Akim Tamiroff home, Beverly Hills, CA

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Akim Tamiroff may have left more footprints in Los Angeles and its environs than any other Russian-born actor/director in Hollywood. There are numerous addresses for him, and many of the houses he lived in still stand. He has a star just off of Hollywood Boulvard, and, since he was involved with Michael Chekhov, he can be attached to several more addresses around town.
Our first post, among what may end up being many, demonstrates the home where Tamiroff lived for some time in the 1940s. The address is 629 North Alta Drive in Beverly Hills. We know he could not have lived here any earlier than the summer of 1941, when he was still resident at 515 N. Rexford Dr. in Beverly Hills. (He was there from at least 1938 to 1941). I can’t find the dates when he moved into the N. Alta Dr. property, but he lived here when he registered to vote in 1946. Further, we know that he moved to Palm Springs at some time in the 1950s – I don’t have a specific date for that move. So, for conversation’s sake, let’s call this place on North Alta Tamiroff’s home for the better part of the 1940s.
As any source will tell you, Tamiroff was not Russian, but was of Armenian descent. He was born in 1899 in Tiflis (Tbilisi), the capital of Georgia, which was a territory of the Russian empire at that time. His full first name was Hovakim and his proper last name was Tamirov, transliterated with the two ffs back in the day in order to approximate the soft Russian “v” at the end of a word or name. But Tamiroff’s Russian connections were significant, if brief, and so we are happy to claim him in the constellation of Russian culture.
The fact is that he traveled to Moscow around 1918 or 1919 to study at the Moscow Art Theater. That, in itself, is a sign of character and fortitude. Russia was struggling at the peak years of its Civil War at that time and, I would guess, more people were trying to leave Moscow than to come there. Be that as it may, Tamiroff was admitted into the troupe of the Moscow Art Theater in 1920 (trust this date from the Moscow Art Theater encyclopedia, rather than other dates you may find on the net). He was a member of the Art Theater’s traveling troupe that was such a sensation in the United States in the early 1920s. When the Art Theater went back to Moscow in 1924, Tamiroff remained behind. In his four-year Art Theater career, Tamiroff played numerous important, secondary roles in top productions – The Inspector General, Three Sisters, The Cherry Orchard, The Blue Bird, Enough Simplicity in Every Wiseman, The Brothers Karamazov and others. At first in New York he worked for Nikita Balieff’s famous Bat Cabaret, later opening his own make-up studio. The Art Theater encyclopedia tells us that Katherine Hepburn was among his students there. He also embarked on an admirable career acting in New York, sometimes on Broadway.
Curiously – because he spoke with an extremely thick Russian accent – he moved to Hollywood in 1932 precisely when films went talkie. His accent served him well as he played all kinds of colorful foreigners throughout his career.

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Tamiroff was in such demand as an expressive character actor in the heydays of the Hollywood studios, that he participated in over 60 films in just his first few years on the West Coast. This was good, of course, because it meant steady work and pay. It also apparently frustrated the actor. According to legend, he is the unnamed actor who complained to the famous Russian writers Ilf and Petrov that he could only get parts playing Mexicans. They quoted him saying that in their popular travelogue, Single-Storied America (material gathered 1935-36; published in Russian in 1937). Indeed, according to the IMDB film website, Tamiroff’s first ten roles in the cinema were so small that they went uncredited. Be that as it may, Tamiroff was twice nominated for Academy Awards in the Best Supporting Role, Male, category. This was in 1936 for the title role in The General Died at Dawn, and in 1943, for For Whom the Bell Tolls.
The actors and directors he performed with and for comprise a who’s-who of Hollywood in those years. Directors included Cecil B. DeMille, Preston Sturges, Orson Welles, Jean-Luc Godard, Eric von Stroheim, Michael Curtiz, William Wyler, Charles Vidor and others. He worked with virtually every major actor of the age, including Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Rosalind Russell, Gary Cooper, Irene Dunne, Frederic March, Spencer Tracy, Hedy Lamarr, Ingrid Bergman, Frank Sinatra, Charlton Heston, and I’m just skimming as I run rough-shod over an astonishing list. He was something of a favorite of Orson Welles, playing in four of that master’s late films, including the role of Sancho Panza in Welles’ unfinished Don Quixote.
Most of this post consists of things I have cherry-picked from the internet, but at the end I can offer up a tidbit that you probably can’t find anywhere else. When I was doing research on the L.A. addresses, Lisa Dalton of the Michael Chekhov Theater Institute responded to my cry for help by tossing off a nice little phrase, which I quote here in full: “Akim Tamiroff hosted regular soirees and classes for Mr. C which is where Mala [Powers], [Anthony] Quinn and the Bridges [as in Lloyd and his wife Dorothy] worked with him.” So, it would appear that Tamiroff – who would have known Michael Chekhov as a great actor in Moscow – was one of those people in the “Russian mafia in Hollywood” to help provide Chekhov a foothold in Tinsletown.

