Category Archives: Memorial Plaques to Theater Artists

Anna Pavlova plaque, London

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This is another of those instances where your dedicated sleuth and reporter went the extra mile or two to find what I am willing to wager you would never have found on your own. To look it up on the internet it looks incredibly easy: The Anna Pavlova blue plaque commemorating the home in which the great Russian-born dancer lived for many years in London. You can find plenty of photos of the house. That should make it even easier, no?
No.
You can find an address of 6 Ivy House. You can find references to the former Jewish Cultural Center. There is also an address of 94-96 North End Road. The photos of the imposing house are so distinct it would never occur to you that you could possibly walk right by without noticing it.
But that’s just what I did 3 or 4 times before enlisting the aid of a friendly neighbor who was out hosing down his driveway right next to where I knew I wanted to be – although that wasn’t doing me any good.
“Good morning, sir,” said I. “Hate to bother you at your work!”
“Oh, any time!” he replied.
“I think you must know where I want to go,” said I. “I’m looking for one of your neighbors. Maybe you can tell me.”
“Maybe so, maybe not,” he said with a smile.
“I know she’s right here,” I said, “but I have walked back and forth and up and down your street to no avail. Surely you know where Anna Pavlova lived!”
“Oh! Anna PavlOva,” he said with pleasure and veneration, employing the non-Russian pronunciation of the great ballerina’s name. “Yes, I do think she lived somewhere nearby.”
“It’s a great, big beautiful home,” said I. “Very stately. I shouldn’t be able to miss it, but I surely do every time I walk up and back on this street.”
“I’ll bet that’s because it’s behind a big wall now,” my gardening friend told me. “It was bought by a school and they erected a tall fence in front of it. I believe it’s the next house just up from here.”
I thanked the man for his friendly advice and I headed back up North End Road for the third time at least. And sure enough. There was the fence, behind which arose several nondescript gables (see photo immediately below). Was this it? I walked up to the gate and peered around the corner and – yessiree – there was the house. Not really in all its glory because you really can’t get an angle to look at it from the street. But I finally did realize I had reached my destination. Next up: the plaque. Peering through the gate like a thief on prowl I searched up and down the walls of the house – no plaque was to be seen.
As I contemplated my next move I saw a woman ring a bell and enter the gates seconds later. I resolved to do the same. A kind-voiced young woman came on the line and asked if she could help. I assured her she could. I needed to get inside to find the Anna Pavlova blue plaque. Could she let me in?
“Oh, no. Not now,” she said, almost worried. “Come back in a half an hour. The children are being let out now and we can’t have any strangers crossing paths with them before they’re all gone.”
“A half an hour?” I asked back. “I’m losing daylight and I have several other places to be today,” I pleaded. “I’ve come from Russia. I’m a journalist,” I added, sort of telling the truth. “I’ve come specifically to photograph the plaque. But I don’t see it anywhere.”
“Oh, it’s here,” the kind young lady said. “But it’s behind the fence. You can’t see it.”
“Oh,” I said, getting more and more disappointed.
“Come back in 15 minutes,” she said through the intercom. I’ll try to let you in then.”
I promised her I would and I walked across the street to try to find an angle to photograph the home (see the last photo in the following block for that result). I took a shot or two and, bored, went back to stand by the gate. Although 15 minutes hadn’t passed, I unexpectedly heard the young woman’s voice through the intercom again.
“Sir? Sir?!”
I ran to the door. “Yes?” I said.
“Push on the door,” she told me. “It will open.”
I did and it did. Shortly thereafter, a woman dressed in black came out the front door and headed in my direction. It was the lady from the speaker phone. We exchanged pleasantries then got down to business. The plaque, I was told, was now closed off in a side area behind locked gates. I asked if I could have access – I’d come all the way from Russia. I repeated this information in a whine that employed my best wounded-bird voice. “Oh, I’ll have to ask. I couldn’t make that decision myself,” she said. She went in to ask permission to let me into the hallowed ground and I began photographing the building straight on. If you look at the second photo above you will see the young lady coming back out and trying to run out of the photo before I snapped the shot. God bless her, she had secured permission for me to go inside the holy-of-holies side yard to shoot the plaque. See the second and third photos below for that.
After I snapped those shots we went back out and chatted for a few minutes. I was assured that the school had plans to move the plaque out from its current prison onto a place on the building that would be more visible from the street. There was no fence before the school purchased the property in 2015 – it had been put up as protection for the children, history be damned.

Apparently quite a few items belonging to Pavlova are still present in the house. My friendly acquaintance told me there is often talk about turning one of the rooms into a small Pavlova museum in order to collect all the items in one place. I solemnly confirmed that this would be a wonderful idea – particularly if people could have access to it… In fact, there was something of an exhibition here 12 years ago. A small piece in The Independent tells us about that, suggesting that the home became a Jewish Cultural Center because “Pavlova’s unknown father is thought to have been Jewish.”
Pavlova bought this house in Hampstead Heath – originally built in the 18th century – in 1912. It remained her home until her death in 1931. In fact, this is where she died. I don’t know when the structure was given over to the Jewish Cultural Center, but the majority of references to the building on the internet are to the Jewish center. According to one source, it was purchased by the school – now known as St. Anthony’s School for Girls – for 6.25 million pounds in 2015. To the best of my ability to ascertain, it was called Ivy House 6 when Pavlova lived here. At some point the modern address became 94-96 North End Road, most probably during the tenure of the Jewish Cultural Center. The West Hampstead School of Dance was located in Pavlova’s former home until the property was bought by St. Anthony’s.
Several photographs and even some video of Pavlova in the house and its gardens has been put together in a YouTube short. Another video repeats some of the same footage but includes a very brief, but quite wonderful, sound recording, reportedly the only extant recording that we have of Pavlova’s voice.

