George Shdanoff home, Los Angeles

Click on photos to enlarge.

img_7680

George Shdanoff was born Georgy Zhdanov in Russia  on December 5, 1905. He died some 92 years later on August 14, 1998, while living in this unprepossessing Los Angeles apartment house at 11908 Montana Ave., west of the 405 Freeway. It would appear that he lived in Apt. 307. Shdanoff’s was not an entirely obscure life, but it was not one that accrued great general attention, either. He studied under Konstantin Stanislavsky at the Moscow Art Theater in the 1920s but chose to slip out of the Soviet Union and set up residence in Berlin before ever making a mark in Moscow. In Berlin, where he acquired the spelling of his name that would follow him for the rest of his life, he became something of a star, or, at least, a hard-working actor. Mel Gordon, in his Stanislavsky in America: An Actor’s Workbook, tells us that Shdanoff was one of the rare displaced Russian actors who regularly found acting jobs in the major German playhouses. He performed the lead role in Igor Stravinsky’s The Tale of a Soldier at Berlin’s Kroll Opera House. In 1928, shortly after Mikhail Chekhov appeared in Berlin, Shdanoff arranged to meet the great actor and the two struck up a friendship that would last until Chekhov’s death in 1955. As anti-Semitism increased in Germany in the late 1920s, Shdannoff’s acting jobs began to grow fewer and farther between. In 1931 he co-directed a pacifist film called No Man’s Land, or, Hell on Earth, although only his directing partner Victor Trivas was mentioned in the credits. Feeling the increasing hostility of fascism, Shdanoff made his way to Paris in 1933 where he wrote a stage adaptation of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment for a Russian-language theater. Before long he followed the general flow of Russian exiles to the U.K. where he once again connected with Chekhov, who had set up a school and theater at Dartington Hall in Devonshire. From here on out, Shdanoff would forever more be associated either with Chekhov himself, who had now become known as Michael Chekhov, or with Chekhov’s method of acting. While in the U.K. Shdanoff began writing a stage adaptation of Dostoevsky’s The Possessed that Chekhov’s relocated company would perform in 1939 on Broadway (where it was a flop). The two friends and colleagues relocated to Hollywood in the early 1940s, where they created theater together (see my earlier post about the Chekhov Actor’s Lab productions that were performed in a space on North Las Palmas Ave. in L.A.), and taught. Shdanoff’s acting career did not take off like Chekhov’s, but he, like Chekhov, was a highly respected acting coach to the stars. The imdb website has Shdanoff appearing as an actor in two films -an uncredited turn as a lackey in Otto Preminger’s A Royal Scandal (1945) and Ben Hecht’s Specter of the Rose (1946), where he was credited as George Shadnoff.  I have no idea whether that was a mistake or a pseudonym, although my instincts move me to favor the former explanation.

