Category Archives: Film Artists’ Homes

Ivan Lebedeff home, Los Angeles

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I’ve written about Ivan Lebedeff here in the past; he was a marvelous character, one of the defining figures of the so-called “White emigration” in Hollywood in the early years. Never famous in the direct sense of the word, he was ever-present on the star scene. He always had a starlet at his arm, his mustachio, like his monocle, was always in perfect position, and he himself was always at the hottest premiere or the coolest bar and restaurant where the tinsel shimmered and glittered in the warm Southern California summer breezes. Looking for something new to write about him today, I happened upon a web book called Who’s Who in California (Volume 1942-43), which has a wealth of details I had not previously discovered. In addition to confirming that Lebedeff lived at 8888 Appian Way in the Hollywood Hills, it provides many specifics about his life in Russia before he emigrated.
He received a Master of Literature degree at the age of 20 at the University of St. Petersburg in 1914, following that with a Master of Law degree from the Imperial Lyceum of Alexander I (St. Petersburg) in 1917. It was a propitious time for a nobleman to receive such a status, since just months later the Russian Revolution swept the standing government out of power.
Lebedeff was a much-decorated soldier. His military service began when he enlisted as a volunteer in the 3rd Regiment of Dragoons, with which he participated in the East Prussian campaign. In 1915 he was appointed Commander of Guerilla troops in the Pinsk Marshes, and, in that capacity, led his men on over one hundred raids. 1916 was an active year for Lebedeff as World War I continued to unfold. That year he received the commission of 2nd, then 1st Lieutenant, participated in the capture of German Lieutenant-General Von Fabarius (read more about that here), and was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant-Captain. In 1917 he fought on the Rumanian front and was promoted to the rank of Major. His awards and medals included: St. George Medal, 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th Class; St. George Cross, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Class; St. Stanislaus, 2nd and 3rd Class; St. Anna, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Class; St. Vladimir, 4th Class; and the Order of the Knight of St. George, 4th Class.
One has the feeling that Lebedeff himself provided all this information for the book; it’s otherwise too detailed and complete to believe that some researcher would have unearthed all this for the book on his or her own. As such, one can almost picture Lebedeff pulling down a dusty old box from a high shelf somewhere in this house at 8888 Appian Way, and looking over all his medals as he carefully jotted them down in a list to send to the editors. Even though most refugees from the Soviet Union left with little on their backs, one feels certain that Lebedeff, who clearly put a great deal of stock in his years as a soldier for the Tsar, would have left behind much, but not those medals. In fact, Lebedeff only lists two organizations of which he was a member in these years, and one of them was the Russian World War Veterans (an honorary membership). The other was the Motion Pictures Actors Guild.

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Unexpected for me was the fact that Lebedeff was an oft-published author of fiction and non-fiction.  He wrote the original story for The Gay Diplomat, a 1931 film in which he performed as an actor. He was also the author of a novel titled Legion of Dishonor (NY: Liveright Publishing Co., 1940). The book can even be had today online for a very reasonable $10. A rarer copy is available for $85 should you be a collector. His interest in foreign affairs led to him penning an essay titled “Japan will swallow China” for the Los Angeles Times (Dec. 6, 1931). Lebedeff had been inclined to test his powers as a writer even before he left Russia. He wrote the short stories “Temple of Beauty,” Nurse Natasha,” and “Woman and Tiger” in the years 1915-16. (The source suggests these tales were published in “Lyceum Monthly,” although my brief internet research does not turn up any reference to such a historical publication.) (Add note: see comment below by LanguageHat to clarify this publication.) On military affairs Lebedeff published “Psychological Strategy in Guerilla Warfare” (New Time; St. Petersburg, 1916), and the apparently prescient “Second World War Inevitable” in the Revue de Deux Mondes (Paris, 1923).
To fill out the wealth of information provided in this book, we shall add that Lebedeff enjoyed horse-riding and hunting, he was a member of the Russian-Orthodox Church (it actually says the “Greek Orthodox Church”), and the Republican Party. I provided information in the last blog about Lebedeff that he was a close friend of, God forbid, Ayn Rand, and that he had friends among fascists in Germany. Times were tough, we do need to remember that.
Finally, the book lists 8888 Appian Way as Lebedeff’s home and business address.
The Movieland Directory puts Lebedeff in this house from 1944 to 1948, based on voting records. It puts him at other addresses, including 8419 De Longpre Ave. in the 1930s and up to at least 1940 (again, as per voting records). But we know from the book referenced so heavily above that that he was resident at 8888 Appian Way at least as early as 1942-43. Lebedeff, born in 1894, died in 1953. I do not know if he was still resident here for those last five years of his life. At present (2018), the home on Appian Way has four bedrooms, one bath, and consists of 1,690 square feet of living space on a lot of 6,842 square feet. As you can see in one of the last photos below, it looks out over the Los Angeles basin from the Hollywood Hills.