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Sergei Rachmaninoff home, Moscow

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There is no plaque here, but the proof that Sergei Rachmaninoff lived briefly in this building at 15 Plotnikov Lane (it was numbered 19 at the time, and the street was called Nikolsky Lane) can be found in the writings of the late, great Moscow historian Sergei Romanyuk. “S.V. Rachmaninoff briefly moved into the house on this plot in the fall of 1892 after his triumphant graduation from the Conservatory.” That phrase, more or less in that configuration, is repeated over and over in many sources. That’s the influence of Romanyuk – if he said it, it happened.
Rachmaninoff is in the news a lot these days mostly for the wrong reasons. The Russian government, as though it has nothing else to do, decided not long ago that it wanted to bring Rachmaninoff’s bones home. This appears to have been the idea of Russian Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky and, frankly, it sounds like one of his cockamamie ideas. I guess it wasn’t enough for Medinsky to wage war against obscenities in art; against so-called representations and propaganda of the “gay lifestyle” in art; against theater productions that supposedly “offend the sensibilities of religious believers”; against theater festivals that his department accuses of failing to support “traditional Russian values,” and so on and so forth. No, he had to go and decide to try to get someone to dig up Sergei Rachmaninoff’s remains, where they are buried north of New York City, and “bring them home to Moscow.” Medinsky is irked that the United States has “arrogantly privatized the name of Rachmaninoff” and that he, Rachmaninoff,  is put forth as a “great American composer of Russian descent.”
Since I’m not really up to jumping into this controversy at the moment, I’ll just say this: I’m not quite sure what sources Medinsky relied on to come up with the claim that people in the United States call Rachmaninoff an “American” composer. I never recall having seen such a definition, not in a respectable publication, anyway. As for the fact that he lived the last 25 years of his life in the U.S. – it’s true.
Maybe Medinsky is unhappy with the way Rachmaninoff’s name was westernized. Technically speaking his last name should be spelled Rakhmaninov. As I said not long ago in this space, the “ch” (in place of the hard “kh” sound) and all the “ff’s” are the sign of the era in which he emigrated. French and German styles of transliteration influenced American usage heavily at the time. There were, virtually, no Slavic studies in the U.S. at this time – just a few intrepid translators (Louis and Aylmer Maude, Constance Garnett) and producers (Sol Hurok). So there was no community concerned with keeping order in the transliteration of the names of all those Russians pouring in over the borders, many of them by way of France and Germany…
And don’t get me started on immigrants… Thank God the United States is a nation of immigrants. Anybody who tells you otherwise, in any form, doesn’t know jack about the United States, about humanity, about art, about culture, about life…
But I digress too much today…

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It doesn’t look like Rachmaninoff spent much time in this building at all. He arrived in the fall of 1892 and surely was gone by the summer of 1893, which he spent with family friends in Ukraine. It’s true that he came back to Moscow at summer’s end, but it sounds like he took up residence elsewhere at that point.
This building – now a fish restaurant – appears to have witnessed at least one important career moment in Rachmaninoff’s life, even though he was only 19 when he moved in. It so happens that the last work he composed while a student at the Conservatory was the opera Aleko, based on Alexander Pushkin’s narrative poem The Gypsies. Although he disparaged the work, it turned out to be a big success. The Bolshoi Theater picked it up and mounted it on May 9, 1893 (April 27, Old Style). (I have seen other dates for this premiere – including March of 1893, but I trust the May 9 date.) Moreover, that production starred none less than the great bass Fyodor Chaliapin. Rachmaninoff probably would have received word of the Bolshoi’s decision, and would have been involved in the preparation for the premiere, while living here on Nikolsky Lane.
I can’t nail it down as a fact, but it would appear that Rachmaninoff lived here with his relatives, the Satin family. In any case, Wikipedia tells us that he “spent the summer of 1892 on the estate of Ivan Konavalov, a rich landowner in the Kostroma Oblast, and moved back with the Satins in the Arbat District.” That is precisely the time that Romanyuk has him showing up on Nikolsky (Plotnikov) Lane. Wikipedia offers a few more tidbits that appear to characterize the short time Rachmaninoff spent here: “His publisher was slow in paying, so Rachmaninoff took an engagement at the Moscow Electrical Exhibition, where he premiered his landmark Prelude in C-sharp minor (Op. 3, No. 2). This small piece, part of a set of five pieces called Morceaux de fantaisie, was received well, and is one of his most enduring pieces.”
The Satin family (pronounced Sah-TEEN) was important for Rachmaninoff: He would marry Natalya Satina, his first cousin. There is a nice little story about Sergei and Natalya on the Find a Grave website:
Sergei and Natalya met as young music students during Easter 1888. Rachmaninoff later roomed with the Satin family. Natalya wrote, ‘in September 1901 my parents finally succumbed to my pleas to be allowed to marry Sergei Vasiliyevich. All that was left was to obtain legal permission, which was not easy since we were closely related. [Marriage of first cousins was barred in the Russian Orthodox Church.] My mother took on the challenge with her one-of-a-kind energy and zeal. She thus bustled all through winter, and only in March it transpired that a petition had to be sent to the Czar. The wedding was postponed till the end of April due to the arrival of Lent. Early in April Sergei went to Ivanovka and sat down to write twelve romances, deciding to turn out one daily to earn money for our trip to Italy after the wedding.’ These are the 12 Romances for voice and piano, Opus 21.
Of their wedding day she wrote, ‘We were wed on 29 April 1902 on the outskirts of Moscow in some regimental church. I rode in the carriage in my wedding dress, with the rain pouring relentlessly. The sole entry into the church was via a long succession of barracks. The soldiers stared at us in amazement.'”

