Eugenie Leontovich home, Beverly Hills

Click on photos to enlarge.

I like to pay my debts, so let me say right here that I would never have known about Yevgenia Leontovich, known in Hollywood and New York as Eugenie, had it not been for Harlow Robinson’s book Russians in Hollywood, Hollywood’s Russians. He quotes a great story there about how Eugenie got a big part on stage in New York thanks to her husband, a lovable rascal, shyster and a fine actor in his own right – Gregory Ratoff (Grigory Ratov). Robinson quotes a wonderful story as told by the Russian emigre actor Leonid Kinskey (the barman in Casablanca if you need to know). In it, Ratoff blows smoke in the faces of all the big actors and producers in New York, insisting that he’s a big producer himself and planning to do a big show that “you are just right for.” It apparently got him in several doors and even allowed him to befriend many of those that he was fooling with. I pick up the story midway through:
“…[Ratoff] became very close to [the producer] Shuberts [sic], and one day he learned that there was a play in which there was a wonderful part for his wife. And he stole the script. And she learned the thing thoroughly, the part, in the best English she possibly could master. And Gregory says to Shuberts [sic]: ‘Listen, I got some actress for you, a fantastic actress that fits the part. Nobody can play it better than she.’ He said, all right then, bring her in, let her read. Everything was prepared, you know, she pretended she was reading. “First reading like that? I never saw anything like this in my life!” He was absolutely fascinated. Leontovich got the part. From there on, Leontovich became a very important actress.”
In the West Leontovich’s universally accepted birth year is 1900, although numerous Russian sources suggest with more authority that she was born in 1894 (or possibly even 1890). She was born in Moscow, the daughter of a prominent naval officer. She began studying acting at the Russian Imperial School of Drama Art, later moving to the Moscow Art Theater where she studied under Vsevolod Meyerhold. She made her stage debut around 1912 in the famous summer theater in Malakhovka, where she performed in such plays as Faust, Tartuffe and TheTaming of the Shrew. During the Russian Civil War, she left Russia proper and performed for awhile in the Ukrainian city of Kharkov. The Revolution hit her family hard, as her father and her three brothers were killed by the Bolsheviks. As such, when she had an opportunity to go to Europe (Paris and/or Berlin, depending upon the source) in 1922, she jumped at the chance, leaving behind everything, but with everything to gain. That same year she made her Paris, and then New York, stage debut in a show called Revue Russe, which moved to the US from Paris where it was originally produced. Some sources say that it was in the company of this production that she first met, and worked with, Ratoff. She herself once wrote that they met in Moscow. In any case, they were married in New York in January 1923. The sources I have access to are relatively silent about the next eight years of Leontovich’s career, although she did join a touring company of the musical Blossom Time in 1922 and traveled throughout much of the U.S.