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Alexis Davidoff home, Los Angeles

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Alexei Davydov, sometimes actor and costume designer in Hollywood from 1928 to 1972, was born in Saratov, Russia, on May 12, 1893. He died in Los Angeles under the name Alexis Davidoff on November 30, 1972. There is precious little information about him on the internet, so let’s put together what we can.
According to US government records, he arrived in the United States in 1921. It appears that he came through New York, although I cannot confirm that for certain. It would also appear that he moved to California almost immediately upon arrival. There is a record of him applying for US citizenship on December 26, 1923, although it’s possible he did not receive a positive response to that application. He applied for citizenship again (or a renewal? – was there such a thing?) on February 14, 1929. He arrived with a wife, Seraphine (Serafima) Davidoff, whom he married at the age of 25, i.e., around 1918. They had a daughter Vera. I do not know what happened to Seraphine, but Davidoff’s wife at his death was the bit actor Frances Mack.
The closest I can come to placing Davidoff in an extended family – and it’s not very close – is when I occasionally find the middle initial of “D.” (The California Death Index, 1940-1997, offers the “D” initial.) That, of course, would be the patronymic in Russian, but it could refer to any number of names, so it really doesn’t help any. The one Russian source of information that I find uncharacteristically fails to provide a patronymic, and clearly just skims information off of Western sources (IMDB being the best of them). A Russian geneology chart for the prominent Davydov family does not include a listing for Alexei/Alexis.
I find Davidoff in the 1940 Census as living in “block No. 6” of N. Alexandria St. in Los Angeles. By 1942 he had moved to the small but neat location that we offer today: 350 N. Westbourne Dr., Los Angeles.
Davidoff appears to have begun his career in Hollywood in 1927, working on a potboiler called Surrender. As IMDB describes it, the story is about a young Jewish woman who “is forced to either give herself to a Russian officer or watch her village burn.” Davidoff was the technical advisor. This film starred the great Russian silent actor Ivan Mozzhukhin (the oft-met French spelling is Mosjoukine), alongside US star Mary Philbin. Universal Pictures hoped Mozzhukhin was going to be their next big star, but it didn’t turn out that way. He never worked in Hollywood again. Davidoff, however, had gotten a foothold in Hollywood and, according to IMDB, he now worked on three more films as a technical advisor on things Russian. These films also had him rubbing shoulders with interesting people. Tempest (1928) was made to a script written on the basis of a story by Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, the co-founder of the Moscow Art Theater, and it starred John Barrymore. He advised on another Russian-themed film, The Woman Disputed (1929), a story similar to Surrender, starring Norma Talmadge. His last outing as a technical advisor was for Josef von Sternberg’s Dishonored (1931), starring Marlene Dietrich as an Austrian spy in Russia.
Davidoff made his acting debut in Dishonored, playing an officer, although, as was frequent in his acting career, this performance went uncredited at the time.

IMDB tells us that between 1931 and 1953 Davidoff acted in 16 films, every one of them uncredited. When you read some of the blurbs for these movies, you can’t help but suspect he was happy not to be publicly associated with them. One film, World and the Flesh (1932), was still another of those potboilers about a virginal beauty having to bargain off her chastity to save others. You look at these plot descriptions and you wonder if Hollywood producers and writers of the time understood any other kind of plot. The kinds of roles Davidoff played were more or less of a kind: Traveler in Warsaw (Once Upon a Honeymoon, 1942), Interpreter in King Vidor’s An American Romance (1944), the Headwaiter at a Russian cafe in The Razor’s Edge (1946), three different waiters in three different films – Raw Deal (1948), Larceny (1948), and his last acting job, Half a Hero (1953), starring Red Skelton.
The British Film Institute adds a few acting credits that IMDB omits. They include: 5 Fingers (1952), where he played a Turkish guard, and Beau Geste (1939), where he played a Legionnaire. BFI also adds a technical advisor credit: The Most Dangerous Game (1932). This brings Davidoff’s total acting credits to at least 18, and his advisor’s credits to at least five.
As the acting jobs dried up, Davidoff began getting jobs in the costume departments of many films, sometimes (six, to be exact) as Costume Designer, but more often (21 times) as one of the employees in the wardrobe department – from costumer to wardrobe supervisor. His first job in this capacity was in 1956, and he continued on working regularly until 1964. All of the films were B-grade potboilers or Westerns. The first was a noir thriller called Accused of Murder, and the last was Apache Rifles. Some of the titles are expressive enough to bring up the sensation of an entire era: Duel at Apache Wells (1957), The Last Stagecoach West (1957), Taming Sutton’s Gal (1957), The Wayward Girl (1957), Juvenile Jungle (1958) and so on.
You’ve got to love some of the blurbs for films Davidoff worked on: “High school teacher gets in trouble when he tries to teach a class in sex education” (The Explosive Generation, 1961); “Teenpage punk-hoodlums steal a car and embark on a tragic joyride” (Young and Wild, 1958); “They played a dangerous game of chance with only their lives as the stakes” (An Affair in Reno, 1957), etc.
The MUBI film website offers photos from three films involving Davidoff – Panama Sal (1957) and The Hoodlum Priest (1961), where he designed the costumes, and Larceny (1948), where he performed one of his roles as a waiter.
The penultimate film on which Davidoff worked was Raoul Walsh’s A Distant Trumpet (1964), where he answered for the men’s wardrobe. This film has the rather dubious honor of being included in a book called 77 Movies That Just Missed Awards or Audience Applause.  The book’s title notwithstanding, the author clearly has no love lost for the film. “It’s certainly not a whale of a good story,” writes John Howard Reid. …”the story is so weak and conventional and… its characters are such stereotypes… and are so weakly and flacidly played…,” well, you get the picture.
Finally, I’ll add that Davidoff is buried at Forest Lawn in Hollywood. And with that, I have said everything I can possibly say about this mostly unsung Russian immigrant who helped fuel Hollywood in its heyday.

