Category Archives: Monuments to Film Artists

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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Vladimir Vysotsky statue, Moscow

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Are we still too close to Vladimir Vysotsky (1938-1980) to see him properly? It’s been a hell of a long time since we lost him – he died during the boycotted Moscow Summer Olympics. I well remember hearing the news. I had returned from a six-month residence in Russia seven months earlier and Vysotsky’s music and his presence were still very alive in my mind. I owned two French-made LPs of his songs recorded in France and I absolutely loved them. Still do, in fact. The quality of the recordings was so much better than the primitive arrangements and mixes you got on the few available Soviet 45s and LPs. More to the point, however, my friend Vladimir Ferkelman in Leningrad owned many of the famous reel-to-reel samizdat tapes of Vysotsky singing his songs at parties, at home and at concerts, so I had had the opportunity to experience the singer-songwriter (if I may use that term) the way he was most often experienced in Russia – in somebody’s warm, cramped, inviting, booklined home on an old, soft sofa, with several people hunched over a tape player to hear the man sing. People on both sides of the pond have, from time to time, tried to describe Vysotsky as the Russian Bob Dylan. That’s always irked me. It just doesn’t fit. Bob Dylan is Bob Dylan and you can’t define anyone else using him as a measuring stick. Any more than you can force Vysotsky into a framework built on another artist. But that’s just a little aside. As I say, all of this was still very vivid in my memory when summer 1980 arrived. By then I was living in Washington, D.C., and I was working at a bookstore in Georgetown. I’d make my way to a metro stop at the Pentagon from my apartment in Alexandria, and from there I’d zip into Georgetown to work. One morning I was standing on the platform waiting for the next metro train to approach and I was doing what everyone was doing – I was reading a newspaper that I held out before me. I hesitate to say which newspaper because one might expect it to be the Washington Post, although I’m pretty sure it was the New York Times. Anyway, there was a piece on the front page below the fold telling that Vladimir Vysotsky had died. Boom. That didn’t make any sense, I’ll tell you. The guy was 42.

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I knew Vysotsky as a singer and a writer of his own songs, and that’s what most everyone knew and loved him for. What was less obvious to some – especially a young foreigner wet behind the ears – was that he was also one of the great, charismatic actors of his time. Vysotsky’s Hamlet at Yury Lyubimov’s Taganka Theater is one of the great legends of the Russian stage. It is no secret that when Vysotsky died, Lyubimov lost just a little of his mojo at the Taganka and, before too long – four years later – he found himself in exile in the West. Vysotsky, like everyone else at the Taganka, drank like a fish. The difference was his genius. Lyubimov would fire or discipline other actors for showing up to work drunk, but he let Vysotsky get away with anything. It was almost a love affair. In fact I think Lyubimov’s worship of Vysotsky’s talent and charisma was very reminiscent of romantic love. It certainly sounds that way based on the memoirs and documents that have emerged in recent times.
But to get back to my original comment about our still being too close to Vysotsky to get a real grip on him. I began with that because the sculpture of the singer/actor that stands at the Petrovskiye Vorota plaza in Moscow just doesn’t capture the man for me. I see it as a kind of pop version, one that corresponds to the myth that lives and grows in the public’s mind, but which doesn’t get past the surface of the artist. I guess that’s okay, too. But I tend to respond better to art that is more daring and adventurous. This likeness by sculptor Gennady Raspopov and architect Anatoly Klimochkin seems to picture the performer soaking in the love of the masses. At the same time, his gaze is directed upwards; each of us can decide for ourselves what may or may not have attracted his attention up there. The statue was erected in 1995 and, if I’m not mistaken, it was the first monument raised to the great man, just 15 years after his death (caused by alcohol poisoning). I usually walk by the sculpture with a bit of a shudder and a thought or two of regret that I’d like to get closer to whatever made this man tick, but it’s not going to happen because of this piece of street art.

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Vladimir Vysotsky Monument, Yekaterinburg

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Vladimir Vysotsky and Marina Vlady, Yekaterinburg, in front of the Antei shopping and entertainment center on Krasnoarmeiskaya Street. Located between Malyshev Street and Lenin Prospect, it’s not far from an old hotel where the actor and singer used to stay when he would come to town for concerts. I can’t imagine this making anyone’s list of favorite monuments. It is so slick it is shiny and I rather doubt that either Vysotsky or Vlady ever wore the saccharine smiles they have been given here.  They sit rather weirdly on a kind of fence post that is shoved up against the building in such a way that allows, even encourages, most of the people passing by to ignore them.  The author of the “idea” for the monument is listed as Andrei Gavrilovsky. The “architect and author of the project” is listed as Alexander Silnitsky. You will notice that Gavrilovsky and Silnitsky agreed to show Vysotsky playing a seven-string guitar, also known as a Russian or Gypsy guitar, according to an unofficial Vladimir Vysotsky website. Looming large at a short distance behind Marina Vlady’s back is a huge sign advertising one hour free parking beneath the Vysotsky Business Center.

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IMG_9839.jpg2And yet, there you have it – a monument commemorating the great actor and bard and his love, the famous French actress of Russian descent, who once said, “I carry a French passport, but I am Russian.” I don’t believe there’s another one of the two together anywhere in the world.

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Yury Nikulin Monument, Moscow

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Yury Nikulin. The words “great” and “legend” were imagined by mankind at one point to describe people like this. Nikulin, the great clown, the great actor, the great man. Funny as hell and as warm,  human and as personable as they come. Without Nikulin you’d have to downgrade Soviet comic cinema by 50%. This guy was like Chaplin but not a copy in any way. His characters were clumsy, silly, sometimes stupid and almost always naive. They were so rich in heart, so lovable, so vulnerable, that you felt about them the way you felt about your fuzzy-blankey, your teddy-bear, your imaginary friend, whatever it was that meant warmth and love when you were a child.

IMG_5562.jpg2I remember Nikulin for all that, for every film I have ever seen rerun on television over the last quarter century (I arrived here too late to see any of them in original release), but what I really remember him for was seeing him joke with the coat-check women at the coat rack at the Actors House on Arbat. He was bigger than life – a very big man, tall and broad. But he was Yury Nikulin, so when he would walk into the Actors House it was rather like the world drew back to let him pass. Smiles appeared on the faces of everyone present. People stopped what they were doing, even if it was just walking by. They watched him and smiled and it was as though you could feel them becoming better people for those brief moments. The rest of us had to turn our coats over to the coat-check woman for which we were given a little plastic tag to keep until we wanted our coat back. Nikulin just walked into the coat-check area and hung his own coat up in the back. No waiting in line for him, coming or going. And the whole while he cracked jokes, told anecdotes, teased the coat-check women and make them blush and laugh – not because they were uncomfortable, but because they were so flattered. This guy was History moving amongst us. He was Greatness and Humanity, all in one. He was one of those people who make you wonder if genuine Greatness requires this kind of warmth and humility. It probably doesn’t, but in my more sentimental moments I might be convinced to say I wish it did. The photos posted here were taken on a rainy day in front of the Circus on Tsvetnoi Boulevard, where Nikulin worked for, it seemed, an entire age. Wikipedia tells me his dates were 1921 to 1997, and my mind I can’t possibly believe it has been 17 years or more since I last saw Nikulin cutting up with the coat-check women at the Actors House.

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