Leontovich’s career truly got underway in 1930, when she played the role of the Russian ballerina Grushinskaya alongside the Russian emigre actress Olga Baclanova (Baklanova) in Grand Hotel. This was a huge success that made Leontovich’s name in the US. When the play was made into a film sometime later, it was Greta Garbo who got Leontovich’s part. Her next major role was in Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s Twentieth Century, written expressly for Leontovich, which ran on Broadway for half a year in 1932-33. Firming up a tradition of preparing good roles for famous film actors, Leontovich played the female lead in Tovarich in London on the West End in 1935. When that piece went to the silver screen, it was Claudette Colbert who got the part. (This tradition was also observed in 1933 when her role in Twentieth Century went to Carol Lombard on the silver screen, and in 1954 when she starred on Broadway as the Dowager Empress in Anastasia, a role that went to Helen Hayes when the play was made into a film.) In 1936, in London again, Leontovich starred in a production of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra staged by Theodore Komisarjevsky (Fyodor Komissarzhevsky the younger).
Leontovich’s own film career began in 1940 with Four Sons, in which she starred opposite Don Ameche. LA Times critic Edwin Schallert wrote of this performance: “What she can say with eyes and thought registered in facial expression is naught short of momentous. Indeed, here is a discovery for the studios of the first water.” Over the next 20 years she played approximately a dozen parts in film and television. Her best known Hollywood role was as Maharani in The Rains of Ranchipur (1955) alongside Richard Burton, Lana Turner and Fred MacMurray.
None of this, however, does justice to the actress’s quite extraordinarily varied career. Over the decades she was an actor, director, playwright, producer, and managing director of her own theater (The Stage, or the Leontovich Theater, depending upon the source, in Los Angeles in the late 1940s and early 1950s). Perhaps as important as anything, she established herself as one of the great acting teachers in the United States beginning in the 1950s. She taught in Los Angeles, New York and at the Goodman Theater in Chicago in the 1960s. Like many other Russian diva teachers, her students reportedly referred to her exclusively as “Madame.”
Leontovich’s playwriting credits included the play Dark Eyes (written with friend and fellow actress Elena Miramova, 1943), and at least two adaptations, Anna K. (after Anna Karenina, 1972), and Jason and Medea (1974).
I tantalizingly found reference to a performance by Leontovich of Ranevskaya in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard which took place in a “storefront theater on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood that had no more than 60 seats.” This was probably around 1945. Based on the story told by Jeff Corey in his memoir Improvising Out Loud: My Life Teaching Hollywood to Act, Leontovich starred opposite Charles Laughton, who played Ranevskaya’s brother Gayev. I spent a good bit of time hunting where this storefront theater might have been located, but I found nothing conclusive. I’m guessing this might have been a production of the Leontovich Theater that I mentioned earlier. In any case, Santa Monica Boulvard has been substantively rebuilt in the last decade or two. I suspect that the location of The Cherry Orchard production is now long gone. (I would love to hear from anyone if I am mistaken!)
The house we see pictured here today stands at 510 N. Hillcrest Rd. in Beverly Hills. Leontovich lived here with husband Gregory Ratoff in the latter half of the 1940s, and definitely in 1947, because there exists a large 1947 correspondence between Leontovich and her “close friend” of the time, New York producer and press agent Robert Reud. All of Leontovich’s letters bear the return address of 510 N. Hillcrest. The two apparently became close after Ratoff left his wife for a new paramour. At least publicly, Leontovich held her head high. She is quoted in the New York Times obituary as saying, Ratoff “left me for a Georgian woman from Russia. She was beautiful. He left me our house in California, half of his money, and they went off to Italy.” (This is the house he would have left her.) Privately, however, Leontovich admitted all wasn’t quite as easy as that. She wrote to Reud on Dec. 3, 1947, “The force which draw [sic] me so close to you – is my believe [sic] that you are the person whom I need in the time of my life, when I was desperately in need for a friend, for a companion, for one who is as simple and complicated as you are my Lamb...” Leontovich and Ratoff divorced in 1949. She never married again. She died in New York in 1993.

 

 

Advertisements

Sergei Rachmaninoff at the Trinity Auditiorium, LA Debut

Click on photos to enlarge.