 

Eugenie Leontovich home, Beverly Hills

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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.

 

 

Anna Sten home, Los Angeles

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Anna Sten, the star that wasn’t. At least that is the impression one gets by reading up on this Kiev-born actress who actually had a pretty remarkable career. She was discovered by Konstantin Stanislavsky, performed in film for husband Fyodor Ozep, Yakov Protazanov, and Boris Barnet in the USSR in the 1920s before having an impact in Germany, again with Ozep, in the early 1930s, and then moving on to Hollywood where Samuel Goldwyn famously or infamously planned on making her the “second Garbo” in the mid-1930s.
Sten (1908-1993) can be found under a host of different names. Her maiden name was Fesak, but she also appeared at one time or another with the last names of Stenska and Sudakevich. Her mother was a Swedish ballerina; her father a Ukrainian theater producer. In addition to the numerous names under which she was known, she also had a large number of birth years to choose from. Although most sources now use December 3, 1908, as the correct birthdate, some documents claim the year was actually 1906 or 1910.
Sten (the name came from her first husband Boris Sten [Bernstein]) got her feet wet in cinema in Boris Barnet’s classic comedy Miss Mend (1926) where she played an episodic role. But she obviously made an impression on the director for he chose her to star in his next film, The Girl with the Hatbox (1927). This was followed by several starring roles in films that, to one degree or another, left a mark on the history of Soviet cinema. They include Ozep’s The Earth in Captivity and Protazanov’s The White Eagle, both made in 1928. The White Eagle, especially, is historic for Vsevolod Meyerhold’s performance as an imperious dignitary. It is one of the few examples of the great director captured on film. In one of the most memorable duets in early Soviet film, the great Moscow Art Theater actor Vasily Kachalov played opposite Meyerhold as a star-crossed governor. Sten played the governor’s wife.
Ozep and Sten (who were a married couple between the years 1927 and 1931) went to Germany in the early 1930s to ply their careers there. Ozep’s film The Murderer Dmitry Karamazov (1931) was a major release in that year. (He also released a French version called Les frères Karamazoff.) Over the next year she played leads in three more German films, including Robert Siodmak’s Storms of Passion (1932) where she starred opposite Emil Jannings.
But it was Sten’s starring turn as the femme fatale Grushchenka in the two Dostoevsky adaptations that attracted serious attention in the cinema world. Variety raved about her.
Anna Sten brilliantly performs Grushchenka on screen. With her a new heroine has arrived in the German cinema. She is Russian by origin, but at times she appears to be a double for Marlene Dietrich. That should not be taken literally; we are talking only about external similarities, the correspondence of her appearance, face and figure to the standards of continental beauty.” (I’m quoting this excerpt back from the Russian where I found it on the kino-teatr film website.)
This is the moment when Samuel Goldwyn entered the picture. Smitten by Sten’s beauty and presence on screen (to say nothing, perhaps, of the review in Variety), he resolved to put her under contract in the U.S. and to make her the next great foreign star in Hollywood.

On one level it is clear that Sten never became the star that Goldwyn envisioned. The name Sten is hardly an equivalent of Garbo, Dietrich,  or Bergman. And yet one also wonders how much of a “failure” she was? Perhaps she was more a victim of a system trying to plug her into slots that did not suit her?
Whatever the case may be, Sten starred in three consecutive Hollywood films that were intended to make her a star, but did not. The first was Nana (1934), based on the novel by Emile Zola, which was considered a major flop. It was followed by We Live Again (1934), an adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s novel Resurrection that was directed by the Russian emigre director Rouben Mamoulian. Next up was The Wedding Night (1935), a comedy directed by the legendary King Vidor and starring Gary Cooper in his debut. Her next film, A Woman Alone (1936) was made in England by her third husband, Eugene (Yevgeny) Frenke. They were married in 1932 and remained together until his death in 1984. This was, however, the end of Sten’s attempt to become a major Hollywood star. She was tagged with the weighty moniker of “Goldwyn’s folly” and did not make another film until 1939.
In fact, Sten worked with some regularity throughout the 1940s and 1950s, performing in 11 films over that period (albeit, with a seven year hiatus between 1948 and 1955). She made her last appearances on film in 1962 and 1964. Four of her last six performances were in television projects.
As is fitting of a star – or is it a non-star? – with three birth years and at least four names, there is a bit of confusion surrounding this house where Sten apparently lived in the early 1930s. I say “apparently,” because the Movieland Directory, which puts her here in the 1920s, is clearly mistaken. Sten did not live in Hollywood until the early 1930s. Perhaps this house at 601 N. Rexford Dr. in Beverly Hills was a temporary place of residence before she settled into a more stable existence with her new husband Eugene Frenke. This house, which Movieland Directory posits as Sten’s first Hollywood address, was, indeed, built in 1921. Judging by its appearance today it has undergone a facelift or two since then, but it is clear that this very structure was there to shelter Sten when she arrived in Hollywood around 1932 or 1933.
A final tidbit. The flop of Nana, which premiered February 1, 1934, had such resonance that its star even made her way into Cole Porter’s 1934 song, “Anything Goes”:

If Sam Goldwyn can with great conviction
Instruct Anna Sten in diction
Then Anna shows
Anything goes.”