 

 

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Alexander Ostuzhev house, Moscow

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Alexander Ostuzhev (1874 to 1953) is one of those rare individuals whose great career in art spanned large portions of the pre-Soviet and Soviet periods. He was a huge star at the Maly Theater by the time he went completely deaf in 1910, while some of his most famous roles were performed between 1935 and 1940 when he was in his 60s. I can measure his longevity against my own experience – he was one of the finest partners of the great Maria Yermolova at the turn of the 20th century – seemingly a million years ago – and he was a contemporary of actors who have been contemporaries of mine. It’s a small thing, to be sure, but it does make time shrink incredibly, at least for me.
Ostuzhev was born Alexander Pozharov in the city of Voronezh in 1874. His father was a train engineer. The young man was a bit of a handful for everyone, getting himself kicked out of school for insubordination, and later, being fired from the Maly Theater for getting into a fight with a fellow actor. He began his life working odd jobs around Voronezh until he decided, in 1894, to try his hand at acting. He began in amateur theatricals, finding himself in demand because he had a beautiful voice and was quite a physical specimen – handsome and well-built. He did not have to wait long for his big break. Just one year later the popular Maly Theater actor Alexander Yuzhin (see my piece on Alexander Sumbatov-Yuzhin elsewhere in this space) happened to come through Voronezh and see Pozharov in a bit role. The fare that night was Victor Hugo’s Hernani and, despite his brief time in the spotlight, Pozharov made a huge impression on Yuzhin. In a letter to the playwright Pyotr Gnedich (quoted on the Memoria website), Yuzhin wrote:
In Voronezh I discovered a treasure whom I believe is a major future force, and boldly for the first time I take responsibility for his entire life, extracting him from service on the southeastern railroads and bringing him to the stage. He is twenty-one years old, handsome. He has some intangible way of making you listen to him, watch him, and appreciate every sound of his voice that vibrates with authenticity and every gaze of his wonderful deep gray eyes.”
If that isn’t an account of Yuzhin falling in love, I don’t know what would be. In any case, Ostuzhev’s life had changed. Yuzhin brought him to Moscow and enrolled him in acting classes at an organization that today would be called the Shchepkin Theater Institute – back then it was the Dramatic Courses at the Moscow Theater Institute. Pozharov was given a stipend of 300 rubles while he matriculated and he was finally admitted into the company of the Maly in the 1898-99 season. It was apparently at this time that the provincial boy took the pseudonym of Ostuzhev. There are a few reasons hanging around as to why he did that. One is that the name “Pozharov” comes from the word for fire, “pozhar,” and the folks at the Maly were afraid that if his fans began shouting his name in the theater, unsuspecting patrons might actually believe a fire had started on the premises. Perhaps a more convincing explanation is that Pozharov’s teachers and handlers were looking for a way to calm down his hot temper and so, in place of his fiery name, gave him one, Ostuzhev, that is built around the root for “cold” or “frost” – “stuzha.” Or maybe it was just a name game of the young man enjoying going from hot to cold…
Whatever the case, Ostuzhev played no less than 16 roles in his first season at the Maly (that’s not a typo), at least four of which were major leads. By the time summer rolled around he was a star in Moscow. In 1902 he played Romeo and critics dubbed him the “perfect Romeo.”

The last great role Ostuzhev played before going completely deaf, apparently from Ménière’s disease, was the False Dmitry in a 1909 production of Alexander Ostrovsky’s False Dmitry and Vasily Shuisky. Deafness, at least at first, had little effect on Ostuzhev’s work. The following year he played three new roles – including Khlestakov in Nikolai Gogol’s The Inspector General. According to Kino-teatr.ru, Ostuzhev played four new roles in 1911/12, seven in 1912/13, two in 1913/14, three in 1914/15, and so on. Perhaps not the load that he carried in his first season, but, still he was anything but out of work. He was able to perform because he would show up at the first rehearsal already having completely memorized his role, as well as most of the others in every play. It is said that he was often able to help other actors during performances when they would forget their lines – because he knew them and would whisper them to them.
Still, it is the received opinion that Ostuzhev, by the 1920s, was in serious decline, at least in popularity, if not in talent. Increasingly he played smaller roles and lesser amounts.
But a fortunate meeting with director Sergei Radlov revived Ostuzhev’s career in a serious way. Radlov was not concerned that he could not communicate by voice with the actor; he would write out his directions in long letters and give them to Ostuzhev who studied the letters with the same diligence that he did roles. As a result, when Radlov cast Ostuzhev in the role of Othello in Shakespeare’s tragedy, he unwittingly wrote a new page in the history of Russian theater. Ostuzhev’s Othello stunned spectators and critics alike, returning to him the same kind of mass popularity he had not enjoyed for several decades. The always-interesting Chtoby-pomnili website tells the story this way:
In the opinion of the critics Ostuzhev’s interpretation of Othello gave particular resonance to the topic of offended justice. His Moor was not an unbridled, primitive savage, but a man of exquisite culture and feelings. In the very image of the hero Ostuzhev masterfully emphasized the solemnity of the commander’s appearance, his gestures and features. This made the terrible and terrifying catastrophe all the worse as a great human world collapsed because of petty intrigue. Ostuzhev’s Othello not only inspired admiration among spectators – it was a genuine triumph. Alexander Alekseevich could not hear the applause and shouts of ‘Bravo!’ but he saw, and felt the delight of the audience. The building of the Maly Theater was literally filled with flowers.”
Othello, however, was no mere swan song. Ostuzhev followed it up with two more of his most famous roles, helping him to fashion one of the great career “comebacks” in Russian theater, if one dares use such a word. His performance of the Baron in Alexander Pushkin’s The Covetous Knight (1936/37) and the title role in Karl Gutzkow’s Uriel Acosta (1939/40) were also highly acclaimed. Ostuzhev performed his last new role in the 1941/42 season, but he often took the stage during World War II to entertain Russian troops at the front lines. He died five days before Joseph Stalin on March 1, 1953.
The house pictured here today served as Ostuzhev’s home from 1905 until his death. The address is 12/2 Bolshoi Kozikhinsky Lane, more or less in between Patriarch’s Pond and Pushkin Square.