Hard as it is to believe, you’d better not blink or you might miss it. The Trinity Auditorium Building in downtown Los Angeles is a glorious piece of architecture and history. But nobody seems to give a damn at the moment. Sure, there’s talk about renovating it, and, it would seem, a few folks are even trying to do something about it. However, for all that, as of September 2017, the building remains empty and abandoned. Who knows what fate awaits it? (See after the jump for some more details on this.) Similar other buildings are gone – such as the Philharmonic Auditorium where Igor Stravinsky made his Los Angeles debut. You can read all about that triumph in Keenan Reesor’s wonderful paper, “Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky in Los Angeles to 1943.” But you can’t go see the place where it happened anymore. It’s gone.
Thankfully for us, at least for now, we can still go and stand in front of the Trinity Auditorium Building at 855 S. Grand Avenue, where Sergei Rachmaninoff made his LA debut on February 2, 1923. It looks a bit forlorn these days. The wide, busy street right next to a metro hub looks too modern, too naked for this wonderful old building. It wants a cozier, more old-fashioned feel. It’s one of the things that makes me worry – I can imagine somebody with nothing but dollar signs in his or her eyes thinking the same thing, and having the ability to say, “Let’s modernize this block!” Everything else around it has been “updated,” why not do the same to the lot that somewhat incongruously still holds the old Trinity?
Here is what Reesor writes about Rachmaninoff’s LA debut: “In 1923, Rachmaninoff appeared in person for the first time in Los Angeles—not as composer but as pianist. His performance was greeted with ecstasy by Times critic Edwin Schallert. ‘Art and the personality in art assumed a new significance with the first piano concert of Sergei Rachmaninoff in this city,’ he wrote. ‘He played last night at Trinity Auditorium, and before a throng that had apparently long anticipated his appearance proved himself a giant of the keyboard.’ Rachmaninoff would offer in total twenty-eight performances in the greater Los Angeles area.
(I will remind the forgetful reader of this space that I have already written about one of those venues, Bridges Auditorium in my former hometown of Claremont, CA. You can look that up on this site.)
Imagine that: Los Angeles before and after Sergei Rachmaninoff! You don’t think about something like that very often, but there we have it: The Trinity stands as a landmark that divides Southern California into before-and-after. These walls witnessed life before Rachmaninoff brought his art into a world that John Barrymore, Clara Bow, Charlie Chaplin, Lilian Gish and hundreds of other pioneer film stars were quickly transforming from a backwater into a cultural mecca. (In fact, the Trinity was used as backdrops for scenes in films by Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and others.) Rachmaninoff was one of the first great international artists to bite and come ply his art in this little town that was on the verge of a major metamorphosis.
You even sense a little bit of that historical yearning for change in Edwin Schallert’s review, which specifically notes that the “throng” in attendance at Rachmaninoff’s recital “had apparently long anticipated his appearance.” It was a town just waiting for the pianist to bring his art to them, and here is the place where it happened.

The cost of real estate on S. Grand must be astronomical. Imagine how much money you could make by pulling this thing down and putting up a high rise hotel? Or, the other way around, imagine how much money you could save by not going to the hassle of preserving this extraordinary building that houses inside a famed concert house? A very cool blog site called Los Angeles Theatres actually tells us quite a bit about what has been going on – and what hasn’t – in regards to the Trinity. Apparently it was expected to open in 2016 as a new hotel complex. As of fall 2017 (precisely when I was there), the site claimed that elevators were being updated in preparation for a grand opening. But I must say, I saw no signs of life whatsoever when I visited the site on September 12, 2017, peering in windows and walking around corners.
Some bare facts on the auditorium thanks, again, to the Los Angeles Theatres site. Its grand opening took place in 1914 and, over the years, it was used as a concert hall (the first significant time that happened being 1919), a church and a hotel. Here is what the site has to say about the auditorium’s capacity: “Seating: 1,600 more or less. Some estimates go as high as 2,500. Originally the main floor was sloped and had fixed theatre seating. It got leveled out at some time in the past. The auditorium features balconies on three sides and a massive ceiling dome with a stained glass medallion at its center.”
Drop down toward the bottom of the post on the LA Theatres site to see some fabulous photos – period and contemporary – of the inside of the auditorium.
In any case, the Los Angeles Times’ critic left no doubt that Rachmaninoff’s LA debut was memorable. Here is some more of what he wrote: Rachmaninoff’s “recital will be remembered many a day as one of the great events of the present musical season, and perhaps, pianistically speaking, of many seasons.
On Rachmaninoff’s performance technique the reviewer wrote: “…brilliant to the very ultimate. In fact, it approached the dazzling…”; “…crashing chords, and madly racing notes. There were riotous moments In ‘The Beautiful Blue Danube’ waltz…”; and, finally, “Chopin was his leading offering, and he brought before his hearers all its rhythmical bigness, and its somber tonal fire.”
(Quotes are drawn from the Los Angeles Times website.)
Welcome to Los Angeles, Sergei Rachmaninoff! Welcome, Los Angeles, to the music of Sergei Rachmaninoff!

