Though New York still boasts a couple of Jewish-themed theatre troupes, and the Folksbiene Playhouse continues to stage old and new plays in the Yiddish language, the real legacy of Yiddish theatre has essentially faded over time. As fewer and fewer people are alive to remember the likes of Molly Picon, Paul Muni and Maurice Schwartz, any attempts to archive and showcase remnants of the golden age of Second Avenue become increasingly valuable.
That's the thinking behind a new project, "Second Avenue Online," dedicated to preserving the "oral histories, music, photos, posters, manuscripts, scores and letters" of the Yiddish Theatre. The site officially launched Feb. 2. Sections already posted include a brief history of Yiddish theatre (by Caraid O'Brien), spoken word remembrances, and a list of resources for research on the subject.
Project director Cynthia Allen came up with the idea, which was initially funded by the estate of Ann Ronell, composer of "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf" and "Willow Weep For Me." According to NYU Office of Public Affairs spokesperson Helen Horowitz, Ronell's bequest wasn't specific, but NYU officials figured that since Ronell, who also scored such films as "Love Happy" and "One Touch of Venus," was a devotee of music, musical theatre and film musicals, the Second Avenue project was an appropriate recipient for her donation.
Further helping the website project is a recent $50,000 grant from Steven Spielberg's Righteous Persons Foundation. The latter organization, established from the profits of Spielberg's Oscar-winning "Schindler's List," devotes itself to exploring and celebrating modern Jewish life. Foundation executive director Margery Tabankin said in a statement, "Second Avenue Online will make an invaluable resource easily accessible to people who share cultural and scholarly interests in the seminal role Yiddish theatre played in America's entertainment industry."
New York University's Center for Advanced Technology (CAT) is designing and overseeing the digital archive, which intends to offer an events calendar, bulletin board and a three-dimensional "walk-through" down New York's Second Avenue -- the acknowledged Yiddish Theatre capital of the world. University president L. Jay Oliva pointed out that NYU's own archives of Jewish culture, as well as its centers for Hebrew and Judaic studies, make it a natural for cultivating the site. NYU spokesperson Horowitz told Playbill On-Line (Sept. 2, 1999), "We expect [the site] will generate a lot of donations and material; people will have memorabilia and offer it so that it's preserved and available... It's the latest technology. You push a button, hear a song, see a tape, even take a 3-D tour... And what better time for it than the millennium?"
-- By David Lefkowitz