 

 

Dmitry Sverbeev, Yekaterina Semyonova house, Moscow

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This house at 37/1 Arbat is a throwback to another age. It was built in the late 18th century – the oldest remaining building on the Arbat – and, after damage suffered in the fires associated with the Napoleonic War of 1812, it was reconstructed. What we see today is the result of work done in 1834. Quite a few people of note have lived in or visited this home. Today we’re interested primarily in Dmitry Sverbeev (1799-1874), who was born here,  and Yekaterina Semyonova (1786-1849) who lived here for a time from 1834 to 1835.
Sverbeev was a diplomat who loved literature and writers and befriended many of them. He described his own interest as such: “I sometimes love to read a bit and listen to intelligent conversations.” He knew Alexander Pushkin and appeared to be rather close to Nikolai Gogol, which is a little bit like a tiny planet orbiting two super-suns. Sverbeev spent a good deal of time with Gogol abroad and, when the writer found himself in financial difficulties, the friend generously gave him money to keep going on. (Sverbeev in general seems to have been a generous man, often helping out people who were not as well-situated as he. In a stroke that says much about him as a person, he never wrote about any of this in his memoirs.) Sverbeev was not as close to Pushkin as he was to Gogol, although the poet did attend Sverbeev’s salons in Moscow in the 1830s, and they crossed paths in various places for many years.
Interestingly, one story from Sverbeev’s memoirs, My Notes (written in retirement in Switzerland and never intended for publication), involves Pushkin and Semyonova, a famed actress who counted Pushkin among her admirers.
In 1820 when Pushkin was visiting the theatres in Moscow, he attended a performance of Semyonova and caused a bit of a ruckus. I’ll let the Prometheus website finish the tale: “Pushkin brought to the theatre a portrait of the French artisan Louvel, who had recently been executed for assassinating in Paris the Duc de Berry, an heir to the throne. The portrait bore a  sweeping inscription: “A Lesson to Tsars.” After the first act, the portrait was passed around the rows of the theatre. Incidentally, it is precisely Dmitry Sverbeev who tells us about this incident from the life of the poet.”
There is some slight confusion about the actual years Sverbeev spent at this house on the Arbat. At least I don’t find hard evidence of the date he left for good. The plaque on the building facade states he lived here from 1799 to 1825, but I haven’t been able to corroborate that. What I do find is that he was posted to the Russian embassy in Geneva in 1824. What exactly he did in the immediately preceding years, I do not know (he graduated from Moscow University in 1817). I’m guessing that the famous literary salons that he hosted were not begun until he left the Arbat, even though the Prometheus site claims he “organized a circle in his own home on the Arbat.” It is known that his most famous salon gatherings were held when he lived at 10 Strastnoi Boulevard and later at 25 Tverskoi Boulevard (I’ve written about this location previously as one of Osip Mandelstam’s addresses in the early 20th century.)

Semyonova is one of those shooting stars that history tosses up every now and then. She was an uneducated, apparently illiterate peasant who, thanks to her fiery temperament, became one of St. Petersburg’s and Moscow’s most popular actresses of her time. She particularly shone in the romantic dramas and tragedies of Vladislav Ozerov, himself a huge star playwright whose fantastic popularity died utterly within just years. He had the misfortune of being a pre-Pushkinian writer, and was soon wiped from the memory of his countrymen. (You will see Pushkin do a bit of the wiping himself in a long quote offered shortly below.) Nobody has performed Ozerov plays for decades, if not centuries. Be that as it may, four of Semyonova’s first six major roles were in plays by Ozerov (stress on the first syllable) – Oedipus in Athens (1804), Fingal (1805), Dmitry Donskoi (1807) and Polyxena (1809). She also shined in Yakov Knyazhnin’s Rosslav (1805) and several foreign plays: Friedrich Schiller’s Maria Stuart (1809), Corneille’s Ariana (1811) and Racine’s Iphigenie (1815). She debuted in 1802 and joined the company of the Alexandrinsky Theater in 1805.
As I have mentioned, Pushkin was a huge fan and in a long defense of Semyonova (whom some in St. Petersburg compared unfavorably to the popular French actress known as Mademoiselle Georges), he wrote:
Speaking of Russian tragedy you speak of Semyonova, and, perhaps, only about her. Gifted with talent, beauty and a lively, true temperament, she came into being all on her own. Semyonova never had a model. The soulless French actress Georges and the eternally enthusiastic poet [Nikolai] Gnedich could only hint at the secrets of art which she understood as a revelation of her soul. Her performances are always unencumbered, always clear, with noble, lively movement, her voice is clean, smooth, pleasant and often reveals gusts of true inspiration – all these belong to her alone and are not borrowed from anyone. She decorated the imperfect creations of the sad Ozerov, creating the roles of Antigone and Moine; She animated the pedestrian lines of Lobanov; In her mouth we appreciated the Slavonic verses of Katenin, full of strength and fire, but lacking in taste and harmony. In colorful anonymous translations which, unfortunately, today are much too ordinary, we heard nothing but Semyonova. The actress’s genius gave stage life to all these lamentable works translated by allied teams of poets, where each of them individually renounced his participation. Semyonova has no rival; The occasional gossip, brief battles and invented hearsay have ceased; She remains the unanimous queen of the tragic stage.”
Pushkin so admired Semyonova that he mentioned her in his great novel-in-verse Eugene Onegin. Celebrating his young years when he frequented the theatre, Pushkin in Chapter 1, stanza 28, wrote: “There Ozerov shared the involuntary tribute / of people’s tears and applause / with the young Semyonova.”
Depending upon the source, you can read all kinds of probable nonsense about Semyonova; what a hothead she was, how ignorant she was, how lazy she was, how covetous she was… You can always read things like that about popular, to say nothing of great, actors. I think Pushkin’s characterizations beat the hell out of all the snippers, snappers and snipers combined. I just have a feeling (say I with no small sarcasm).
In any case, Semyonova’s career took a downturn in the years 1815 to 1820 and from then on she performed less and with less success. She moved to Moscow in 1827 and the following year married Count Ivan Gagarin, the man who had been her lover and had given her several children. It wasn’t the happiest of arrangements, but it became worse after his death in 1832. At least as late as 1830, Pushkin is said to have attended her performance in an amateur production in Moscow, but it was a far cry from her glory days. By the time Semyonova lived briefly on the Arbat, her acting days were effectively behind her.