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Anton Chekhov plaque and apartment, Moscow

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I now never go out without my camera in my pocket or my briefcase. Today’s post is proof of why. I recently sat in on a dress rehearsal of a new show at the School of Dramatic Art and, afterwards, I had about 40 minutes to kill before I was to meet my wife for lunch. So I started out walking up and down the neighboring streets there in the Sretenka district, and – lo and behold! I happened upon a plaque informing me that Anton Chekhov lived in the building at 3 Maly Golovin Lane between 1881 and 1885.
Now, if I had previously come upon the Chekhov Addresses page on one Chekhov website I might have known that. Or, it’s possible that I would have been so daunted I wouldn’t have bothered to look. This page lists 78 Moscow addresses that are bound up with the life and work of Chekhov! I can see my work is cut out for me now…
According to this site, which provides the added information that Chekhov first appeared in this home in the fall of 1881, and that he and his family moved out in October, 1885, Chekhov occupied at least two different apartments in the building at different times. The site continues:
“[Chekhov’s] family lived in four rooms in the basement for about a year. Then, when Chekhov graduated from university, they moved, in the same building, onto the second floor. Here A.P. Chekhov hung out his sign ‘Doctor A.P. Chekhov’ for the first time. In this same apartment N[ikolai] Leskov visited Chekhov in October 1883 and gave him some of his books. The stories ‘Fat and Thin,’ ‘Swedish Matchstick,’ ‘Surgery’ and ‘The Chameleon’ were written in this building.”
I did a count of the stories, feuilletons, jokes, sketches, letters-to-the-editor, etc., from this period, which are published in the great 30-volume collected works. It comes to a whopping 300 titles, give or take a few. It would appear that the entire second and third volumes in the collected works (along with parts of the first and fourth) were written while Chekhov lived at Maly Golovin.
Russian Wikipedia informs us that Chekhov wrote the story “The Seizure” here, a tale of prostitution. This was a semi true-life story that described the environs of Bolshoi Golovin Lane (formerly Sobolev Lane), a nearby street where a brothel was located. Chekhov wrote to his friend and publisher Alexander Suvorin, “Why doesn’t your newspaper write anything about prostitution? It is, after all, a terrible evil. Our Sobolev Lane is a slave trade market.”

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On January 29, 1883, Chekhov wrote to his friend Gavriil Kravtsov, that his life at this time was “tolerable,” but his health was “alas and alack!” (He was, of course, 22 at that moment.) The letter, in part describing his state while living on Maly Golovin, continues:
“…You work like a lackey, go to bed at 5 a.m. I write on commission for the magazines and there is nothing worse than trying to meet deadlines. I have money. I eat well, I also drink and dress not too badly, but…there is no meat on the bones! People say I have lost weight to the point that I am unrecognizable.
Well, and women, too…
I work in Piter [St. Petersburg] and Moscow, have become well known, I am acquainted with everyone…  It’s almost a cheery life. In summer I will go south to correct my health….”
Chekhov signed this little letter, “A. Chekhov, or, A. Chekhonte, M. Kovrov, Man without a Spleen.”
The building you see in the photos here is only partly reminiscent of the building Chekhov would have known. It was built in 1904 by the architect Leonid Stezhensky. It was a two-story building at that time, and consisted only of the central part of the building we have today. You can see the difference between the second and third floors in the photos here. New parts of the building were added on either side 11 years after Chekhov moved out, and at least some of the upper floors were added the year after Chekhov died. The fancy turrets and arches that belong to the structure occupied by the Eurocement Group in the 21st century were not part of the building Chekhov knew.
And yet, for all the changes made to this structure, this is probably the only building left at least partially intact from Chekhov’s earliest years in Moscow.