It must have been a bitter pill.

 

 

George Shdanoff home, Los Angeles

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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.

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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.

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Alla Nazimova temporary residence, Bel Air, CA

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[Shortly after I posted the following text, a wonderful response was posted below, correcting many errors in my speculation, and adding lots of good details about Nazimova. My suggestion is that you start by reading Jon Ponder’s comment, then go to my text (or skip it!) in order to get the straight dope first.]
I’m not exactly sure where Alla Nazimova lived at 1000 Stone Canyon Rd., Bel Air, CA, but she did stay here for awhile in the 1920s. I can’t help but wonder if the guest house she occupied is what apparently is now a garage. It would make sense. All the more so, since this house, pushed up against a densely wooded hill, seems to have no other place where a guest house might fit.
This, one of Los Angeles’s most exclusive neighborhoods, has been home to dozens, if not hundreds, of famous people over the last century. Just a few include: Betty Grable, Judy Garland, Greer Garson, Howard Hughes (whom Ava Gardner once attacked and nearly killed with a bronze statue after he slapped her to the floor in his home down the street at 1120 Stone Canyon), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Steven Stills, Marvin Gaye… and we could go on seemingly forever. Most sources tell us that Nazimov stayed in a home belonging to Hollywood musical director Morris Stoloff, a three-time Oscar winner, but I wonder about that. Stoloff, who obviously had Slavic or Jewish Slavic roots, though he was born in Philadelphia, did not really achieve great success until the mid-1930s, when he became the music director at Columbia Pictures (1936, to be exact). Would he – in his early-to-mid-20s, just starting out in his career – have had the money to purchase this exclusive residence? Sure, it wasn’t as exclusive in the 1920s, but still, this somehow doesn’t add up. I can only assume that the home has now become associated primarily with Stoloff, so that mentions of Nazimova staying here are automatically connected to what would have been his later residency.
In any case, we know that Nazimova, one of those “refugees” from the Moscow Art Theater who made a career in Hollywood, stayed here at least for awhile when she was at, or close to, the peak of her career. Since she occupied a guest room, and since her famous, even notorious, Garden of Allah hotel on Sunset Strip was still being rebuilt between the years of 1918 and 1926, one can conjecture that her time on Stone Canyon Rd. was just a way station for her. It’s possible that she stayed here, waiting until she could move into her new, bigger property.
Nazimova (1879-1945) was born in Yalta with the Spanish name of Marem-Ides Leventon (her earliest-known ancestors apparently left Spain in the 16th century). Her Russian name was Adelaida Yakovlevna Leventon. She first used the stage name of Alla Nazimova when appearing at the Art Theater, on whose stages she performed from its very founding in 1898. Most of the time she played small roles under Stanislavsky and by 1903 -04 she began to feel the pull of destiny. She traveled to the Russian provinces where she played numerous leading roles and enjoyed significant success. (Legend has it she met Anton Chekhov in Yalta in 1904 and that he appreciated her talent.) She made the leap to the United States in 1905 (the year of the first, failed, Russian Revolution). She threw herself into studies of English and, by 1906, debuted on the American stage, performing the title role in Hedda Gabler in 1906. According to one Russian online biography, Eugene O’Neill was so taken by Nazimova’s performance that he attended the show ten times. Her fame grew so quickly that she was invited to visit Teddy Roosevelt in the White House during the time of his presidency.
True fame came knocking, however, when Hollywood called. She made her first film in 1915 (War Brides), but the real start to her career took place in 1918 when she appeared in three films. Her golden years as a Hollywood actress coincide with the period (apparently) when she stayed at the home pictured here. She played the leads in Camille (1921), A Doll’s House (1922) and Salome (1923), confirming her reputation as an exotic beauty and a powerful actress. It is worth noting that between 1918 and 1923 she was also a producer and writer, wearing one or both of those hats in eight of the films she made as an actress. By 1925 her film career, which lasted barely a decade, was virtually over. She performed in three films in the 1940s, but that was another era and another level of art.