img_7672 img_7677 img_7678

Shdanoff quickly established himself as a go-to drama coach in Hollywood. In her memoirs, Thank Heaven, Leslie Caron writes with great affection and in some detail about her relationship with Shdanoff. She appreciated the Russian’s serious approach to her art, something that was not favored everywhere in Tinseltown:
He also transmitted – and this was invaluable for the newcomer that I was – something rare in Hollywood in those years: the notion that acting was a craft that could be taught and ought to be learned. Hollywood had a deep distrust of New York stage actors – ‘too arty’ was the term used for them – a stereotype that survived until very recently.
Caron was so serious about her craft that Shdanoff teasingly nicknamed her “the Professor” for her studiousness.
But the two had another bond – their experience escaping danger in Europe.
Shdanoff and his wife, Elsa [Schreiber], were very kind and protective toward me,” Caron continues. “I was, to them, and to other Hollywood couples, the deserving little French girl who had gone through the war and must be cared for. George’s narrow escapes from Bolshevik Russia and Nazi Berlin and my own wartime experiences were bonds that united us… During my lessons, when George knew that I had just come from a dancing class or from filming, he would offer coffee and Austrian biscuits, served on polished Austrian silver. For ten minutes our hearts were transported to the Europe of his youth.”
When Caron was hired to take the role of Madeline Minot in The Man with the Cloak in 1951, Shdanoff worked with her for a year specifically on this character.
Mel Gordon picks up the tale after the death of Chekhov.
After his time at the Lab, Shdanoff and Schreiber began to coach young film actors at their West Hollywood apartment [not the one pictured here]. The word-of-mouth among colony insiders was heartening and their business steadily grew. Even professionals like Lilli Palmer and Rex Harrison, swore by the couple’s Central European theatrical instincts. (Patricia Neal often bristled when Gary Cooper derided her acting avatar as ‘Doctor Stroganoff.’)
Shdanoff held informal master classes in his mixed Shdanoff-Chekhov method for three decades. Finally, in 1974, after a nostalgic and inspiring Moscow tour, he decided to open a school with apprentice teachers. It was advertised as the George Shdanoff Acting Training Center.”
Shdanoff appears to have registered a business, George Shdanoff’s Los Angeles Theater Company, Inc., on or around May 1979 (another source posits 1978) at the address that we see in the photos here. It was a charitable organization and a private, non-operation organization. A few more details can be had at NonProfitFacts.com. and corporationwiki.com. The best place to go now for information about Shdanoff is the 2002 documentary film, From Russia to Hollywood: The 100-Year Odyssey of Chekhov and Shdanoff (directed by Frederick Keeve). A four+ minute excerpt on YouTube features some well-chosen comments by Leslie Caron.

img_7682 img_7683 img_7684

asdfasdfasdfasdf

 

asdfasdfasdfasdf

 

Advertisements

Fyodor Chaliapin star, Hollywood

Click on photos to enlarge.

img_7604

I can’t bring myself to write “Feodor Chaliapin” as is done on the great singer’s Hollywood star. I know that’s the way his name is usually spelled in the West, but it still irks me. Chaliapin’s whole name is a mess in English. The “proper” simple transliteration is Fyodor Shalyapin. Hardly like what you’re used to seeing. I have to go with the spelling of his last name as “Chaliapin,” because, indeed, that’s what we’re accustomed to. “Shalyapin” seems clumsily hyper-correct even though it’s “merely” correct. Whatever. If you’re really into this topic you’ll find plenty more alternate spellings – “Fiodor,” “Fedor,” “Chaliapine,” and more. It’s an alphabet soup of major proportions. I’m sticking to “Fyodor Chaliapin”; it’s my blog and I can do what I want to, as Lesley Gore almost sang about 50 years ago.
Chaliapin (1873-1938) is one of those names that gives shape to the 20th century. Long before the superstar status of opera singers like Pavarotti, Chaliapin set the mold for the super star opera singer. He was wildly, fantastically popular. In fact, there are those who would say that he – rather like Franz Liszt – was a rock star well before anyone had heard of the blues, let alone rock. Chaliapin was one of those outsized characters, big and prominent in every way. His appetite for everything was enormous. He loved to laugh as much as he loved to eat, sing and make money. He was, as far as I can determine, loved by virtually everyone he came into contact with, except, perhaps, for a few disgruntled husbands. One of my favorite photos is of Chaliapin clowning around with Maxim Gorky. The writer apparently is pretending to poke the singer with a traditional Russian broom made of twigs while Chaliapin plays at being horrified.
I don’t seem to find a solid explanation for this photo. (If you haven’t gone to the link above by now, please do so. You won’t regret it.) Some suggest it was made in Crimea. It may well have been shot in 1905. Some are quite certain that Gorky and Chaliapin are playing around with political notions of the time as the “proletarian” writer Gorky is seeking to “whisk away” the bourgeois Chaliapin with a broom. I am more inclined to follow the suggestion of one commentator that this is even more of a theatrical joke than that. His reasoning, which makes sense, is that Chaliapin looks more like he is opening his mouth wide to make room for the broom to be inserted and to, perhaps, clean out his vocal pipes. Indeed it does not look like a “performance” of the political variant. I’m wondering if this, in fact, isn’t part of some greater amateur theatrical. Look at what appears to be the laughing servant standing between the two. To my eye he is holding a theatrical thunder board. I think it’s all part of a show. An audience member is peering out the window, getting a kick at the goings-on.

