Wednesday, September 6, 2023

Interrogating Joseph Mandelkern


In 1886, Joseph Mandelkern left his desk job in Bialystok City Hall and immigrated to America. His plans were far grander than many an Eastern European newcomer. He already knew that he would become an impresario. 

After settling in New York City, Mandelkern placed a newspaper announcement that he had established a “New Yiddish Theatre.” Then he sailed off to London to recruit famous Yiddish-speaking performers. He had his eye on Jacob P. Adler, once a juvenile delinquent; now a renowned European actor.*

Wackily, the trip was funded by two wealthy Chicago clothiers named Rosengarten and Drozdovitch who thought that New York had no business staking a claim on Yiddish theater.

But the deal fell apart and Mandelkern came home instead with the team of Moishe Finkel and Sigmund Mogulesko, who had been a smash hit on the Romanian stage.

It didn’t bother Mandelkern that they were not a hit in New York. He had bigger fish to fry.   

In 1889, Mandelkern traveled to Russia, Rumania, and Austria in search of more performers. Until the early 1920s, he would visit Russia recurrently through pogroms, war, and revolution.

Most Jews who fled Eastern Europe in the late nineteenth century did not intend to return to the land of persecution. Joseph Mandelkern’s ambition left no room for fear. Armed with a document which took two years to obtain, he managed to dodge reprisals—to put it mildly—from Cossacks and “Uligani,” as hoodlums were known.

In June 1910, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported:


It appeared yesterday that while Oscar Hammerstein, the impresario, had been barred out of Russia, it is said, because of his Jewish parentage, and also because it had become known that he was seeking to persuade Russian singers and dancers, favorites of the Czar, to leave Russia, Joseph Mandelkern, another Jewish impresario of this city, had been freely traveling through the Czar’s domains. Mr. Mandelkern, who lives at 20 East 120th Street in this city, just received in Moscow and St. Petersburg, had great success in contracting with popular ballet and operatic favorites of both cities for American tours.


Evidently Mandelkern liked to show off, tempt fate, and challenge authority.

That is why I wish the brilliant, effervescent dance critic Ann Barzel were still alive to explain Mandelkern to me. I met Ann in the summer of 1982 when she spent two weeks in Jackson, Mississippi covering the International Ballet Competition for Dance Magazine and Dance News.

At 77 years old, she had been devoted to all aspects of dance since the age of fourteen although she didn’t care for “Twyla Twerp.”   

Since I was the Competition’s director of public relations, Ann and I spoke often even before the competition. In particular, she shared insight and background on the esteemed jury co-chaired by Robert Joffrey.  

Ann Barzel contributed an essay to the program
for the 1982 International Ballet Competition.

Until the last minute, we did not know who would represent the Soviet Union as co-chair. Ann thought it would be Sofia Golovkina, director of the Bolshoi Ballet School, and she was right. 

A few days after the appointment, Miss Golovkina called me to ask about proper attire for the galas to which she had been invited.

“I plan to wear the silk pajama,” she confided.

Ann loved the story.

Born in 1915, Sofia Golovkina would have been too young for Joseph Mandelkern to pluck from the arms of Mother Russia and put on tour in the United States.

But Ann—with her encyclopedic knowledge of the history of ballet and the business of dance—might have been able to explain Joseph Mandelkern’s rapid ascent as an agent and producer.

Was he a Czarist, a socialist or a capitalist? How did he manage to poach all of those Eastern European dancers and actors? And why did he leave the United States so hastily in 1924?


To be continued.   

*Jacob Adler’s daughter founded the Stella Adler School of Acting in 1949.


1 comment:

  1. What I'm missing is any indication that his theater was a success at all?

    "It didn’t bother Mandelkern that they were not a hit in New York. He had bigger fish to fry. "
    All these trips back to the old countries imply he was feeding the NY stage with talent. Plus, he had a budget. Where did the money come from?


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