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Nazimova’s legendary Garden of Allah estate and hotel (along with her swinging sexual escapades) are now more famous than Nazimova herself. The extravagant structure and beautiful grounds attracted virtually everyone in the Hollywood elite in the 1920s. The Wikipedia article on the location provides a list of some 75 A-list celebrities who lived in, or stayed at, the hotel at one time or another. Although Nazimova never returned to Russia after she left in 1905, when she had a swimming pool built at the Garden of Allah, she may have had it done as a copy of the Black Sea, alongside which she was born. I make that weak claim, however, and must immediately admit that there is still argument as to whether this is true. A lovely internet article tells the story of the pool with plenty of juicy detail (John Barrymore supposedly held the record for falling into the pool; and, “Marlene Dietrich and/or Tallulah Bankhead were said to like to swim in it at night naked except for their jewelry”).
There is virtually nothing left of the Garden of Allah these days. It was bought by a benighted banker, Bart Lytton, in 1959 and he razed it in order to build his bank’s headquarters there. I remember seeing a video on the internet a year ago, when I began researching Russian addresses in L.A., that took viewers down into a basement in one of the businesses now located there, and revealed a couple of tiles or something similar from the original Garden. I don’t  find that video now, but it’s out there. If some intrepid one among you finds it, you can post the link below.
As such, in a curious sort of way – this house at 1000 Stone Canyon Rd. is one of the closest, tangible links to Nazimova’s Garden of Allah. Because, chances are, it was while she was here that the planning and building of the Garden took place. For the record, according to the Movieland Directory, she had a total of three other L.A.-area addresses during the 1920s: 649 W. Adams Blvd. (unspecified 1920s); 1438 Hayvenhurst Dr. (1924-26); and the Garden of Allah at 8152 W. Sunset Blvd. (the address was actually 8080 at that time). The Movieland Directory suggests that Nazimova moved into the Garden of Allah in or around 1930, but I think it’s safe to say she did so earlier – probably 1926 or 1927. I am assuming that Stone Canyon was the first of those address. It would make sense that she lived here temporarily before moving into more permanent quarters, but this is just my conjecture.

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Akim Tamiroff home, Beverly Hills, CA

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Akim Tamiroff may have left more footprints in Los Angeles and its environs than any other Russian-born actor/director in Hollywood. There are numerous addresses for him, and many of the houses he lived in still stand. He has a star just off of Hollywood Boulvard, and, since he was involved with Michael Chekhov, he can be attached to several more addresses around town.
Our first post, among what may end up being many, demonstrates the home where Tamiroff lived for some time in the 1940s. The address is 629 North Alta Drive in Beverly Hills. We know he could not have lived here any earlier than the summer of 1941, when he was still resident at 515 N. Rexford Dr. in Beverly Hills. (He was there from at least 1938 to 1941). I can’t find the dates when he moved into the N. Alta Dr. property, but he lived here when he registered to vote in 1946. Further, we know that he moved to Palm Springs at some time in the 1950s – I don’t have a specific date for that move. So, for conversation’s sake, let’s call this place on North Alta Tamiroff’s home for the better part of the 1940s.
As any source will tell you, Tamiroff was not Russian, but was of Armenian descent. He was born in 1899 in Tiflis (Tbilisi), the capital of Georgia, which was a territory of the Russian empire at that time. His full first name was Hovakim and his proper last name was Tamirov, transliterated with the two ffs back in the day in order to approximate the soft Russian “v” at the end of a word or name. But Tamiroff’s Russian connections were significant, if brief, and so we are happy to claim him in the constellation of Russian culture.
The fact is that he traveled to Moscow around 1918 or 1919 to study at the Moscow Art Theater. That, in itself, is a sign of character and fortitude. Russia was struggling at the peak years of its Civil War at that time and, I would guess, more people were trying to leave Moscow than to come there. Be that as it may, Tamiroff was admitted into the troupe of the Moscow Art Theater in 1920 (trust this date from the Moscow Art Theater encyclopedia, rather than other dates you may find on the net). He was a member of the Art Theater’s traveling troupe that was such a sensation in the United States in the early 1920s. When the Art Theater went back to Moscow in 1924, Tamiroff remained behind. In his four-year Art Theater career, Tamiroff played numerous important, secondary roles in top productions – The Inspector General, Three Sisters, The Cherry Orchard, The Blue Bird, Enough Simplicity in Every Wiseman, The Brothers Karamazov and others. At first in New York he worked for Nikita Balieff’s famous Bat Cabaret, later opening his own make-up studio. The Art Theater encyclopedia tells us that Katherine Hepburn was among his students there. He also embarked on an admirable career acting in New York, sometimes on Broadway.
Curiously – because he spoke with an extremely thick Russian accent – he moved to Hollywood in 1932 precisely when films went talkie. His accent served him well as he played all kinds of colorful foreigners throughout his career.

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Tamiroff was in such demand as an expressive character actor in the heydays of the Hollywood studios, that he participated in over 60 films in just his first few years on the West Coast. This was good, of course, because it meant steady work and pay. It also apparently frustrated the actor. According to legend, he is the unnamed actor who complained to the famous Russian writers Ilf and Petrov that he could only get parts playing Mexicans. They quoted him saying that in their popular travelogue, Single-Storied America (material gathered 1935-36; published in Russian in 1937). Indeed, according to the IMDB film website, Tamiroff’s first ten roles in the cinema were so small that they went uncredited. Be that as it may, Tamiroff was twice nominated for Academy Awards in the Best Supporting Role, Male, category. This was in 1936 for the title role in The General Died at Dawn, and in 1943, for For Whom the Bell Tolls.
The actors and directors he performed with and for comprise a who’s-who of Hollywood in those years. Directors included Cecil B. DeMille, Preston Sturges, Orson Welles, Jean-Luc Godard, Eric von Stroheim, Michael Curtiz, William Wyler, Charles Vidor and others. He worked with virtually every major actor of the age, including Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Rosalind Russell, Gary Cooper, Irene Dunne, Frederic March, Spencer Tracy, Hedy Lamarr, Ingrid Bergman, Frank Sinatra, Charlton Heston, and I’m just skimming as I run rough-shod over an astonishing list. He was something of a favorite of Orson Welles, playing in four of that master’s late films, including the role of Sancho Panza in Welles’ unfinished Don Quixote.
Most of this post consists of things I have cherry-picked from the internet, but at the end I can offer up a tidbit that you probably can’t find anywhere else. When I was doing research on the L.A. addresses, Lisa Dalton of the Michael Chekhov Theater Institute responded to my cry for help by tossing off a nice little phrase, which I quote here in full: “Akim Tamiroff hosted regular soirees and classes for Mr. C which is where Mala [Powers], [Anthony] Quinn and the Bridges [as in Lloyd and his wife Dorothy] worked with him.” So, it would appear that Tamiroff – who would have known Michael Chekhov as a great actor in Moscow – was one of those people in the “Russian mafia in Hollywood” to help provide Chekhov a foothold in Tinsletown.

