.  Click here to view the full letter.  The total losses from the fire were estimated at approximately $500,000 (the equivalent of $12,802,150 today ), including the value of the building, exhibits, and statuary still installed from the time of the “Exhibition of Industry of All Nations.”  Nearly 2,000 people were inside when the fire broke out, but no one was injured.  The Museum also holds a chunk of glass salvaged from the burnt structure (accession number 36.407) in the collection.

Photographer unknown. Crystal Palace Interior, ca. 1855. Photo Archives. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.5044.

Click here to view more images of the Crystal Palace from the Museum’s collection.