img_7606 img_7611

Chaliapin was quite truly a man of the people. He was born into a peasant family near the southern Russian city of Kazan. He began singing in amateur opera performances in Kazan in 1889-1890. After a journey that took him through Ufa, Tiflis (today, Tbilisi in Georgia) and Moscow, he began making a name for himself in St. Petersburg in 1894. Chaliapin was lured back to Moscow in 1896 where he performed in Savva Mamontov’s opera company until 1899, solidifying his status as a major star. Soon to come were the Bolshoi Theater (1899), La Scala (1901) and a tour through the United Stages and Argentina (1907-08). He debuted in film in 1915, memorably performing the title role in Tsar Ivan Vasilyevich the Terrible.
Although it would appear Chaliapin usually did his best to avoid politics, his peasant roots showed during the revolutionary year of 1905, for he often donated his performance fees to workers in need. It made him a champion of the proletariat which worked in his favor in the early Soviet years. He was the first performer to receive the honor of People’s Artist of the Soviet Union in 1918, and was named the artistic director of the Mariinsky Theater in Petrograd that same year. Still, beginning in 1922 the great singer – now a world-famous artist – spent more time abroad than in the Soviet Union. Eventually, in 1927, Soviet authorities took the unusual step of rescinding Chaliapin’s status as a People Artist. This punitive act seems to have been caused by the fact that Chaliapin, again, donated performance fees to needy Russian emigrant children. It caused a ruckus in Moscow, where he was accused of catering to enemies of the Soviet Union.
Chaliapin died of leukemia in Paris in 1938, mourned as one of the great musical performers of his and any other era. It was not, however, until the 1970s and 1980s that his name was taken out of the deep freeze in his own homeland. At the behest of his son, the well-known actor Feodor Chaliapin, Jr., the singer’s remains were moved from France to Leningrad in 1984. His status as a People’s Artist of the Soviet Union was reinstated only in 1991.
Chaliapin is famed for being one of the great bass singers of all time, although he also sang baritone parts and even tenor at times. He was a multitalented individual, showing remarkable abilities in sculpture, painting and drawing.
The Chaliapin star at approximately 6792 Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles was unveiled February 8, 1960. He is enshrined as a recording artist.

img_7605 img_7609

 

Alexander Vertinsky plaque, Moscow

Click on photos to enlarge.

dscn0873

Few individuals in the history of Russian culture have lived more dramatic lives than the great singer and songwriter Alexander Vertinsky (1889-1957). It all began before he was born.
Vertinsky was the second child born scandalously in Kiev to Nikolai Vertinsky, a lawyer, and Yevgenia Skolatskaya, the daughter of the head of Kiev’s assembly of nobility. Vertinsky, Sr., was married and nothing he could do would convince his wife to agree to a divorce. The situation – this was the end of the 19th century, after all – was, indeed, dramatic. Alexander’s sister Nadezhda was separated from her brother and given to an aunt in the father’s family. Alexander was turned over to his maternal aunt, a severe woman who hated Alexander’s father, was extremely strict in her dealings with the young boy, and who told him that his sister was dead. His mother died when he was three; his father, who apparently spent much of his last years sitting by his lover’s grave, died when Alexander was five. Not the easiest start in life far a young boy, although this was just a prelude.
The story that follows is packed with details that I could never have collected without the help of a few good websites, Know EverythingPeoples.ru, and Russian Wikipedia. I doff my cap to them all. (Although I should point out that the sources differ on dates occasionally, with some claiming he moved to Moscow and began his film career either in 1912 or 1913. In unclear instances, I tend to side with Wikipedia, rightly or wrongly.)
Vertinsky received a good education, at least at first, studying at the No. 1 Gymnasium for aristocrats. His classmates included the future writers Konstantin Paustovsky and Mikhail Bulgakov. But Vertinsky’s independent nature was not to be tamed. For kicks he began stealing money that pilgrims left as honors on the graves holding the remains of saints at the Kiev-Pechersky monastery. He was caught and kicked out of school, and, when he refused to quit doing it, his aunt kicked him out of her home. His saving grace was a love for theater and music. He tried out his acting chops first and, when that failed, he took up singing. A chance meeting with an old friend of his mother gave him another “in” to high society. She took him under her wing, inviting him to her house where he met such individuals as Marc Chagall, the philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev, the poet Mikhail Kuzmin,  and the painters Kazimir Malevich and Natan Altman. This, apparently was an environment that began to serve and feed Vertinsky’s talent. His new benefactress helped him get a job as a theater critic and he turned out to be very good at it. He became well-known in Kiev with his notices about performances by Fyodor Chaliapin and others. He also began publishing short stories. When he had saved up enough money by the age of 24, he set out for the bright lights of the big city of Moscow. His primary goal was to make a career in literature, but first he made an astonishing discovery – his sister Nadya was not only still alive, she was an actress in the theater! Alexander began performing and directing, all the while continuing to write stories, poems and short plays, often under the influence of Alexander Blok and the Symbolists. An attempt to enter the Moscow Art Theater school ended in failure when the auditioning master Konstantin Stanislavsky complained that Vertinsky could not properly pronounce the letter “r.” This hardly stopped him. He made his debut in silent film in 1913 and, when World War I began, he volunteered as a medic. There he applied some 35,000 bandages to wounded soldiers before he was wounded slightly himself and sent back to Moscow where he learned that his beloved sister had died of an overdose of cocaine. Nevertheless, Alexander wasted little time getting his career going again, continuing to act in films and making his Moscow debut as a singer in 1915 at the Miniature Theater. A crucial choice was made to dress and make Vertinsky up as Pierrot, and it stuck, becoming his own personal image forever after. His early repertoire was based on the poetry of others, but he also began slipping in a few of his own songs, too. Before long he had become a star in his own right.