 

Grisha Gurvich’s Bat Cabaret No. 2, Moscow

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One could write a book about this building. In fact, I used to own a small book about it in one of those libraries I collected along my way before jettisoning as I moved on in life. The way some people are with umbrellas, sunglasses, gloves and the like, I am with libraries. They come of their own, but when I go, they go. Be that as it may, I don’t need any book to write about his distinctive building at 10 Bolshoi Gnezdikovsky Lane in the center of Moscow. My memories are full without books.
Still, let me begin with some acquired information because this really is an extraordinary location. Two plaques hanging on the exterior wall are of interest to us here. One (the first above) reads as such: “Memorial of history and culture. This is the first ‘skyscraper’ in the capital, engineered by E[rnst] K. Nirnzee in 1912. Beginning in 1915 Nikita Baliev’s the Bat Cabaret began working in the basement, as did the Romen Gypsy Theater and the F[yodor] Kaverin Theater-Studio and others. A winter film pavilion of the V. Vengerov and V[ladimir] Gardin Film Partnership was located on the roof of the building. This building is associated with the names of M. Bulgakov, K. Paustovsky, Yu. Burliuk, V. Mayakovsky and others.”
(The reference to “Yu. Burlyuk” appears to be an error. The avant-garde poet, painter and all-around artistic hooligan David Burliuk was a close associate of Vladimir Mayakovsky’s, while his brothers Vladimir and Nikolai were of some note, too. I suspect it is David that is meant here. I don’t know of a “Yu. Burliuk.”)
The second plaque is significantly more economical in terms of facts, but it tells a similar story: “Apartment House 1912-1923. Engineer E.K. Nirnzee. This building is associated with the history of the development of Russian theater and film.”
This is all very impressive, and I am sure there are plenty of facts and stories out there waiting to be tracked down and retold about all those mentioned here. But I only have room in my mind today for one person and his work and vision. He is not mentioned on either of the plaques from the past, and who knows what eras overseen by what kind of people we have yet to go through in the future? Does anyone today care about Grigory Gurvich? Obviously, many do. He touched the lives of thousands. But does anyone in a position of power and authority remember him? That’s a harder question to answer. Who knows what folks like that are thinking these days.
Grigory Gurvich (1957-1999) was utterly unlike anyone else. He came into prominence during the hard, harsh, ugly era of the death of the Soviet experiment, and he greeted it with humor, style and elegance. It was not a particularly friendly time, but Grisha – as I will allow myself to call him – was everybody’s friend. He had a smile, a good word, a handshake or a twinkle in his eye for everyone who ever came through the doors of his theater located in this building. The idea for his theater was a small stroke of genius. It was not so much a resurrection of the famed Bat Cabaret opened here on the same stage by Nikita Baliev in 1915, as it was an attempt to do that famous enterprise honor in a new age. It was better than a resurrection. It was a whole new theater, with a new idea and a new plan, but one that took inspiration from Baliev and his company which, soon enough, disbanded and headed for world-famous tours of Europe and then a fairly long residency in New York under the name of La Chauve-Souris. (I should mention that Baliev’s name became Balieff in the transition from the Soviet Union to Europe and the States.) Baliev’s theater was a true cabaret, with actors coming in late nights after performing in the “legit theater” to sing songs and improvise skits with other famous actors, who mingled with the performers from Baliev’s troupe. Opening its doors late at night, when actors and audiences got out of other performances, it would run into the wee hours of the morn.