 

 

The Almost Russian Theater, Los Angeles, CA

Click on photos to enlarge.

Among my far-flung searches for places connected to Russian culture this surely is one of my favorite finds. As I was doing my scattershot, though deeply immersive, research this summer on Russian artists in LA., one thing led me to another which led me to another and I ended up reading bits and pieces of Sergei Bertensson’s book In Hollywood with Nemirovich-Danchenko, 1926-1927. Imagine my astonishment (well, you can’t if you already knew this, but it was new to me) when I read the following diary entry from June 1927:
Two of the directors of the Hollywood Playhouse payed a visit to Vladimir Ivanovich to discuss the possibility of organizing a permanent drama theater in Hollywood, a true art theater. Both of them are naive and primitive enough, one of them is frankly thinking only of profit. Vladimir Ivanovich spoke about three possibilities: 1) to organize a permanent company on the basis of the Art Theatre, 2) to stage one play using the tasks and methods of the Moscow Art Theatre in order that this play becomes a model for the future work, 3) to work out a detailed plan (artistic, administrative, juridicial) according to which the owners of this theatre could run the company without the help of Vladimir Ivanovich. Vladimir Ivanovich promised to inform them of his acceptance of the first or second plan no earlier than in a month when his plans for the future became clear. He could work out the third plan now. It has been decided to have a tour of the building of the Hollywood Playhouse in two days’ time and after that to come to the conclusion.”
Holy Moses! There was almost a Moscow Art Theater, or maybe a Nemirovich-Danchenko Theater in Los Angeles! Well, as you read on, you realize that this “almost” – like so many “almosts” in life, especially in the life of anyone trying to bridge the cultural gap between Russia and the United States – probably wasn’t much of a real “almost.” And yet, and yet… Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, while in Hollywood, actually visited this theater, the Hollywood Playhouse, and actually did consider – at least for a few moments – the idea of opening a Moscow Art Theater-type theater in Los Angeles.
Indeed, two days later, on June 17, Nemirovich-Danchenko and his secretary Sergei Bertensson headed over to the Playhouse, which you see photographed here in loving delight, for a meeting with the owners. I think it’s interesting – though it may or may not be important – that when the director discovered he had mistakenly scheduled two meetings at the same time, he chose to honor not a meeting with a big Hollywood honcho (Irving Thalberg, the boy wonder at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) who wanted to do a film with him, he went to the Hollywood Playhouse for a tour of the plant and a discussion of the possibilities of collaboration.
The idea – at least of Nemirovich-Danchenko directing a play – remained alive until mid-October. Simeon Gest, brother of the more famous Russian-emigre producer Morris Guest, conducted the negotiations for the Russian director with the American theater owners.  According to Bertensson, the owners were to have informed him of their decision to go ahead with the project or not on Oct. 12, but asked for another day to consider. On Oct. 13 Bertensson writes in his diary, “All the business with the Hollywood Playhouse has fallen through, as the management either cannot or do not want to risk giving Vladimir Ivanovich the necessary financial guarantees. When from high-sounding words we proceeded to dollars, all their pathos disappeared immediately. And the Academy refused to support the initiative officially, referring to the point that the stage is beyond the scope of their interests as they only deal with pure cinematography. However, admitting the general significance of such an event as a production by Vladimir Ivanovich, certain members of the Academy promise their assistance!? Words, words, words...”
Ah, yes, Words! We have heard words, too. But allow me to brush aside my lyrical outburst and provide the proper bibliographical information for my quotes. They were drawn from pages 129-30, and 156 in Bertensson’s published memoir.

