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One could write a book about this building. In fact, I used to own a small book about it in one of those libraries I collected along my way before jettisoning as I moved on in life. The way some people are with umbrellas, sunglasses, gloves and the like, I am with libraries. They come of their own, but when I go, they go. Be that as it may, I don’t need any book to write about his distinctive building at 10 Bolshoi Gnezdikovsky Lane in the center of Moscow. My memories are full without books.
Still, let me begin with some acquired information because this really is an extraordinary location. Two plaques hanging on the exterior wall are of interest to us here. One (the first above) reads as such: “Memorial of history and culture. This is the first ‘skyscraper’ in the capital, engineered by E[rnst] K. Nirnzee in 1912. Beginning in 1915 Nikita Baliev’s the Bat Cabaret began working in the basement, as did the Romen Gypsy Theater and the F[yodor] Kaverin Theater-Studio and others. A winter film pavilion of the V. Vengerov and V[ladimir] Gardin Film Partnership was located on the roof of the building. This building is associated with the names of M. Bulgakov, K. Paustovsky, Yu. Burliuk, V. Mayakovsky and others.”
(The reference to “Yu. Burlyuk” appears to be an error. The avant-garde poet, painter and all-around artistic hooligan David Burliuk was a close associate of Vladimir Mayakovsky’s, while his brothers Vladimir and Nikolai were of some note, too. I suspect it is David that is meant here. I don’t know of a “Yu. Burliuk.”)
The second plaque is significantly more economical in terms of facts, but it tells a similar story: “Apartment House 1912-1923. Engineer E.K. Nirnzee. This building is associated with the history of the development of Russian theater and film.”
This is all very impressive, and I am sure there are plenty of facts and stories out there waiting to be tracked down and retold about all those mentioned here. But I only have room in my mind today for one person and his work and vision. He is not mentioned on either of the plaques from the past, and who knows what eras overseen by what kind of people we have yet to go through in the future? Does anyone today care about Grigory Gurvich? Obviously, many do. He touched the lives of thousands. But does anyone in a position of power and authority remember him? That’s a harder question to answer. Who knows what folks like that are thinking these days.
Grigory Gurvich (1957-1999) was utterly unlike anyone else. He came into prominence during the hard, harsh, ugly era of the death of the Soviet experiment, and he greeted it with humor, style and elegance. It was not a particularly friendly time, but Grisha – as I will allow myself to call him – was everybody’s friend. He had a smile, a good word, a handshake or a twinkle in his eye for everyone who ever came through the doors of his theater located in this building. The idea for his theater was a small stroke of genius. It was not so much a resurrection of the famed Bat Cabaret opened here on the same stage by Nikita Baliev in 1915, as it was an attempt to do that famous enterprise honor in a new age. It was better than a resurrection. It was a whole new theater, with a new idea and a new plan, but one that took inspiration from Baliev and his company which, soon enough, disbanded and headed for world-famous tours of Europe and then a fairly long residency in New York under the name of La Chauve-Souris. (I should mention that Baliev’s name became Balieff in the transition from the Soviet Union to Europe and the States.) Baliev’s theater was a true cabaret, with actors coming in late nights after performing in the “legit theater” to sing songs and improvise skits with other famous actors, who mingled with the performers from Baliev’s troupe. Opening its doors late at night, when actors and audiences got out of other performances, it would run into the wee hours of the morn.
Grisha Gurvich’s Bat Cabaret Theater (note the addition of “theater”) was an actual theater company. It put on plays and performed them in a repertory schedule like most other Russian theaters might do. What distinguished Gurvich’s work (he wrote or, at least, compiled most of the plays he directed) from other theaters was that each piece was put together from the kinds of skits you might see in a cabaret variety show. But he tied them together, put them into a connected, winding string that created a narrative story. His first show, which opened right here on May 26, 1989, on the basement stage at what has been known over the decades as the GITIS student theater, was called The Reading of a New Play. It was a mystification of sorts that mixed the characters of Baliev’s troupe on the verge of breaking up, with the individuals of Gurvich’s company, which was on the verge of a great beginning. It was nostalgic, sweet, painful, intelligent and always funny. Gurvich, as was his wont, moved through the piece as a narrator or an emcee, tying loose ends together, or, sometimes just leaving them to hang and dangle. The first performances of The Reading of a New Play were wildly successful, as few things can be wildly successful in our days. News of the fabulous new show and theater traveled like wildfire. The next night (when I attended) there may have been two people crashing the door for every seat in the house. The audience was electrified. It exploded into fiery bursts of laughter and applause constantly throughout the evening.