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Grisha Gurvich’s Bat Cabaret Theater (note the addition of “theater”) was an actual theater company. It put on plays and performed them in a repertory schedule like most other Russian theaters might do. What distinguished Gurvich’s work (he wrote or, at least, compiled most of the plays he directed) from other theaters was that each piece was put together from the kinds of skits you might see in a cabaret variety show. But he tied them together, put them into a connected, winding string that created a narrative story. His first show, which opened right here on May 26, 1989, on the basement stage at what has been known over the decades as the GITIS student theater, was called The Reading of a New Play. It was a mystification of sorts that mixed the characters of Baliev’s troupe on the verge of breaking up, with the individuals of Gurvich’s company, which was on the verge of a great beginning. It was nostalgic, sweet, painful, intelligent and always funny. Gurvich, as was his wont, moved through the piece as a narrator or an emcee, tying loose ends together, or, sometimes just leaving them to hang and dangle. The first performances of The Reading of a New Play were wildly successful, as few things can be wildly successful in our days. News of the fabulous new show and theater traveled like wildfire. The next night (when I attended) there may have been two people crashing the door for every seat in the house. The audience was electrified. It exploded into fiery bursts of laughter and applause constantly throughout the evening.
Originally, Gurvich had rented the space for six performances. But because this was right where Baliev’s Bat Cabaret had performed, he very much wanted to stay right here. And the success of that first short run did guarantee a residency that lasted for nearly half a decade. As a resident company in this space, Gurvich’s Bat Cabaret Theater opened its next four shows here, including: I Tap Dance about Moscow (at the turn of 1991/92)and 100 Years of Cabaret (November 1994). It was the latter show that caused me to write a few paragraphs that I have treasured throughout the decades. 100 Years of Cabaret was not Gurvich’s best show. It was slicker than the deeper, more successful first outings. But it lacked none of the excitement, energy and humor that Gurvich always put into everything he did. So, in a review for The Moscow Times that acknowledged a few flat spots and sour notes throughout evening, here is how I wrapped up what I had witnessed:
But Gurvich has the ultimate trump card up his sleeve: his own personality.
Call him the sultan of suave, the wizard of wit, or the king of charisma, but when he takes the stage to the slinky accompaniment of Roman Berchenko at the piano, he soothes everything over. He isn’t just the show’s author, he is its heart and soul.
Meanwhile, amidst the uneven collection of sketches, some are as good as ever. The best include a wildly energetic medley of American pop from Elvis Presley to Chubby Checker; some thunderous, top-flight tap-dancing; and a beautifully-done interactive film skit that has actors climbing onto and off of the screen a la Federico Fellini or Woody Allen.
But the star is Gurvich. Were there such a thing, he would be Mr. Moscow, the man who brings warmth and respect to the town he loves. And a few slips notwithstanding, it is always a pleasure to watch him do it.”
Pleasure, hell. It was an honor. It was the opportunity of a lifetime. It all ended much too fast. After Gurvich directed five shows in the wonderful old space of the basement stage at 10 Bolshoi Gnizdikovsky Lane, the landlords at the theater – GITIS – kicked Gurvich out. He had become too big a star and, for some reason, they couldn’t handle the competition. Grisha took his company elsewhere; they performed on rented stages around town, but it was never the same. Then around 1996 he became the host of a hit TV show called This Old Apartment. That took most of the air out of what was left of the Bat Cabaret Theater. Moreover, what most of us did not know was that Grisha Gurvich was deathly ill. He died of leukemia in Israel before the century could run out.
One very visible trace of Grigory Gurvich’s short tenure in this famed building remains for us to see. That is the art nouveau front door and awning that Gurivch had put in before he was asked to vacate the premises. It was his little gift to history – a door erected in the 1990s to honor an era gone by, the last few years before the Russian Revolution. Had Baliev put in a fancy front door to his Bat Cabaret, it might well have looked something like this door that Gurvich had designed and built 80 years later.
These days, frankly, it looks forlorn and out of place. Without the crowds storming the door to get in for the night’s performance, without Gurvich there to greet you, without any rhyme or reason for its being there, the beautiful, well-illuminated entrance strikes one now as a heavy reproach. It seems to frown on those fools who kicked Gurvich out of here 20 years ago. It seems to mock those who walk past or even enter the premises now – as if to say, “Who are you and what are you doing here? You have no idea what my purpose was!” For me personally, it stands as a small cluster of light amidst the darkness that has descended on Bolshoi Gnezdikovsky Lane ever since Grisha Gurvich last left it. Every time I pass it by it seems to say, “Grisha was here and you and I remember that. Can’t speak for the rest of the folk around here.”

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Nikolai Okhlopkov plaque, Moscow