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Bolkonsky, Kutuzov and others at the Archbishop’s Palace, Olomouc, CZ

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This will be a departure today, although I can’t imagine anyone questioning my motive for that. Certainly not anyone who has read and loved Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace.To wit, today I temporarily abandon my usual habit of writing about real people and events, and, instead,  I write about the intersection of fiction and reality.
Elsewhere on this blog I wrote how War and Peace changed my life many decades ago. I will not repeat that here. I’ll just add this: If you have stuck with me even this far, surely the names Andrei Bolkonsky, Nikolai Rostov and, say, Boris Drubetskoi all have the ring of people you know and care about intimately. And, if that is true, the name of Field Marshall Mikhail Kutuzov is, for you, as it is for me, more literary character than historical figure. I haven’t the vaguest notion what Kutuzov was like in real life, but, thanks to Tolstoy, I know him deeply as a grand, folkloric figure, wise, slightly bumbling, more than a tad rude, sentimental to a fault, indifferent to fashion, willing to take chances, and a believer in real patriotism, not that stuff most people put on for show at the right moments in life and history.
Each of the people – the literary characters – that I mention above are brought together in War and Peace at a specific time, late 1805, and a specific place, Olmütz (Olomouc in what is now the Czech Republic, a spectacular city that I recently visited). The decisive Battle of Austerlitz – disastrous for Russia and Austria – is yet to be fought. (That will happen December 2, 1805). The Allied forces of Russian Tsar Alexander I and Austrian Emperor Francis II believe they have Napoleon on the run. And they meet, accompanied by retinues and generals, to discuss further action. The meeting takes place in the Archbishop’s Palace on Wurmova Street in Olmütz – that is, in the structure pictured above and below. It is a real place, originally built from 1497 to 1540 and later rebuilt and enhanced many times. Tolstoy’s characters spend the better part of three chapters in, or around, Olmütz (Volume One, Part Three, chapters 7 to 9). Alexander and Kutuzov, as dignitaries, are quartered inside the Archbishop’s Palace. The Russian army is camped just outside the city.
My Olomouc friend and guide Martina Pálušová actually drove me to a place (now very much inside the city limits of Olomouc) where at least one of these encampments might have been. There was once an inn there where, perhaps, officers like Andrei Bolkonsky or Nikolai Rostov might have hung out. (“Rostov and his comrades went to Olmütz and dined there; he drank a bottle of wine and went on alone…”) But it is long gone, now replaced by an entirely nondescript modern structure.
What does remain, quite as it probably looked in 1805 when Tolstoy’s characters wandered the city, is the Archbishop’s Palace, the lovely cobblestone street on which it stands, and several other buildings standing nearby.
I suppose I should add that, to my knowledge, Tolstoy himself was never here. If that’s true, he had no idea what he was writing about when he described the environs and events of this time and place. According to the book Tolstoy and the Genesis of War and Peace by Kathryn B. Feuer, Tolstoy read several texts written by or about participants in the actual events at Olmütz and Austerlitz. These photos, then, add a tiny bit of clarity and detail to War and Peace, that it cannot claim on its own.

