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Posts Tagged ‘left-wing’

Photo: Philip Cutler
Zuni Maud, Bessie Maud, and Yosl Cutler on a 1931-1932 tour to the Soviet Union. Puppets are (L-R) Mahatma Gandhi, British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, French Prime Minister Léon Blum, Wall Street, and Herbert Hoover.

Sometimes there things that we don’t think we can say that instead we put in the mouths of stuffed animals, pets, or puppets. In the early 20th Century, that’s what left-leaning Yiddish puppet masters found themselves doing more and more as international audiences lapped it up.

Eddy Portnoy writes at Smithsonian about Yosl Cutler and Zuni Maud, who “created a Yiddish puppet theater that fused traditional Jewish folklore, modern politics, and a searing satiric left-wing sensibility.

“Both immigrants from Eastern Europe, Cutler and Maud met in the New York offices of a Yiddish humor magazine called Der groyser kundes (‘The Great Prankster’), where both worked as cartoonists and writers of often surreal short stories. They became fast friends and opened a small studio on Union Square, where they sold artworks and painted furniture. Both were tangentially involved in theater set decoration; when Maurice Schwartz, the founder and director of the Yiddish Art Theater, asked the two to create puppets for a scene in a play he was staging at the end of 1924, they jumped at the chance.

“Puppets weren’t a common form of entertainment in Jewish culture. … But in the mid-1920s, puppetry had become hot in American theater. … Schwartz, who had his finger on the pulse of New York’s theater world, saw an opportunity to put puppets in his production of the Yiddish classic Di kishefmakherin (‘The Sorceress’). It would be the first time puppets would speak Yiddish on a Yiddish theater stage.

“But it never happened. … Schwartz decided that the puppets Cutler and Maud had created were too small to see from the house, so he cut the scene. The two would-be puppeteers took their creations home. As a joke, they began taking the puppets with them to the literary cafés they frequented and performed shtick for their friends. Someone suggested they start a Yiddish puppet theater. …

“At the end of 1925, Cutler and Maud set up shop in a space in the Lower East Side in what had previously been a children’s clothing factory. They briefly hired an artist by the name of Jack Tworkov, who had been trained in the art of puppet making by Bufano. During shows, they would set fabric cutting tables and simple wooden benches in front of the stage for the audience: a somewhat ramshackle production with a proletarian feel. Initially performing comic scenes and a modernized version of the traditional Jewish Purim shpil (holiday play), which included a variety of characters from the Lower East Side, they quickly garnered good reviews in New York’s Yiddish newspapers.

“Under the moniker Modicut, a combination of their last names, word spread, and their shows began to sell out. Adding to their repertoire, they included comic playlets, often including parodies of popular Yiddish theater songs. …

“In addition to lauding Modicut’s plays, reviewers noted how finely their puppets were constructed. Although they were caricatures and grotesques, their costumes were deemed authentic, from the silk robes and prayer shawls of Jewish traditional figures to the work clothes worn by Lower East Side laborers. Some of their puppets included unique, culturally relevant innovations, such as the rotating thumb or wagging thumb of a sermonizing rabbi, or the wiggling ears of their emcee. The first time Yiddish-speaking audiences saw homegrown characters on a puppet stage, their reaction was one of sheer joy. …

“They went on tour in 1928, bringing their Yiddish puppets up and down the Eastern seaboard, to parts of the Midwest, and even to Cuba. As they wrote and performed new skits, they became more politicized, actively engaging with and satirizing the news of the day. …

“They traveled to Europe, playing in England, France, and Belgium before heading to Poland, the largest center of Yiddish culture. In Warsaw, they played 200 sold-out shows, followed by 75 sold-out shows in Vilna. Reviews in the Yiddish press were effusive, and journalists were amazed that two ‘Americans’ could present something that was so authentically Jewish. …

“On the back of their European success, Modicut was invited to perform in the Soviet Union during 1931 and 1932. They prepared by writing skits addressing themes such as the oppression of the working class, and featuring sweatshops, corrupt bosses, exploitation, imperialism, the depression, and war. All of this proved popular to audiences in the USSR. …

“They worked together until 1933, when a fight of unknown origins caused them to split up the act. … In May 1935, Cutler went on the road, allegedly to California in hopes of making a full-length Yiddish puppet film, performing in Jewish communities along the way. It was on the road to Denver that Cutler and his puppets met their demise [in a car crash]. …

“Maud was devastated by Cutler’s death. Having worked together so intensely and successfully, he felt awful on account of their earlier falling out. He nonetheless continued to produce art and work in puppetry for the remaining twenty years of his life. Notably, he worked with puppeteer Nat Norbert Buchholz, who later taught the craft to Shari Lewis, who debuted her famed Lamb Chop puppet on Captain Kangaroo in 1956.”

“Cap’n Aroo,” as a kid I know used to say! Though not as insightful as the later children’s TV star Fred Rogers (who also used puppets to speak for him), he nevertheless entertained kids for 29 years. So here’s to puppets on Captain Kangaroo!

Read more about the Yiddish puppeteers at Smithsonian, here.

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