dscn0874 dscn0877 dscn0879

dscn0971Vertinsky’s songs reflected the age in which they were written – one of violence, uncertainty and fear. The usual characters that he wrote about found themselves alone and vulnerable before a hostile world. There was a note of fatalism in Vertinsky’s voice that, together with his unique, personal sound of deep regret and profound understanding, gave his songs enormous emotional impact. It is not surprising (I say as I leap-frog over all kinds of interesting biographical details) that Vertinsky would increasingly feel himself an outcast in Moscow in the years after the Revolution. Even though the rhetoric was not even close to what it would become in the next decade/decade and a half, it was plenty to alienate Vertinsky almost immediately. Here’s a little story worth repeating from Peoples.ru:
Following the Bolshevik Revolution Vertinsky came to the conclusion that he would never get along with the new government. His romance titled ‘What I Must Say,’ written under the impression of the deaths of three hundred cadets in Moscow, aroused the interest of the Cheka [secret police], which summoned the actor to explain his sympathy for enemies of the Revolution. Legend has it that Vertinsky responded to the Chekists indignantly: ‘It’s just a song, and anyway, you cannot forbid me to pity them!’ He received a clear and concise answer: ‘If necessary, we can forbid you to breathe!‘”
Shortly thereafter Vertinsky – who was now a nationally famous singer – set out on a protracted tour through the southern regions of the new Soviet Union, as far from Moscow as he could get. In 1920 he slipped out of the country on the good ship Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich, and set foot in the safety of Constantinople. He began performing there with success for the growing emigre population, but, being a restless soul, he kept moving, visiting in coming years Romania, Poland, Austria, Hungary, Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt, Libya and Germany. When in Poland he made an attempt to return to the Soviet Union but was refused a visa. He settled in France from 1925 to 1934, where he, once again, became an enormous star. Yes, he was supported by the huge Russian emigre community, but the French, with their love of style, art and literature, took him in as well. He continued writing his beautiful, sad songs of longing, regret and stoicism, creating one of the greatest oeuvre of popular songs in the world.
In 1934 Alexander set sail for New York on the good ship Lafayette. He never felt comfortable in America’s financial capital and set off on tours that took him to Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles. There was an attempt to get him started in Hollywood as an actor, but his lack of knowledge and deep dislike of the English language were a barrier that could not be breached. There is a tale that Marlene Dietrich, seeing how Vertinsky struggled with English, suggested that he just “get a grip on himself” and learn the language. He couldn’t, however, and ended up turning down the offer to act.
Disillusioned with the States, Vertinsky set sail for China in October 1935. It was a decision that would change his life, and the history of Russian/Soviet performing arts.
He set up base in Shanghai where he continued to perform, and, even, for a short while was the owner of a cabaret. But life was getting more and more difficult, and when he unexpectedly received an invitation from the Soviet consulate in Shanghai to return home, he was intrigued. He even began writing for a Soviet newspaper. Still, the road home was not easy. His final papers from Moscow were delayed, in large part because of the beginning of World War II, and so, when he married his second wife Lidia Tsirgvava in 1942, he was still in Shanghai. Vertinsky was then 53; Tsirgvava, the daughter of a Soviet official in China, was 20. Their first daughter Marianna was born several months later. When Japan invaded China Vertinsky made still another, now desperate, attempt to return home. He wrote Stalin’s right-hand man Vyacheslav Molotov, who immediately made arrangements for Vertinsky and his family to receive traveling papers. They were given an apartment in a prestigious building on Tverskaya Street (occasionally and exaggeratedly called Moscow’s Fifth Avenue or Champs Elysses) in building No. 12. You see that building here, as photographed in the fall of 2016.
Just a few months after arriving here in Moscow in 1943, the couple’s second daughter Anastasia was born. Both Marianna and Anastasia would become successful actors themselves, Anastasia, especially, becoming one of the Soviet Union’s most popular actresses in the 1960s and 1970s.
Vertinsky himself found an uncomfortable mix of success and alienation upon his return to a nation that had nothing to do with the country he left in 1920. He was allowed to act in films and to give concerts, and yet, he was kept on the outside of mainstream Soviet cultural life. His songwriting muse pretty much dried up in this period. One source claims he wrote barely two dozen songs over the last 14 years of his life.
In 1956, the year after Nikita Khrushchev launched his de-Stalinization campaign, Vertinsky wrote to his wife:
Look at this whole story with Stalin. It’s false, base and disingenuous, At the convention Khrushchev said: ‘Let’s stand in honor of the 17 million people who were martyred in the camps.’ How do you like that?! Who, when and how will the ‘mistakes’ made by these scums ever be repaid? How long will they continue to  mock our Motherland? How long?