When I set out in search of this little theater-that-couldn’t-quite, I never expected to actually find it. I thought for sure it would be one of those places that has since fallen to the bulldozer and the parking lot. But no. As I drove north on Las Palmas Ave. toward Sunset Boulevard from De Longpre Ave. with my sister Margie riding shotgun, my eyes began to grow bigger and bigger as we drove through a mostly residential block in which a strangely theater-like building stood up ahead on the left, right about where 1445 N. Las Palmas Avenue should be. I jumped out of the car and began taking photos, hoping against hope this was what I thought it was. Then I walked around a big bougainvillea plant and looked up. I might as well have seen a live dinosaur. There it was, the old Hollywood Playhouse sign still intact. A bit worse for the wear, a bit faded for the years, but there was no mistaking what it said. I must also say that the maniac in me began having incredibly wild ideas, because there it is, written on two places on the building – the place is available for rent. Anybody got a couple million dollars they want to invest? With Russians flooding abroad these days (I recently read an article about 100 top Russian intellectuals who have abandoned Putin’s Russia in recent years), this could be the next big thing in L.A. Anybody think? I’ve got contact information here, if you get my drift… I got ideas…
Back to earth, however.
As much as it pains me to say it, this location had at least one more brush with Russian emigre cultural figures. I happened upon that tidbit recently when researching Ivan Lebedeff’s biography. You see, Alisa Rosenbaum’s debut play was staged here. Alisa Rosenbaum? Oh, you mean, Ayn Rand. Ugh. Yes. Ayn Rand.
As reported in Anne C. Heller’s Ayn Rand and the World She Made, Rand’s first stage play, The Night of January 16thopened as Woman on Trial at the Hollywood Playhouse in October 1934, in a production by sometime actor E. E. Clive and featuring former silent-screen actress Barbara Bedford. Critics and a star-studded first-night audience, including Rand’s Polish idol Pola Negri, Frank Capra, Jesse Lasky, Mary Pickford, Gloria Swanson, Marlene Dietrich, three members of the White Russian aristocratic diaspora, and Rand’s friend Ivan Lebedeff, among other film celebrities, praised the plot and were beguiled by the volunteer jury” [drawn from the audience].
So there you have it. Stand back and squint. Do you see Nemirovich-Danchenko, looking not at all Hollywood-like in his heavy Russian beard, entering the door? Is that Bertensson – who would immigrate to the U.S. a few years later and would publish his notes of his time with Nemirovich and later write a biography of Sergei Rachmaninoff – following his friend in the door? Or is it Rand, the Russian wannabe emigre writer, sneaking out after the premiere of her play, not wanting to be noticed because she really didn’t like people? Or might that dashing figure coming out now be Lebedeff, monocled and mustachioed, who absolutely loved opening nights and Hollywood crowds!
Whoever it is, there are some pretty good Russian ghosts here.

 

Vasily Gilbert plaque, Tula

Click on photos to enlarge.