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I have tried to photograph the Okhlopkov plaque and the Mayakovsky Theatre several times. I have never liked what I got, now matter what the time of day, no matter what the season. The plaque is an awkward one to get, right there on the corner of Maly Kislovsky Lane and Bolshaya Nikitskaya Street. There are a bunch of street signs in the way, traffic is always humming, people parking where they shouldn’t be, narrow sidewalks leaving no space, electrical wires making a mess of sight angles from a distance, the light and shadows playing nasty tricks.
Or maybe this place is just jinxed. One of the times I was photographing here, I noticed somebody shooting me. When he dropped his camera from his face I recognized my friend, the playwright and journalist Mikhail Kaluzhsky. We exchanged pleasantries and went our own ways. Later that day he posted a photo of me on Facebook that made my usually steely nerves begin wobbling like water. Until then I hadn’t known that the beer belly of a person taking a photo increases three times in size – even if you don’t drink beer. Jinxed, jinxed, the place is jinxed!
Consider this: Vsevolod Meyerhold took this theater over in 1922 when it was called the Theater of the Revolution, but was gone by 1924, when he moved on to create his own Meyerhold Theater. It was actually here that Meyherhold first expected to stage Nikolai Erdman’s The Warrant, but when he bolted and went out on his own, he took Erdman’s play with him (it eventually premiered in 1925). The theater was run by Alexei Popov from 1931 to 1942. When Nikolai Okhlopkov (1900-1967) took it over it was renamed the Moscow Drama Theater and the year after Stalin died, that is, in 1954, it was renamed the Vladimir Mayakovsky Theater. Okhlopkov remained in charge of the playhouse until it killed him in 1967. Okay, so I’m pushing the jinx thing.
Okhlopkov had been an actor in Meyerhold’s theater, so there was a certain justification in his being named to take over the Revolution Theater. Moreover, during the time that Erdman’s The Warrant was performing as one of Meyerhold’s most popular productions, and as Erdman was sitting down to write his next play for Meyerhold (it would be The Suicide), Okhlopkov undertook to make a film of Erdman’s filmscript Mitya. This was in 1926. But that is hardly the end of the connections. As Anna Kovalova writes in the excellent introduction to her anthology of Erdman’s film scripts (Nikolai Erdman/Film Scripts), in 1925 “it was expected that V.E. Meyerhold would direct [Mitya], and Mitya would be played by Erdman himself. Later, N.P. Okhlopkov was assigned to direct, and he ended up playing the lead role…”
Okhlopkov, seemingly out of his league, had a hell of time making Mitya, and he begged Erdman to come south where the shooting was taking place to lend a helping hand. Erdman did travel down as soon as he could, but the problems remained. Again quoting from Kovalova’s essay: “The press noted that the creators of the film got carried away with models of American lyrical comedies in which the main hero, usually someone of uncertain means, constantly becomes the victim of curious circumstances.” Many years later the film director Sergei Yutkevich wrote about the innovative nature of Mitya in his memoirs, but by that time not only was the film long forgotten, it could never be seen again. The only copies had been destroyed. These days we only have the screenplay to judge it by. I found an incomplete copy of it when I was trawling the archives in the late 1980s, but Kovalova came up with the whole thing and published it in her book. It’s hilarious, touching, subtle and – as everything Erdman ever wrote – incredibly well-suited to performance.

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Why do I linger on this obscure, early episode in Okhlopkov’s life, you ask? Well, here’s why. Because when Stalin died in 1953 and the so-called Thaw got underway a couple of years later, Okhlopkov did what appeared to be a wonderful thing. He reached out to Erdman and offered to stage The Suicide, banned since 1932, and the main cause of Erdman’s arrest and exile in 1933. He payed Erdman an advance and asked for the play script. This was an extraordinary move on the part of Okhlopkov. It would mean the rehabilitation of one of the Soviet Union’s greatest playwrights (Erdman had abandoned writing for the theater, focusing exclusively on writing his own screenplays or doctoring those of others). But it was not meant to be. Okhlopkov, having re-read the play, got cold feet. A few other famous “friends” of Erdman also put in their two-bits that the play was “not right for the times,” that it “needed work,” and other such nonsense.
That’s when things took a turn for the bizarre. Rather than just quietly let things drop, Okhlopkov pulled a nasty, petty move. He demanded that Erdman return the advance on the grounds that Erdman “did not deliver the play” they had agreed upon. Erdman, who was an extraordinarily calm, even-keeled man, figuratively hit the roof. Fury turned to farce, though, when Okhlopkov’s Mayakovsky Theater sued Erdman and sent authorities to his apartment on Tverskaya Street to confiscate his furniture until such time as he would pay up. Erdman wrote a scathing letter to the court, but, as far as I know, he lost that battle. Okhlopkov, after figuratively pulling the rug out from under his old friend’s feet, got his money back. What I don’t know for a fact, but what I strongly suspect, is that following this ugly incident Erdman and Okhlopkov never communicated again.
And so, having somewhat clumsily wended my way through this story today, I finally think I have come to understand why my pictures of Okhlopkov’s plaque never come out. I don’t like the guy. He begs Erdman for help in dire times and Erdman comes to his side. Then he goes and sticks a knife in his old friend’s back 30 years later. And that, folks, is why I can’t get any decent photos in these environs. The place isn’t jinxed, but I have no love for it. And, as anybody knows, you can’t do anything of value without love. These photos are the best I’m going to get.

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Mikhail Tsaryov plaque, Moscow