dscn0878 dscn0876 dscn0875

dscn0970

 

A school for art and artists, Moscow

Click on photos to enlarge.

dscn8177 dscn8175

Today this building at Prechistenka 32 in Moscow  houses two children’s schools – one for music (the left half, if you stand facing the facade) and the other for fine art (the right half). Surely there are many well-known contemporary artists and performers who have emerged from these premises. I don’t know any of them. What I can say is that when this was the Polivanov Gymnasium (high school) from 1868 to 1917,  it counted among its students at various times the future philosopher Vladimir Solovyov (1853-1900), and the future poets Valery Bryusov (1873-1924) and Maximilian Voloshin (1877-1932). I know that because of a small plaque that hangs on the wall under the eaves of the left side of the structure. That in itself is enough to send us looking for stories that may lay hidden here.
There are, however, two other reasons that make this place special in the history of Russian culture. In the mid-1990s a small hall in the left wing served as the stage for two very important theater productions. The first, transpiring in 1993, was the performance of Alexei Burykin’s N. Nijinsky, staged by and starring the matinee idol Oleg Menshikov, and produced by the brand new Bogis agency. Bogis (the name has nothing to do with “God – Bog,” but is an acronym of the two women who founded the agency – Galina BOGolyubova and Larisa ISaeva) would become a leader in quality, non-state funded theater in the coming years. The second was Olga Mukhina’s Tanya-Tanya, directed by Pyotr Fomenko in early 1996 for the new, as-yet homeless, Fomenko Studio.
Tanya-Tanya was a landmark in Russian drama and theater. This was a time when no critic, journalist, director, actor or any wo/man on the street would ever have dared to think that a new play was of any interest to anyone. It was the mantra of the age; silly and ignorant, but all-powerful. Tanya-Tanya, however, blew a hole in that wall of darkness. Almost everyone suddenly loved a new play. The Fomenko Studio, already popular with hip, young audiences in Moscow, was raised several notches higher in the pecking order of the capitol’s top theaters, Fomenko himself – a well-known director in his 60s who suddenly could do no wrong – was splashed with more of the gold dust that would soon turn him into a living legend. Mukhina was celebrated as the first and greatest playwright of modernity. The young actors in the Fomenko company, already minor stars, fit Mukhina’s restless, charmingly aimless young characters so perfectly and so convincingly that their own canonization as great performers of their time was advanced several more steps.
The famed notion of “New Russian Drama” would not come about for another five or six years. But when it did, it and its proponents had Mukhina and Tanya-Tanya to thank for the interest it accrued. After the success of Tanya-Tanya, other playwrights and new plays began making inroads into the public consciousness. Directors who had scorned them began seeking them out. Actors who had not wanted to perform in them began asking for them. Audiences suddenly seemed to realize what a bore it was to do nothing but watch plays in which you knew in advance every turn of the night’s coming action, and they began clambering for new plays. This led to a ground swell that came together as the tsunami now known as Russia’s new drama.
The first droplet of that ground swell took place right here in this building. The rather modest door you see immediately below is what separated our past from our future on those cold January/February nights when Tanya-Tanya opened.