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Sergei Eisenstein base, Los Angeles

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I must explain the odd, even misleading, title to today’s post. This home at 614 North Arden Drive in Beverly Hills was not Sergei Eisenstein’s home. It is, however, one of the physical locations closely connected to his Hollywood sojourn in 1930. (He traveled from New York to the West Coast in the second half of 1930 and left for Mexico in December of that same year). The house belonged to the novelist Upton Sinclair, who may or may not have said to Eisenstein at one point, ‘mi casa es su casa.’ In any case, the two at this time were just beginning their short-lived collaboration on the ill-fated Que Viva, Mexico! project – Sinclair producing, with Eisenstein directing and overseeing the writing of the script (attributed to Grigory Alexandrov). To round out the Russian team, all of whom were in L.A. together, the cinematography was the work of the great Eduard Tisse.
According to Lionel Rolfe’s Literary L.A., during the Great Depression Sinclair “was able to lease a genuine Beverly Hills mansion at 614 North Arden Drive; it was cheap, he pointed out, because there was no market then for big houses. Sinclair was doing very well financially – so much so that his old friend Charlie Chaplin got him both financially and creatively involved with the great Russian film director Sergei Eisenstein. Eisenstein spent several months and a pile of Sinclair’s money working on his Que Viva, Mexico! – later Thunder Over Mexico, which remained uncompleted.”
It was a confusing time. Sinclair was a leftist writer who dabbled in politics (running unsuccessfully for the office of governor of California in 1934). Eisenstein was an artist doing his best to stay out of the way of politics, but not doing a sufficiently good job of that.
Joseph Stalin’s name runs in and out of the thread of the story. Ronald Bergan’s book Eisenstein: A Life in Conflict, tells us that Sinclair wrote to Stalin on Oct. 26, 1931:
You may have heard that I have taken the job of financing a moving picture which the Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein is making in Mexico. It is going to be an extraordinary work, and I think will be a revelation of the moving-picture art… Some day you will see the picture which Eisenstein is making, and realise that Soviet technique has advanced another step and been crowned with fresh laurels.”
It’s easy for us to laugh now. Appealing to Stalin on the assumption that he will value artistic achievement! But Sinclair was just following what, at that time, was becoming a tradition – artists appealing to Stalin’s aesthetic taste and/or pride in Russian/Soviet artistic accomplishments. Pasternak did it. Gorky did it. Stanislavsky did it. Only the lazy, it would seem, didn’t do it. Not that it did any good. And it surely didn’t do Sinclair or Eisenstein any good. Just one month later, on Nov. 21, 1931, Sinclair received a cable from Stalin. As quoted in Bergan’s book, it read:
EISENSTEIN LOOSE [sic] HIS COMRADES CONFIDENCE IN SOVIET UNION STOP HE IS THOUGHT TO BE DESERTER WHO BROKE OFF WITH HIS OWN COUNTRY STOP AM AFRAID THE PEOPLE HERE WOULD HAVE NO INTEREST IN HIM STOP AM VERY SORRY BUT ALL ASSERT IT IS THE FACT STOP MY REGARDS STOP STALIN.”