It was getting late in Tula in October and the sun was not providing a lot of light. That, combined with the still-blue sky and the blue building I was photographing, gave a wonderful blue hue to all the pictures I took of this building in which the artist Vasily Gilbert once plied his art. I had just finished photographing a neighboring building that had something to do with Leo Tolstoy – one that was on my list – when I happened upon this one at 49 Gogolevskaya Street – which was not. I had never heard of Vasily Gilbert and, if you’re not from Tula, you may not have either. He is not mentioned in John Milner’s massive A Dictionary of Russian and Soviet Artists, 1420-1970, and the cookie cutter bios on the Russian net suggest his work is not held in collections far beyond Tula. These biographical accounts also bury the fact that Gilbert was murdered in the Purges of 1938 at the very end of the bios, adding no explanation or elaboration. We’ll get to that in a moment. The only English reference I find to him is in the ArtHive website, which provides a translation of the basic circulating Russian text.
Gilbert was born in the city of Samara in 1874. His father was an Englishman, surely named Thomas since Gilbert’s patronymic in Russian is Foma. Thomas immigrated to Russia in 1860, for reasons I have not discerned. In any case, he apparently had some artistic talent, because he gave drawing and painting lessons to all his sons when they were young of age. In 1894 Gilbert began studies at the Moscow College of Portraiture, Sculpture and Architecture where he was fortunate enough to study at least some under the tutelage of Valentin Serov and Isaac Levitan, two of the finest Russian painters of that time. It’s hard to tell how much he actually worked with them, but it is a recorded fact that he did his graduate project with another artist, Alexander Stepanov, described by Milner as a “painter of landscape and animal subjects” who was “known as one of the so-called Young Wanderers.”
Gilbert moved to Tula in 1904 and remained there until his death in 1938. He apparently made the move to take up a position teaching art in three different schools, including a local boys’ gymnasium. He also taught at a trade school and the famous local arms factory. According to an online Tula library, “The students immediately fell in love with their new teacher, an incredibly gentle man with a friendly manner of teaching. The artist taught students to see nature, to understand the subtlest shades of its moods, to apply light, soft tones in their painting.”
In addition to the landscapes and animal portraiture that Gilbert created, he spent a good deal of time illustrating texts for some of Russia’s top publishers. He drew and painted illustrations for the popular periodical Nature and Hunting, and illustrated the poetry of Alexei Koltsov, Alexander Pushkin, and Leo Tolstoy for the famed Moscow publisher Ivan Sytin.
Gilbert lived in Tula during the last six years of Tolstoy’s life. I do not find any proof that they met or knew each other, although it is a fact that Gilbert would often take his students on Sunday excursions to Tolstoy’s estate in Yasnaya Polyana to paint and draw the landscapes there. I don’t know whether these trips were taken before or after Tolstoy’s death.

The same online library mentioned above has a fairly concise description of Gilbert’s place in Tula’s artistic life and I might as well just let their text speak for itself:
Gilbert took an active part in the life of the Tula Arts and Crafts College, where he taught artistic casting, forging from metal, and where he gave lessons evenings and Sundays for anyone who wished to attend. At the beginning of the 20th century, the artist made a trip to Arkhangelsk and Solovki, whence he brought many watercolors depicting the harsh, poetic nature and architecture of the North. Gilbert’s Mooses, painted in 1910 and exhibited at the Tula Museum of Fine Arts, is done in the best traditions of Russian art of the second half of the 19th century. Gilbert took the revolution to heart and worked hard for the new government. He wrote slogans, posters and panels, and decorated public houses and clubs.”
Gilbert occupied a visible place in Tula’s cultural life for the first four decades of the 20th century. Whenever there was an art exhibit, it seemed he was a participant. Whenever a new school or new classes were opened, it seemed he was there to help and participate. His illustrations were frequently published in local magazines and journals. He appears to have been a truly popular and genuinely beloved figure in the city. That online biography ends with these words: “Gilbert’s works are held in Tula museums and private collections, and when you study them, you see a figure of an outstanding, intelligent, kind person, a talented painter whose whole life and work placed him in the ranks of the older generation of Russian artists.
I’m not entirely sure what an achievement it was to be “placed in the ranks of the older generation of Russian artists,” but we’ll skip over that for the time being in order to come quickly to two sentences in the bio that kill me: “His last personal exhibition opened in 1936. Soon he was arrested and in 1938 he was shot near Tula in the Nikolskoye forest.”
What?! What happened to all the “love” and “respect” and “adoration” that the city lavished on Vasily Gilbert?
The Russian Nekropole website has only the barest of information. His date of execution is given as April 7, 1938. The sentence is listed as VMN (ВМН in Russian), which means literally, “highest degree of punishment,” usually translated into English as “capital punishment,” and, in actual fact, meaning that Gilbert was shot.
Another site, Open List,  repeats this basic information, adding only that Gilbert is buried in the Tesnitsky forest.
I spent more than the usual time surfing the net to find more details, if not an explanation, about Gilbert’s demise. Every one of the deaths in the purges was unbearably heinous. Gilbert’s is no less so and it makes me want to have answers. If anyone knows more, I would love to hear from you.