Originally, Gurvich had rented the space for six performances. But because this was right where Baliev’s Bat Cabaret had performed, he very much wanted to stay right here. And the success of that first short run did guarantee a residency that lasted for nearly half a decade. As a resident company in this space, Gurvich’s Bat Cabaret Theater opened its next four shows here, including: I Tap Dance about Moscow (at the turn of 1991/92)and 100 Years of Cabaret (November 1994). It was the latter show that caused me to write a few paragraphs that I have treasured throughout the decades. 100 Years of Cabaret was not Gurvich’s best show. It was slicker than the deeper, more successful first outings. But it lacked none of the excitement, energy and humor that Gurvich always put into everything he did. So, in a review for The Moscow Times that acknowledged a few flat spots and sour notes throughout evening, here is how I wrapped up what I had witnessed:
“But Gurvich has the ultimate trump card up his sleeve: his own personality.
Call him the sultan of suave, the wizard of wit, or the king of charisma, but when he takes the stage to the slinky accompaniment of Roman Berchenko at the piano, he soothes everything over. He isn’t just the show’s author, he is its heart and soul.
Meanwhile, amidst the uneven collection of sketches, some are as good as ever. The best include a wildly energetic medley of American pop from Elvis Presley to Chubby Checker; some thunderous, top-flight tap-dancing; and a beautifully-done interactive film skit that has actors climbing onto and off of the screen a la Federico Fellini or Woody Allen.
But the star is Gurvich. Were there such a thing, he would be Mr. Moscow, the man who brings warmth and respect to the town he loves. And a few slips notwithstanding, it is always a pleasure to watch him do it.”
Pleasure, hell. It was an honor. It was the opportunity of a lifetime. It all ended much too fast. After Gurvich directed five shows in the wonderful old space of the basement stage at 10 Bolshoi Gnizdikovsky Lane, the landlords at the theater – GITIS – kicked Gurvich out. He had become too big a star and, for some reason, they couldn’t handle the competition. Grisha took his company elsewhere; they performed on rented stages around town, but it was never the same. Then around 1996 he became the host of a hit TV show called This Old Apartment. That took most of the air out of what was left of the Bat Cabaret Theater. Moreover, what most of us did not know was that Grisha Gurvich was deathly ill. He died of leukemia in Israel before the century could run out.
One very visible trace of Grigory Gurvich’s short tenure in this famed building remains for us to see. That is the art nouveau front door and awning that Gurivch had put in before he was asked to vacate the premises. It was his little gift to history – a door erected in the 1990s to honor an era gone by, the last few years before the Russian Revolution. Had Baliev put in a fancy front door to his Bat Cabaret, it might well have looked something like this door that Gurvich had designed and built 80 years later.
These days, frankly, it looks forlorn and out of place. Without the crowds storming the door to get in for the night’s performance, without Gurvich there to greet you, without any rhyme or reason for its being there, the beautiful, well-illuminated entrance strikes one now as a heavy reproach. It seems to frown on those fools who kicked Gurvich out of here 20 years ago. It seems to mock those who walk past or even enter the premises now – as if to say, “Who are you and what are you doing here? You have no idea what my purpose was!” For me personally, it stands as a small cluster of light amidst the darkness that has descended on Bolshoi Gnezdikovsky Lane ever since Grisha Gurvich last left it. Every time I pass it by it seems to say, “Grisha was here and you and I remember that. Can’t speak for the rest of the folk around here.”