Click on photos to enlarge.
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.”
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 Ferkelman. Anybody 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.