dscn8180 dscn8181 dscn8179 dscn8188

One detail needs to be added to this story, a true one that has become obscured by mythology over time. Nowadays, everyone speaks without blinking about Fomenko’s brilliant production of Tanya-Tanya. In fact, it was staged by Andrei Prikhodko, one of Fomenko’s students, who played the lead role of Okhlobystin. Prikhodko’s staging was set to open in mid-January, but at the last minute invitations were canceled. We later learned that Fomenko had attended a dress rehearsal, was not pleased, and moved in to take over the entire project himself. When the show actually did open approximately two weeks later, the programs still listed Prikhodko as director, but with Fomenko’s name looming over it as producing director. Other than those on the inside, no one now will ever know the extent to which Fomenko changed Prikhodko’s work, but in coming years Prikhodko’s name would disappear from the production’s credits. Prikhodko now pursues an active theater career in Ukraine. A TV version of Tanya-Tanya, filmed in 2001, may be seen in its entirety on YouTube.
In fact, the historical performances of Tanya-Tanya were preceded by a similar event – the mounting of Alexei Burykin’s N. Nijinsky in February 1993. Although only three years separated these two productions, they occurred in vastly different worlds. Nijinsky appeared in the era of a deep-freeze in terms of playwriting. Critics and audiences may have felt safe praising the cast of this unusual play, which split Nijinsky into two characters; they may have loved the story; they were willing to be excited by the spectacle; but they were not ready to admit that a writer, a lowly, unknown writer, could have had anything to do with that.
I will never forget my astonishment as I watched review after review come out praising Menshikov and his partner Alexander Feklistov, raving about the fascinating tale, welcoming the appearance of a non-state production company (that was very new at the time), but unloading vitriol on the “hapless” writer who “had no idea how to write a play” and was “saved” by the brilliant production team. Because of Menshikov’s fame and popularity, this show was written up in every print source Moscow had to offer (and that was a huge amount of sources in 1993), and all but two eviscerated – or entirely ignored – Burykin. Curiously, both of these dissenters were apparently freedom-loving individuals, for one was named Yury Fridshtein, the other, John Freedman.
I don’t know this for a fact, but I strongly suspect that the appearance of Tanya-Tanya in this building on Prechistenka Street came about thanks to N. Nijinsky. You see, the Nijinsky team tried out several famous directors during the rehearsal period. One was Pyotr Fomenko, with whom Menshikov had worked in a famous production of Caligula in 1990. But whatever clicked that time did not click again during the preparations of Nijinsky. Fomenko, like the other famed names, was sent packing and Menshikov ended up taking directing credits. But surely Fomenko remembered this unorthodox performance space – usually used by children’s orchestras – when it came time to open Tanya-Tanya.
You can see bits and pieces of N. Nijinsky on YouTube in numbered fragments. Begin here with No. 1.

dscn8174 dscn8190 dscn8184 dscn8187 dscn8178