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I fully expected some day to pull these photos out in order to share stories I have long heard about the famed actor Mikhail Tsaryov, with whom my wife Oksana Mysina studied acting at the Maly Theater’s Shchepkin Institute. I may still slip in a few of those, but today another, more solemn occasion has caused me to remember Tsaryov: On April 5, 2016, the great Martha Coigney, the 35-year head of the American chapter of the International Theater Institute, died at the age of 82 in New York. As head of the US ITI, one of the most active and valuable worldwide cultural institutions during the Cold War, Martha and her colleagues were the peace keepers and peace makers of their era. They were stubborn in their belief that culture and art can save what politics so often seeks to destroy. It so happened that Martha’s Soviet counterpart was Mikhail Tsaryov, then the head of the Soviet Theatre Union, the USSR’s mirror-like version of ITI in the US. Martha had a soft sport in her heart for Tsaryov, and she shared with me a few of her stories in a video I shot in her apartment in 2010. She began by saying, “How many Russians have I fallen in love with since I worked at the International Theater Institute? It’s probably too many to count. But one of the first ones that I met, and [who] remained a sort of touchstone in a way, was Mikhail Tsaryov” [she pronounces it “Tsarev”].
The two remained colleagues for approximately a period of 15 years, until Tsaryov’s death in 1987, just a week short of his 84th birthday.
He was a very clear Soviet representative,” Martha told me [this transcript is edited very lightly for style and clarity]. “But he was also a wonderful older actor. He was one of the people who showed the power of theater to climb through national differences… He was completely official when needed, but he was an extraordinary friend when he would be talking about theater…. Like Margaret Thatcher said about Gorbachov, ‘We can do business together!’ Even though he was very solid on one side and I was pretty solid on the other, we didn’t let it get in the way of getting the work done, because theater was going to solve everything anyway! 
“He was quite official, and he was not overly forthcoming… but one of the executive committee meetings in Paris coincided with his 80th birthday. So the French woman who was head of ITI and I planned a surprise, and at the break in the morning meeting I said, ‘There is a young person here who has an important birthday and we need to stop and pay attention to it.’ And then we all brought in a tray of champagne glasses and a couple of bottles and Tsaryov burst into tears. It didn’t show too much, but he was completely bouleversé. That’s where his heart… that’s where his identity rested. It was in his affection for theater people and his sentimentality. That’s why he said, ‘theater people know better how to make peace than anyone else.’ 
“The only time I saw him perform was at the last plenary session in New York, which took place the same week as the Six Day War in the Middle East. On the Friday of that week about 60 or 70 of us went over to the United Nations to watch the emergency general assembly, and the next morning Tsaryov got up in the closing session of the congress and said, ‘All week we have been discussing and arguing and deciding about theater in the world, and yesterday we went over to watch the diplomats deal with the Middle East. We watched for an hour or so.’ And he paused, like an old actor, and said, ‘We are the diplomats. We meet at what could be the end of the world. But we make peace. We are the diplomats.’ That got a huge laugh, but it was true. It really was true, and it was one of the things that… I was going to do the conference and mop up afterwards and then I was going to go do some production work. But I never left ITI because of that week. Because it was doing something the world needed. One artist at a time. Tsaryov was certainly one of those.”

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Pretty amazing stuff, actually. Martha Coigney and Mikhail Tsaryov making peace as war rages around them. Sounds eerily and frustratingly familiar.
I just told Oksana that I was writing about Tsaryov and she told me about how the students at the Shchepkin Institute celebrated his 80th birthday in Moscow. On the actual day of his birthday he performed in one of his most popular shows on the Maly Theater affiliate stage (which, incidentally, stands in the courtyard where Oksana and I now live). Oksana’s entire course lined up on a stairwell near the stage entrance where Tsaryov came out after finishing the first act, and the group shouted out “Happy birthday!” Tsaryov, who was utterly surprised, responded with a generic phrase that he often used: “Oh! How are things? Bad?”
You actually have to hear Oksana tell the story live because so much of the humor is in the voice. Tsaryov, a large, classically handsome man, had an incongruously high, thin voice. Oksana does a marvelous imitation of the joyous sound the phrase makes when spoken. In any case, this phrase – “how are things? Bad?” – was something Tsaryov used frequently, at the beginning of classes or when running into a student in a corridor. It was a sign, of course, of his wry sense of humor.
A few days later there was a full-blown celebration of Tsaryov’s 80th with a concert on the main stage of the Maly Theater. Oksana joined her classmates in a circus number as well as in the singing of a song that Russians often (at least in the past) used to sing at celebratory moments. It leads to the phrase, “drink up, drink up, drink up!” And Oksana said that Tsaryov did, indeed, knock back a glass of champagne as they sang. So there we have Mikhail Tsaryov celebrating his birthday with champagne in Paris with Martha Coigney and again in Moscow with Oksana Mysina.
Because of the occasion here, I’m skipping over Tsaryov’s career almost entirely. But it needs be said that it began as he  starred opposite Zinaida Raikh in Vsevolod Meyerhold’s famous 1934  production of Lady With the Camellias. One of the darkest periods of his career was his participation in the hounding of Meyerhold that followed shortly thereafter. He was one of those actors coerced into a signing a public letter condemning the great director. It was a sign of the times: No one was left untouched. When the meat grinders were set in motion, meat was ground – it didn’t matter whose or how.
Subsequently, Tsaryov – like a few other of Meyerhold’s stars – moved to the relative safety of the establishment Maly Theater. He was one of the theater’s greatest stars for decades, eventually becoming the artistic director of the theater, as well as the Chairman of the Soviet Theater Union, which is what put him in touch with Martha Coigney.
The plaque commemorating Tsaryov stands next to the entrance to the apartment building in which he lived in the center of Moscow at 8 Spiridonyevsky Lane, a stone’s throw from the famous Malaya Bronnaya Street, and one block from the famous Patriarch Ponds (where some of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita is set.) The plaque reads: “Here lived People’s Artist of the USSR Mikhail Ivanovich Tsaryov.”
(Anyone interested in more about Martha Coigney can read a piece I wrote about her washing dishes with Marilyn Monroe, and another in which I briefly tell about meeting Edward Albee, and others, at her apartment in New York.)

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Alexander Sumbatov-Yuzhin plaque, Moscow

Click on photos to enlarge.