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Olmütz first appears in War and Peace in Volume One, Part Two, chapter 12. The Russian diplomat Bilibin, bantering with Andrei Bolkonsky, says, “They say we are going to Olmütz, and Olmütz is a very decent town. You and I will travel comfortably in my caleche.” But the city first appears in earnest in Volume One, Part Three, chapter 7. Here in mid-November we find Kutuzov’s army camped outside the city. (“On the twelfth of November, Kutuzov’s active army, in camp before Olmütz , was preparing to be reviewed next day by the two Emperors – the Russian and the Austrian. The Guards, just arrived from Russia, spent the night ten miles from Olmütz and next morning were to come straight to the review, reaching the field at Olmütz by ten o’clock.”) Several incidents occur in Olmütz that have bearing on the lives of Bolkonsky, Rostov, Boris Drubetskoi, Lieutenant Berg and others. Tolstoy writes the following about some of Nikolai’s adventures in and around the city:
That day Nikolai Rostov received a letter from Boris, telling him that the Ismailov regiment was quartered for the night ten miles from Olmütz and that he wanted to see him as he had a letter and money for him. Rostov was particularly in need of money now that the troops, after their active service, were stationed near Olmütz and the camp swarmed with well-provisioned sutlers and Austrian Jews offering all sorts of tempting wares. The Pavlograds held feast after feast, celebrating awards they had received for the campaign, and made expeditions to Olmütz to visit a certain Caroline the Hungarian, who had recently opened a restaurant there with girls as waitresses. Rostov, who had just celebrated his promotion to a cornetcy and bought Denisov’s horse, Bedouin, was in debt all round, to his comrades and the sutlers. On receiving Boris’ letter he rode with a fellow officer to Olmütz , dined there, drank a bottle of wine, and then set off alone to the Guards’ camp to find his old friend.”
In chapter 9 Tolstoy describes a trip Boris Drubetskoi takes into Olmütz in order to meet with Bolkonsky:
That day he did not find Prince Andrei in Olmütz. But the sight of Olmütz, where the main quarters and diplomatic corps stood, and where both emperors lived with their retinues – courtiers and confidantes – only increased his desire to belong to this superior world.”
Boris’s adventures continue:
“…After dinner he again went to Olmütz and, entering the house occupied by Kutuzov, asked for Bolkonsky. Prince Andrei was in and Boris was shown into a large hall probably formerly used for dancing, but in which five beds now stood, and furniture of various kinds: a table, chairs, and a clavichord. One adjutant, nearest the door, was sitting at the table in a Persian dressing gown, writing. Another, the red, stout Nesvitsky, lay on a bed with his arms under his head, laughing with an officer who had sat down beside him. A third was playing a Viennese waltz on the clavichord, while a fourth, lying on the clavichord, sang the tune. Bolkonsky was not there. None of these gentlemen changed his position on seeing Boris. The one who was writing and whom Boris addressed turned round crossly and told him Bolkonsky was on duty and that he should go through the door on the left into the reception room if he wished to see him. Boris thanked him and went to the reception room, where he found some ten officers and generals.”
Eventually, Bolkonsky takes up Drubetskoi’s case and he resolves to introduce the ambitious young man to the proper people at the proper place:
“It was late in the evening when they entered the palace at Olmütz occupied by the Emperors and their retinues. That same day a council of war had been held in which all the members of the Hofkriegsrath and both Emperors took part. At that council, contrary to the views of the old generals Kutuzov and Prince Schwartzenberg, it had been decided to advance immediately and give battle to Bonaparte. The council of war was just over when Prince Andrei accompanied by Boris arrived at the palace to find Dolgorukov. Everyone at headquarters was still under the spell of the day’s council, at which the party of the young had triumphed. The voices of those who counseled delay and advised waiting for something else before advancing had been so completely silenced and their arguments confuted by such conclusive evidence of the advantages of attacking that what had been discussed at the council- the coming battle and the victory that would certainly result from it- no longer seemed to be in the future but in the past.”
There are other references to Olmütz in other chapters, but they are always of secondary importance, referring back to events already described in these three chapters. In all the city is named 22 times over a span of 471 pages. (I refer to, and, with some editing, quote from, an internet version of the novel that runs a total of 2,882 pages. Nowhere does the site mention it, but this is the translation by Aylmer and Louise Maude – the very translation I read way back when I was originally sent on a life journey that ultimately would take me, not only to visit Tolstoy’s estate at Yasnaya Polyana, not only to live on the same street where he once lived in Moscow, but also to Olomouc, that is, Olmütz, which played no small role in the marvelous wending and winding tale that is War and Peace.)

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Michael Chekhov Actor’s Lab theater, Los Angeles

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Just down the street from Hollywood Boulevard (see photo immediately below), there’s a little black box – or, at least, that’s what it is on the outside. These days it’s the Sound Nightclub and it looks like lots of other Hollywood dive clubs. The matte black walls remind me of the Roxy when I used to hang out there in the 1970s (I saw Bruce Springsteen blow the minds of 600 people three nights in a row at the Roxy when he was just breaking out nationally). But I digress.
And I digress for a purpose. Because I want to point out how we often live in a world of ghosts without thinking about it. Today I stand in front of this small building at 1642 North Las Palmas Avenue in L.A. but I don’t see what everyone else does. People stare at me photographing as they walk by, but they have no idea why I am taking photos. As for me, I’m peering through the slightly foggy L.A. air on an unseasonably cloudy summer’s day in 2015, but I am looking back 69 years in time. I am looking at something that took place here October 8, 1946: the premiere of a new production of a classic Russian play. The marquee would have been different than the one you see on these photos, but let’s not get bogged down in details. Just imagine a growing crowd of well-dressed Hollywood cognoscenti gathering by the entrance, and that in place of  the words “Sound Nightclub” and “Honey Soundsystem,” you were to see something like this: “Las Palmas Theater presents Hollywood Laboratory Theater. N. Gogol. The Inspector General.  Dir. by Michael Chekhov.”
Damn! What I  wouldn’t give to go back then and there!
One of the greatest roles Chekhov ever played as an actor was at the Moscow Art Theater in 1921 as Khlestakov in Konstantin Stanislavsky’s production of The Inspector General. So this was surely a homecoming of sorts for Chekhov. It becomes even more interesting when you consider that the Art Theater production also premiered Oct. 8. The first night date of Chekhov’s Hollywood production obviously was no coincidence.
According to a website called theaterprint.com, the Actors Lab used this space for several productions in 1946. The others were Volpone, Awake and Sing, and Home of the Brave with Barbara Bel Geddes. The Inspector General was apparently followed by a production of Anthony Palma’s new play, To the Living. I find no indication that Chekhov had any direct involvement in any of these other productions.
Here is what Billboard wrote three days before the opener of The Inspector General: “Actor’s Lab, which has gained national attention for its work, will double last year’s two to four and may go to five this season. Will open with Gogol’s Inspector General Oct. 8 for four-week engagement. Production will be directed by Michael Chekhov.”