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Eisenstein wasn’t the only one under scrutiny, however. Sinclair ran into some serious bad publicity precisely for acquiring this Beverly Hills home which was the site of much of the planning for Que Viva, Mexico! He positioned himself as the champion of the poor and downtrodden – leading the EPIC (End Poverty in California) movement – yet was snapping up choice real estate while the economy was tanking. The L.A. Times, by way of owner Harry Chandler and star attack-dog columnist Henry Carr, went after Sinclair publicly for making big profits on real estate in Long Beach and for acquiring the Beverly Hills mansion from a financially strapped owner. As reported by Kevin Starr, in Endangered Dreams: The Great Depression in California, Sinclair and his wife Mary “picked up the forclosed Beverly Hills property for a song… and with no down payment demanded by the distressed owners.”
So there we have it – the leftist writer/producer/politician is making a killing off of real estate deals, and the Communist film director is squandering both the capitalist’s money and his Communist leader’s confidence. All of that happening in the short time that the two men were brought together, in part, by the structure you see pictured here today.
In fact, this building, to a certain extent, was witness to the failure of both men’s big projects at the time. In order to continue running for governor in 1934, Sinclair was forced politically to unload the Beverly Hills home, but it was too late. His candidacy failed. Meanwhile, Eisenstein had been compelled to return to Moscow, leaving New York by ship on April 19, 1932, and arriving in the Soviet capital in May 1932, because Stalin was already beginning to move against the director by targeting his family. (The secret police had made several visits to Eisenstein’s mother, and had confiscated the family jewels.)
To make the whole story messier, a cache of beautiful drawings by Eisenstein, many erotic and homosexual in nature, had been confiscated by U.S. customs agents when Eisenstein was on the way out of the country. Again, according to Bergan’s book, Sinclair learned of this and acquired some copies. And then this fine man who so often tried to do the right thing, committed a fateful and heinous act. He denounced Eisenstein to the Soviet authorities, writing on March 19, 1032, “It appears that Eisenstein spends all his leisure time in making very elaborate obscene drawings. I have a specimen of his work brought from Mexico. It is identified as Eisenstein’s by his handwriting on it. Believe me, it is not an anatomy study nor a work of art or anything of that sort; it is plain smut. Hunter [Kimbrough, Sinclair’s brother-in-law] tells me that Eisenstein presented a series of such drawings to the young owner of the hacienda, and they were so bad that this educated young Mexican refused to put them up in his den.”
Perhaps angered by the photos, certainly unhappy about dumping a huge amount of money into the now-defunct Que Viva, Mexico! project, Sinclair tried to minimize losses by releasing his own film Thunder Over Mexico (1933) using a small amount of Eisenstein’s footage. This all made the once-friends and collaborators into enemies forever. The house at 614 North Arden Drive stands as a monument to their brief friendship and all the bright hopes they both harbored for future success.

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Sergei Eisenstein plaque and building, Moscow

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This is quite a place on Moscow’s cultural map. First of all, it’s a nice building. It could use a touch-up of paint and plaster, but we can look past those things. We’re not all about appearances. I like the green. I love Moscow’s, and Russia’s, colored buildings – pink, yellow, green, blue. They’re a great antidote for those who suffer long, gray Russian winters. (I’m not one of them – I love the cold and ice and snow every bit as much as I love the rainbow buildings.)
But I digress.
Sergei Eisenstein (1898-1948) lived here. One of the fathers – if not the father – of modern cinema. For all those poor souls suffering through the withering drought in Russian film that is known as the period running unbroken from the late 1980s to the present, Eisenstein stands as both a rebuke – where are you, new Eisensteins? – and a beacon of hope – yes, it can be done.
Eisenstein lived in Apt. 2 in this building at 23 Chistoprudny Boulevard. It’s right across from the south end of the pond that, for some reason, is named in the plural in Russian – Chistye prudy, or, Clean Ponds.
Another digression, sorry about this. But in the spirit that, with the internet at our fingertips, there is no longer any reason for anyone ever again to claim that they don’t know something, I went to Russian Wikipedia to find out just why this single pond has a name in the plural. And I learned that back in the 17th century there were a series of bogs here known as Foul Swamps! This is where the city dumped its waste from nearby slaughterhouses and meat markets. Wiki doesn’t say it out loud, but the hint is that when folks quit dumping blood and guts into the water here, it came to be known as a place that was clean. And, I’m also assuming, the many swamps, bogs and ponds over time were narrowed into the one we now have.
But back to Eisenstein.
He lived here on Clean Ponds/Chistye prudy from 1920 until 1934. In other words, he regularly pounded the pavement in these environs at that very time that he was doing all of his great early work. That includes his experimental theater pieces done under the influence and tutelage of Vsevolod Meyerhold, as well as his monstrously influential films Strike (1925), The Battleship Potemkin (1925) and October: Ten Days that Shook the World (1927). We see that it was also right here that the great artist’s career suffered its first setbacks. He lived here when he made The General Line (1929), a film that was hindered badly by rapidly changing politics in the Soviet Union. This was also his address when he traveled to Mexico and planned his grandiose, but unfinished ¡Que viva México! (1930). It wasn’t until 1937, three years after leaving the apartment at Clean Ponds, that he made another film (Bezhin Meadow). But it was destroyed, leaving us only with several hundred stills that the great Naum Kleiman and film director Sergei Yutkevich salvaged by collecting into a kind of slide show in the 1960s.

