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Today another phantom, and almost in the very same place. My last entry was about a place with some small cultural significance that no longer exists on the north side of Pushkin Square. Today I’ll do a bit of reminiscing about a place of genuine cultural importance that once was located on the south side of Pushkin Square. This was the Actors House, or, as the old-timers still refer to it over two decades later, VTO (the All-Russian Theater Organization).
What is it now? Nothing. A big, fat, glorified nothing.
In the past it was really quite something.
With a bit of a stretch we can reach back to 1877 to find its beginnings. That was when the Society for Mutual Aid for Russian Actors was founded. It was followed by several other similar social aid programs for needy actors, but the name Russian Theater Organization (RTO) first appeared in 1894. That was changed to VTO in 1932 and that proud name remained in force until the mid-1980s, when a series of successors bearing various names approximating the “Theater Union of the Soviet Union/Russian Federation” came into being one after the other. And yet, the old-timers still call the building at Tverskaya 16 “VTO” even though this particular address lost connection with theater way back in the 1990s.
Now, what happened to this building is interesting because it is telling of the age. It was one of the first arsons used to wrest valuable property out of the hands of people who weren’t using it to make money by those who were just itching to make money. I said “arson,” didn’t I. Yes, I did. And I meant it. Although I don’t believe I can prove that. You see, like so many murders and hostile takeovers and “sudden fires” that have happened in Moscow and Russia over the last 25 years, nobody ever officially solved the mystery of what happened to the old VTO. Oh, someone somewhere said that a short circuit somewhere started a fire and blah-blah-blah. To which I, and everyone else who knows about these things, say, “Bull.” That’s what they used to fluff it off. Everybody knows perfectly well that the VTO was torched. The firemen got there too late to save the organization, but just in the knick of time to save the building’s structure. The VTO (now called the Actors Union) was hurriedly given digs elsewhere in the city (near the Arbat) and this prime real estate was quickly put in other hands. After a couple of years of backstabbing and infighting, a sparkling new shopping center – with elite offices in the upper floors – opened its doors. In “honor” of the displaced Actors Union, the shopping center was named the Actors Gallery. Or was that mockery? Not sure on that one.
Anyway, it’s nice to see bad folks get their comeuppance now and then. I say that because the economic crisis that pounds silently though heavily at Russia’s doors these days has taken down even the Actors Gallery. When you walk up to the entrances to the short-lived shopping center (the VTO and its successors are around 140 years and counting – the Actors Gallery lasted less than 20 years, I’d guess), you see permanently closed doors and empty windows on the street level.
Meanwhile, Moscow actors and theater people over 60 years old still speak dreamily about the VTO, its famous restaurant, its tiny old elevators filled to the gills (4 or 5 people tops) with stars, its concerts, its social work, its work in preserving the history of Russian theater and promoting those who worked contemporaneously. It was an astonishing place. I had the great fortune to spend a good deal of time there because an extraordinary woman named Eleonora Matveevna Krasnovskaya sort of took me under her wing. She didn’t do it because she liked me, but because this tiny woman with more energy than four tanks had a habit of taking under her prodigious, angelic wings virtually everyone who ever came within spitting distance of her office on, I believe, the fifth floor. “Well, come on in here!” she’d bark at you. “What do you want now?!” I wanted everything and she was just about up to delivering it all. I needed to contact a Nikolai Erdman scholar in Tomsk? Done. I wanted to get into a sold-out show? Done. I wanted to meet someone who never met with anyone? Done. I wanted advice on what was hot and new? Done. I mean, Eleonora Matveevna, or Nora, or Norochka, as I ended up calling her, was the gate-keeper to Nirvana. She didn’t like everything in Nirvana and she’d tell you so. “John. I got you tickets to thus-and-such a show. Now, I didn’t like it much myself. But everybody’s talking about it. So, you must see it.” Got something else to do that night? Tough. Nora got you tix to the hottest show in town. Nora sent me to the first shows I ever saw directed by Kama Ginkas, Yury Lyubimov, Mark Zakharov, Pyotr Fomenko, Valery Fokin, and virtually everyone else, I guess. She once thought I needed to have a chat with Naum Orlov, a director who had made his fame working in the city of Chelyabinsk, and so when he was in the building one day, she sat me in a chair in the corridor and brought him to me. It was her way of promoting “provincial” talent, which, indeed, was horribly undervalued in the Soviet period. She didn’t like that and she bucked it. She introduced me to the playwright Alexei Kazantsev – another one of those things she just figured I needed to do. She had no hopes, I don’t think, that I could appreciate what she was doing for me, but she was on a mission. If I was thick in the head, that was my problem, not hers. As it happened, I ended up becoming quite close to Kazantsev. I was thrilled when my old friend founded one of the most important theaters at the turn of the millennium – the Playwright and Director Center – and I was devastated when he died suddenly of a heart attack only a few years later.
I had the special honor on occasion of taking lunch with Nora in the famed VTO restaurant, where for 3 to 5 rubles you could eat as if you were at Maxim in Paris. If I happened to come by before lunch, she’d drag me down there, disgusted at me for some reason, but intent on giving me some culture, dang-blast it, and some food. Look at the photo immediately above – you see the “turret” at the left. The restaurant was in the ground floor in the turret. I can’t walk by without seeing Nora pushing food in front of me, introducing me to people, regaling me with stories and always reminding me why I probably wasn’t worth all this attention. Did I forget to add that her eyes would twinkle when saying things like that? Did I really need to?
When I desperately wanted to get into a sold-out concert organized by Grigory Gurvich (he had not yet opened his soon-to-be famous Bat Cabaret Theater), Nora took care of it. When Oksana Mysina and I – not yet married – desperately wanted to get into a sold-out concert by Alla Bayanova, a romance-singer who had lived for decades in exile in Bulgaria but had now come home to Moscow, it was Nora who whisked us past the ticket takers.
Oh, yes, on Oksana. Nora once informed me that I was accompanying her out to an event in Melikhovo, the estate where Anton Chekhov lived for much of the 1890s. “You need to see this place,” Nora told me, “maybe it’ll even do you some good.” So I met the hired bus at the appointed time and Nora and I took seats next to each other to the left of the aisle, about 1/3 of the way back behind the driver. I was a bit dreamy that day. I had met Oksana perhaps a month before and I wasn’t thinking about much else at the time. The bus door slammed shut, lurched forward and we were off. I still remember where we were when Nora asked about Oksana – it was on Zemlyanoi Val, just after we had passed the Kursk train station. And Nora, assuming all rights to meddle wherever she so pleased, asked point blank, “So, I hear you’ve taken up with that Mysina girl from the Spartakovskaya Theater. Is that so?” I wasn’t the least taken aback. I hadn’t told Nora about that, but I certainly never would have doubted that she would know whatever there was to know out there. “Yes,” I said, probably a bit cowed. She turned to me and let her eyes burn into me for a second or two and said, “Do you love her?” I looked back at her, surely still cowed, but now less so, and said, “Yes, I do.” She shifted in her seat and looked straight again again. “Good!” she said. “She’s a fine young girl.”
Somewhere in my archive I have a photo of us taken later that day, in Melikhovo. Or maybe I lost it in my last move. What I do know is that I can never lose Eleonora, Nora, Norochka, just as I’ll never lose the sensations I experienced under her wings at the old VTO.
Nora, by the way, just turned 90. Happy birthday Norochka Matveevna!