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Chekhov worked on The Inspector General (some sources say they used the title, The Government Inspector) with his longtime cohort George Shdanoff (Georgy Zhdanov), and the production’s design was done by the well-known Russian emigre designer and artist Nicolai Remisoff (Nikolai Remizov). It would appear to have been one of the last big hurrahs of the Russian community in Hollywood of that time.
I immediately admit that my research of this topic at present has been little more than internet/armchair scholarship. So I may be somewhat misleading here. But the big boom of Russian influence on Hollywood was surely coming to an end after the end of World War II. Russians had been greeted with great respect and open arms when they showed up throughout the 1920s and ’30s, but by the late ’40s that influx had dried to a trickle. Those who had found a home in Hollywood  had now either ceased to work (Alla Nazimova) or had become assimilated into the local community, as it were (Akim Tamiroff, Chekhov, etc.). So, although I can’t declare this with certainty, I feel it is a good educated guess that this big project mounted by a team of prominent Russians was probably not followed by many, or even any, more such projects.
Shdanoff (1905-1998, whose name is a wonderful example of the creative ways Russian names were transliterated in the West in the period after the Revolution – a mix of French and German in influence) was Chekhov’s right-hand man. He co-founded the Michael Chekhov Theater (England and U.S.) with Chekhov, and, in Hollywood, he taught alongside Chekhov in the Actor’s Laboratory. He continued the pedagogical work of the lab long after Chekhov’s death in 1955. I’ll have more to say about Shdanoff in the near future.
Remisoff (1887-1975), also known at times in his career under the pseudonym of Re-Mi, was a well-known artist in Russia when he emigrated to Paris in 1920. He came to the States in 1922 and made a good living designing for film and ballet, as well as doing design and decorating for Hollywood stars’ homes.
For the record, the translation used by Chekhov, Shdanoff and Remisoff for their production was done by Serge Bertensson and Arnold Belgard.
A full notice of the production – with cast and supporting team – can be read on page 52 in the Oct. 26 issue of Billboard. The reviewer appears to have been of two opinions. He notes that it’s not the Lab’s best work, but declares the piece “ambitious” and “no small accomplishment.” The critic continues: “Michael Chekhov wields his directorial brush with wide strokes [not a phrase I’ll ever borrow], sometimes overplaying his hand, as he roams from a pattern of straight comedy to near burlesque.”
Among the actors in the cast were Morris Carnovsky and Lloyd Bridges. The make-up design is attributed to Feodor Chaliapin, which, I’m guessing, refers to Feodor Chaliapin, Jr., the son of the great bass.
I wish to acknowledge the contributions made to this post by a large number of people. It took me some time to track this address down and I probably would not have succeeded if the following individuals had not shared their time, knowledge, tips and interest. I’m grateful to them all – Lisa Dalton, Jessica Cerullo, Liisa Byckling, Olya Petrakova, Bryan Brown, Vladimir FerkelmanAnybody interested in researching this further, may wish to know that there are documents and photos pertaining to this production held at the UCLA Library Special Collections.

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Birthplace of ‘Moscow Nights,’ Moscow

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How the river moves, yet doesn’t move
All turned silvery by the moon
How a song is heard, yet isn’t heard
In these quiet evening times