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So is it Sumbatov-Yuzhin, as I have written it? Or is is Yuzhin-Sumbatov, as the people who made the plaque honoring this actor and writer put it? Or is it just Yuzhin, as Russian Wikipedia tells us, although his real last name was Sumbatov. (Yuzhin, roughly suggesting “southerner” in Russian, was a pseudonym.) But the authenticity of Sumbatov is not entirely true, either, because the man in our sights today was born into the princely Georgian Sumbatashvili family, hence, he was properly Sumbatashvili.
Just to make things more fun, the first time our southern Sumbat ever performed on stage – this was in Tiflis (today Tbilisi), Georgia, in 1876 – he used the pseudonym of Solntsev.
The fact of the matter is that none of the above variants is wrong. It all depends on what activity and what part of the man’s life you are referring to. I own a collection of his plays where we can find the following sentence embedded in the introduction:
“…These views and convictions of Yuzhin-the-actor found their most vivid expression in the plays of Sumbatov.”
We won’t pursue precisely what these views and convictions were in the eye of the author T. Knyazevskaya. The article was written in 1961 and is filled with all the ideological pathos of the Soviet Union of that time. (For example, my five-volume Russian Theater Encyclopedia, published about the same time, writes that Yuzhin’s mission as an actor was to carry the kernel of good to his public. Pardon me while I wipe the spittle from my shirt-front.) We are more interested in cutting through the morass of enforced opinion in order to discover a bit of the reality surrounding this fascinating, influential, talented man of the Russian theater. As far, then, as the name is concerned, he was Yuzhin-Sumbatov (or just Yuzhin), if you are talking about his work as one of the great actors at the Maly Theater from 1882 until his death in 1927. If you have in mind his considerable work as a playwright (he wrote at least a dozen plays and was considered by the influential critic Alexander Kugel to to be one of the finest Russian playwrights of the late 19th century) he was either Sumbatov-Yuzhin or Sumbatov.
Alexander Sumbatashvili was born in 1857 in the marvelously-named village of Kukui not far from Tula, which is south of Moscow. As I have mentioned, he died in 1927, a giant in the field of Russian theater. He was a man for whom just one hat was never enough. And he excelled at everything he did, as an actor, a writer, an administrator, and a manager. Like Alexander Ostrovsky before him, he was often the brains and motor behind the Maly Theater during much of his tenure there. He held various administrative duties from 1909 on. He was the managing director from 1923 to 1926.
For most of his years in Moscow he occupied apartments (I purposefully use the old-fashioned plural, because surely he occupied a suite of rooms) in a beautiful Moscow building at 5/1 Bolshoi Palashyovsky Lane, just a stone’s throw from Pushkin Square. Actually the building is located equally at the beginning of Tryokhprudny Lane, but the main, arched, entrance is located on Bolshoi Palashyovsky.
The plaque honoring Sumbatov-Yuzhin was unveiled in 1959. The entire building, including the plaque, was given a major face lift just recently. If I am not mistaken, the scaffolding only came off this year after several years of work. It would appear to have been worth the wait. From the outside, at least, the building is gorgeous.

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After the actor named Solntsev began his career in Tiflis in the mid-1870s, he moved on to St. Petersburg where he performed in 1878 and 1879. He joined the company of the independent Brenko troupe in Moscow in 1881, and then settled into his storied career at the Maly Theater in 1882. Yuzhin excelled in the great, classical roles, in both tragedy and comedy. He played Moliere and Shakespeare as if he owned them. (This doesn’t surprise me – the Georgian temperament is, indeed, Shakespearean.) He started out by playing Schiller and Hugo. You get the picture. A Russian film site, which provides a detailed bio for the actor, says this: “In Yuzhin’s passionate, exalted theatrical performances, contemporaries espied heroic motives, so attractive to the liberal-minded youth of the time.” As is fitting of a great star, he played Macbeth in Macbeth (1890), Coriolanus in Coriolanus (1902), Richard III in Richard III (1897), Ruy Blas in Ruy Blas (1891), Othello in Othello (1908), and Figaro in The Marriage of Figaro (1910)… He performed in over 20 plays by Alexander Ostrovsky and played two of the great Russian roles in different productions of Alexander Griboedov’s Woe from Wit (Repetilov in 1911, Famusov in 1915).  That film site suggests it was Yuzhin, whose memorable performance of Repetilov (essentially just one scene in the play), expanded that seemingly small role into one of the tradition’s classic roles.
You can hear an audio recording of Yuzhin’s Othello on YouTube.
Sumbatov-the-playwright virtually disappeared from sight after the author’s death. His plays were not produced, nor were they published with any regularity. Thus I remember with what interest I set out for the Sovremennik Theater in 2010 to see Yevgeny Kamenkovich’s production of Sumbatov’s The Gentlemen, originally written in 1893, published in 1896 and first performed in 1897. It would be my first-ever opportunity to see a Sumbatov play on stage. Here is the beginning of the review I subsequently wrote in The Moscow Times:
The notion of Yevgeny Kamenkovich directing The Gentleman at the Sovremennik Theater would seem to be someone’s weird idea of a joke. 
“The play is a totally forgotten comedy about the excesses, dangers and cruelty of wealth by the once-famous, now rather obscure, actor and playwright Alexander Sumbatov-Yuzhin. Written in 1897, it has rarely been revived since.”
If you are so inclined, you can read the rest of what I wrote on what is left of the website of The Moscow Times. The nutshell is that I was knocked out by the play itself. I could see the kind of national character portraits that Ostrovsky was so good at painting; I could see an author who knew exactly how the stage works; I could see an author who knew human foibles well and knew how to exploit them in a dramatic fashion.
I can’t say that I expected a Sumbatov boom to follow the wonderful production at the Sovremennik (where it continues to play in repertoire five years down the road), but I would have liked to have seen it. It didn’t happen. As such, for the time being, Sumbatov the writer remains deeply obscure, regardless of how unfair that may be. I, however, always doff my imaginary cap to the man – both the actor and the writer – whenever I pass by his former residence in central Moscow.

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