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Eisenstein’s influence on everything cinematic was total. He wasn’t the only film artist pushing the envelope in those early days, but there were few discoveries made that he wasn’t a part of in some way. When my high school and early college girlfriend Laura Greenwood began taking film lessons she had the top of her head sheared off by Eisenstein. “Forget your Fellini!” she used to say. “Eisenstein already did it all!” I have no desire to forget my Fellini, let alone my Kurosawa, Antonioni or Woody Allen. But one gets Laura’s drift. I mean, let’s take it to the level of kitsch and absurd. Remember Johnny Depp in Edward Scissorhands? Nobody will ever convince me that Edward’s ‘do wasn’t taken hair-for-hair from Eisenstein. If you don’t believe me, check out Depp and check out Eisenstein. I rest my case. Or, if you want to take that further, check out this somewhat later Eisenstein and check out Mel Brooks’ Frankenstein. He’s just Eisenstein without the hair. I’m tellin’ ya – Eisenstein is everywhere.
The building at 23 Chistoprudny Boulevard was built in the year 1900 by architect Sergei Barkov for Nikolai Teleshov, who rented out rooms as a way to generate income. (It was originally a four-story building; the three top floors were added in 1947.) Teleshov was a pretty interesting figure himself. He was a poet and prose writer who was the organizing figure behind the famous “Wednesday” literary salon in Moscow from 1899 to 1916. His guests included Maxim Gorky, Alexander Sumbatov-Yuzhin, Valery Bryusov,  Alexander Kuprin, Ivan Bunin, Vikenty Veresaev, Fyodor Chaliapin, Leonid Andreev, Boris Pilnyak and many others. Teleshov was the director of the museum of the Moscow Art Theater in the late 1920s and 1930s. I don’t know whether he lived in the building when Eisenstein did (look it up yourself if you gotta have it), although if so, he would not have been the director’s landlord. By 1920 everybody’s landlord in Russia was the Soviet State.

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Serafima Birman home, Moscow

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Serafima Birman (1890-1976) is one of the names from the Soviet era of theater and film that invariably attract the epithet of “great.” She was among the first group of actors to study with Stanislavsky, officially a member of the Moscow Art Theater into the mid-1920s. She was also a member of Mikhail Chekhov’s Moscow Art Theater 2. She was a founding member of the Lenkom Theater. She acted, directed and taught both disciplines. Her appearances in film were few and far between, but once seen, she was impossible to forget. A Russian blogger who calls herself Mary Quite Contrary wrote this about Birman’s performance of Yefrosinia Staritskaya in Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan The Terrible: “But the real shit hits the fan, of course, with Serafima Birman’s Yefrosinia Staritskaya. She is such a snake in the grass, but is performed so brilliantly that you can’t take your eyes off her massive black silhouette and hissing voice.” You can find this comment as well as a couple of stills of Birman in the film at Contrary Mary’s blogsite. You can see one of Birman’s scenes from the second half of the movie on YouTube.  Birman actually got this role in a backhanded way. It was originally going to be Birman’s great contemporary Faina Ranevskaya who would play Yefrosinia, but the studio decided that they did not like Ranevskaya’s “strong Semitic features.” As a result, the role went to Birman, every bit as much a Jewess as Ranevskaya, but who was listed in her passport as “Moldovan” because she was born in Kishinyov.
A lot is made of Birman’s physical appearance. One female journalist on the Russian Showbiz Daily website goes really overboard by calling Birman “unbelievably ugly” (neveroyatno nekrasivaya), although she does, at least, allow that she was a “genius.” This same post, as well as many others, go into great detail about Birman’s “unusual” visage, her desire to be “beautiful,” etc. It gets pretty damn annoying, I must say. I’d love to ignore this part of Birman lore, but it’s everywhere, and so I mention it in order to call it out. Not only is it bunk, it has nothing to do with anything. Period. Let’s be done with that nonsense.
Birman’s pedigree in Russian acting couldn’t be better. She began studying with Stanislavsky with Mikhail Chekhov, Yevgeny Vakhtangov, and Sofia Giatsintova. I haven’t found a source in English for one great story about Birman, but it’s worth quoting the Russian (Showbiz Daily) just in case it’s true. Arthur Miller was in Moscow and someone took him to see a dramatization of Dostoevsky’s Uncle’s Dream starring Ranevskaya and featuring Birman in a small role. Supposedly, Miller said, “Ranevskaya is a marvelous actress, but what she does is two-times-two-equals-four. What Miss Birman does is two-times-two-equals-five.” (That’s a back-translation from the Russian and doesn’t pretend to be a true quote of Miller.)

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Birman in the late 1920s lived in Apt. 6 at building No. 18 on Vspolny Lane, just a block from the famous Patriarch’s Pond. There’s nothing on the yellow building to indicate she lived here, but I know she did thanks to a wonderful catalogue of theater addresses that I own and which I mentioned in a recent blog about Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko. In a couple of years she moved to another address and I rather imagine I will have to show you that place in good time.
Birman had – and still has – the reputation of an extremely demanding artist. As we all know, that means that the label of “hard to work with,” or “difficult personality” has also stuck to her. And, as we all know, that just means that people who don’t know what they’re talking about are writing about her. Still, it makes for some good stories, and good stories are always welcome. Here’s one I have shaved down a bit from a site called So People Will Remember:
Birman once dropped in to see her friend Ivan Bersenev rehearsing a show at the Lenkom Theater where they both worked. Peering in from the wings, she was horrified to see Bersenev, sitting at his director’s table in the hall, munching on a sandwich. Birman was furious. “How could you? You?! In the cathedral of art! And you call yourself a director! This is a cathedral, a holy place!” That evening Birman refused to ride home with Bersenev in his car, as was her custom, choosing to walk instead. Bersenev and the actress Sofia Giatsintova drove slowly alongside her in the car. “Sima! Don’t be silly!” they shouted at her. Birman pretended not to hear them the whole way home.
My wife Oksana Mysina played Birman in a relatively recent TV biopic about the actress Valentina Serova, one of Birman’s best friends. You can see one of their scenes from Yury Kara’s “A Star of the Age” on YouTube.

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