“Moves, doesn’t move.” “Heard, isn’t heard.” Sounds like life. Or that old Russian joke my late friend Anatoly Agamirov once told me: “It’s like this – either someone stole a coat or someone’s coat was stolen.” In other words, something happened, we all know that. But what it was – nobody knows.
Rather like the writing of the classic Soviet song “Moscow Nights.” But, see? Right there we’ve bogged down in problems already! The name of the song is ‘Podmoskovnye vechera,” which means “Suburban Moscow Nights” (sort of), or “Nights Outside of Moscow,” or, even more correctly, “Evenings in the Areas Lying outside of Moscow proper…” You get the point. That’s why we call it “Moscow Nights.”
The stories surrounding this little song with such a big impact are filled with such paradoxes and imperfections. One involves the plaque honoring the fact that lyricist Mikhail Matusovsky (1915-1990) lived in the building at 15 Sivtsev-Vrazhek in the Arbat district of Moscow. It says right there on the plaque, “Here was born the song ‘Moscow Nights.’ Author M. Matusovsky.” Well, yes, you see – they are fudging. “The song was ‘born’ here.” So was it written here? According to most sources – no. It would look like the song was actually tossed together in a hurry when Matusovsky was kicking back at the dacha with his friend, the composer Vasily Solovyov-Sedoi (1907-1979) one lazy summer in 1955. According to the legend, neither of them wanted to do it – they were tired and it was hot and the commission was for a rush job. A documentary film about athletes needed a song, like, right now. They had no ideas, they really didn’t care about some documentary film, but – as the story goes – they figured they could use some extra cash, so they agreed to write the song. They pulled it together based on an old melody Solovyov-Sedoi had once discarded, while Matusovsky apparently wrote new words that reflected the languorous summer they were passing so pleasantly.
So there’s that catch – did Matusovsky write the song at his dacha in Komarovo? Or did he write it on Sivtsev-Vrazhek in Moscow? Or was it a case of him having some ideas that he’d tossed together at home that he now pushed into action? – thus the notion that “Moscow Nights” was “born,” rather than “written” at this location in Moscow…

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But that is hardly the last catch involving this song that virtually every single individual who knows anything about Russia knows and, probably, loves. Cliche that it has become, how can your heart not melt when you hear that once-discarded melody and those tossed-together-at-the-last-minute words? The fact of the matter is that it might have happened that nobody would ever have heard it. When the songwriters delivered their product, the producers hated it. They wanted to replace it with another, but there wasn’t time to commission a replacement – they had to deliver their film. Then they asked a popular singer to sing it and he hated it so much that he refused. He reportedly said, “All those ‘moves, doesn’t move, heard, isn’t heard.’ What the hell’s that supposed to mean?!” So, really scrambling at this point, the producers asked Vladimir Troshin (1926-2008), a relatively unknown actor at the Moscow Art Theater, to sing the song. He, like the authors, probably figured, hey – I can use the extra cash, and he sang it.
And BOOM!!! Instant classic. Instant fame. For now and evermore. This song has worked its way so deeply into the grain of the Russian consciousness that the vast majority of people think it is a folk song. It sounds like one, actually. That makes sense. But, in fact, it belongs to two reluctant authors who delivered it to unappreciative producers who had to maneuver past unwilling singers to bring it to us. You can listen to Troshin’s original version on a YouTube video. And, to give you something to follow along with, here is an edited version of the the translated lyrics as provided by blokh on lyricstranslate.com.

In the garden, not a sigh is heard
All is gently stilled ’til dawn
If you only knew what they mean to me,
These peaceful Moscow nights

How the river moves, yet doesn’t move
All turned silvery by the moon
How a song is heard, yet isn’t heard
In these quiet evening times

Darling, why do you stare suspiciously
With your lovely head bent low?
How hard to speak, yet not to speak
Of what weighs heavy on my heart

Ever brighter, now, shines the rising sun,
So darling, please, do be kind –
Keep them in your heart – as I will too:
These Moscow summer nights

Oh, and one more thing: “Moscow Nights” was originally intended to be a song about Leningrad – “leningradskie vechera”… That is why the song in Russian is about the evenings in the “Moscow outskirts” (podmoskovnye) rather than in “Moscow” (moskovskie)… The meter wouldn’t have fit.

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Sergei Eisenstein base, Los Angeles

Click on photos to enlarge.

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I must explain the odd, even misleading, title to today’s post. This home at 614 North Arden Drive in Beverly Hills was not Sergei Eisenstein’s home. It is, however, one of the physical locations closely connected to his Hollywood sojourn in 1930. (He traveled from New York to the West Coast in the second half of 1930 and left for Mexico in December of that same year). The house belonged to the novelist Upton Sinclair, who may or may not have said to Eisenstein at one point, ‘mi casa es su casa.’ In any case, the two at this time were just beginning their short-lived collaboration on the ill-fated Que Viva, Mexico! project – Sinclair producing, with Eisenstein directing and overseeing the writing of the script (attributed to Grigory Alexandrov). To round out the Russian team, all of whom were in L.A. together, the cinematography was the work of the great Eduard Tisse.
According to Lionel Rolfe’s Literary L.A., during the Great Depression Sinclair “was able to lease a genuine Beverly Hills mansion at 614 North Arden Drive; it was cheap, he pointed out, because there was no market then for big houses. Sinclair was doing very well financially – so much so that his old friend Charlie Chaplin got him both financially and creatively involved with the great Russian film director Sergei Eisenstein. Eisenstein spent several months and a pile of Sinclair’s money working on his Que Viva, Mexico! – later Thunder Over Mexico, which remained uncompleted.”
It was a confusing time. Sinclair was a leftist writer who dabbled in politics (running unsuccessfully for the office of governor of California in 1934). Eisenstein was an artist doing his best to stay out of the way of politics, but not doing a sufficiently good job of that.
Joseph Stalin’s name runs in and out of the thread of the story. Ronald Bergan’s book Eisenstein: A Life in Conflict, tells us that Sinclair wrote to Stalin on Oct. 26, 1931:
You may have heard that I have taken the job of financing a moving picture which the Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein is making in Mexico. It is going to be an extraordinary work, and I think will be a revelation of the moving-picture art… Some day you will see the picture which Eisenstein is making, and realise that Soviet technique has advanced another step and been crowned with fresh laurels.”
It’s easy for us to laugh now. Appealing to Stalin on the assumption that he will value artistic achievement! But Sinclair was just following what, at that time, was becoming a tradition – artists appealing to Stalin’s aesthetic taste and/or pride in Russian/Soviet artistic accomplishments. Pasternak did it. Gorky did it. Stanislavsky did it. Only the lazy, it would seem, didn’t do it. Not that it did any good. And it surely didn’t do Sinclair or Eisenstein any good. Just one month later, on Nov. 21, 1931, Sinclair received a cable from Stalin. As quoted in Bergan’s book, it read:
EISENSTEIN LOOSE [sic] HIS COMRADES CONFIDENCE IN SOVIET UNION STOP HE IS THOUGHT TO BE DESERTER WHO BROKE OFF WITH HIS OWN COUNTRY STOP AM AFRAID THE PEOPLE HERE WOULD HAVE NO INTEREST IN HIM STOP AM VERY SORRY BUT ALL ASSERT IT IS THE FACT STOP MY REGARDS STOP STALIN.”

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Eisenstein wasn’t the only one under scrutiny, however. Sinclair ran into some serious bad publicity precisely for acquiring this Beverly Hills home which was the site of much of the planning for Que Viva, Mexico! He positioned himself as the champion of the poor and downtrodden – leading the EPIC (End Poverty in California) movement – yet was snapping up choice real estate while the economy was tanking. The L.A. Times, by way of owner Harry Chandler and star attack-dog columnist Henry Carr, went after Sinclair publicly for making big profits on real estate in Long Beach and for acquiring the Beverly Hills mansion from a financially strapped owner. As reported by Kevin Starr, in Endangered Dreams: The Great Depression in California, Sinclair and his wife Mary “picked up the forclosed Beverly Hills property for a song… and with no down payment demanded by the distressed owners.”
So there we have it – the leftist writer/producer/politician is making a killing off of real estate deals, and the Communist film director is squandering both the capitalist’s money and his Communist leader’s confidence. All of that happening in the short time that the two men were brought together, in part, by the structure you see pictured here today.
In fact, this building, to a certain extent, was witness to the failure of both men’s big projects at the time. In order to continue running for governor in 1934, Sinclair was forced politically to unload the Beverly Hills home, but it was too late. His candidacy failed. Meanwhile, Eisenstein had been compelled to return to Moscow, leaving New York by ship on April 19, 1932, and arriving in the Soviet capital in May 1932, because Stalin was already beginning to move against the director by targeting his family. (The secret police had made several visits to Eisenstein’s mother, and had confiscated the family jewels.)
To make the whole story messier, a cache of beautiful drawings by Eisenstein, many erotic and homosexual in nature, had been confiscated by U.S. customs agents when Eisenstein was on the way out of the country. Again, according to Bergan’s book, Sinclair learned of this and acquired some copies. And then this fine man who so often tried to do the right thing, committed a fateful and heinous act. He denounced Eisenstein to the Soviet authorities, writing on March 19, 1032, “It appears that Eisenstein spends all his leisure time in making very elaborate obscene drawings. I have a specimen of his work brought from Mexico. It is identified as Eisenstein’s by his handwriting on it. Believe me, it is not an anatomy study nor a work of art or anything of that sort; it is plain smut. Hunter [Kimbrough, Sinclair’s brother-in-law] tells me that Eisenstein presented a series of such drawings to the young owner of the hacienda, and they were so bad that this educated young Mexican refused to put them up in his den.”
Perhaps angered by the photos, certainly unhappy about dumping a huge amount of money into the now-defunct Que Viva, Mexico! project, Sinclair tried to minimize losses by releasing his own film Thunder Over Mexico (1933) using a small amount of Eisenstein’s footage. This all made the once-friends and collaborators into enemies forever. The house at 614 North Arden Drive stands as a monument to their brief friendship and all the bright hopes they both harbored for future success.

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