Tag Archives: Grigory Gurvich

Old Actors House, Moscow

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Today another phantom, and almost in the very same place. My last entry was about a place with some small cultural significance that no longer exists on the north side of Pushkin Square. Today I’ll do a bit of reminiscing about a place of genuine cultural importance that once was located on the south side of Pushkin Square. This was the Actors House, or, as the old-timers still refer to it over two decades later, VTO (the All-Russian Theater Organization).
What is it now? Nothing. A big, fat, glorified nothing.
In the past it was really quite something.
With a bit of a stretch we can reach back to 1877 to find its beginnings. That was when the Society for Mutual Aid for Russian Actors was founded. It was followed by several other similar social aid programs for needy actors, but the name Russian Theater Organization (RTO) first appeared in 1894. That was changed to VTO in 1932 and that proud name remained in force until the mid-1980s, when a series of successors bearing various names approximating the “Theater Union of the Soviet Union/Russian Federation” came into being one after the other. And yet, the old-timers still call the building at Tverskaya 16 “VTO” even though this particular address lost connection with theater way back in the 1990s.
Now, what happened to this building is interesting because it is telling of the age. It was one of the first arsons used to wrest valuable property out of the hands of people who weren’t using it to make money by those who were just itching to make money. I said “arson,” didn’t I. Yes, I did. And I meant it. Although I don’t believe I can prove that. You see, like so many murders and hostile takeovers and “sudden fires” that have happened in Moscow and Russia over the last 25 years, nobody ever officially solved the mystery of what happened to the old VTO. Oh, someone somewhere said that a short circuit somewhere started a fire and blah-blah-blah. To which I, and everyone else who knows about these things, say, “Bull.” That’s what they used to fluff it off. Everybody knows perfectly well that the VTO was torched. The firemen got there too late to save the organization, but just in the knick of time to save the building’s structure. The VTO (now called the Actors Union) was hurriedly given digs elsewhere in the city (near the Arbat) and this prime real estate was quickly put in other hands. After a couple of years of backstabbing and infighting, a sparkling new shopping center – with elite offices in the upper floors – opened its doors. In “honor” of the displaced Actors Union, the shopping center was named the Actors Gallery. Or was that mockery? Not sure on that one.
Anyway, it’s nice to see bad folks get their comeuppance now and then. I say that because the economic crisis that pounds silently though heavily at Russia’s doors these days has taken down even the Actors Gallery. When you walk up to the entrances to the short-lived shopping center (the VTO and its successors are around 140 years and counting – the Actors Gallery lasted less than 20 years, I’d guess), you see permanently closed doors and empty windows on the street level.

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Meanwhile, Moscow actors and theater people over 60 years old still speak dreamily about the VTO, its famous restaurant, its tiny old elevators filled to the gills (4 or 5 people tops) with stars, its concerts, its social work, its work in preserving the history of Russian theater and promoting those who worked contemporaneously. It was an astonishing place. I had the great fortune to spend a good deal of time there because an extraordinary woman named Eleonora Matveevna Krasnovskaya sort of took me under her wing. She didn’t do it because she liked me, but because this tiny woman with more energy than four tanks had a habit of taking under her prodigious, angelic wings virtually everyone who ever came within spitting distance of her office on, I believe, the fifth floor. “Well, come on in here!” she’d bark at you. “What do you want now?!” I wanted everything and she was just about up to delivering it all. I needed to contact a Nikolai Erdman scholar in Tomsk? Done. I wanted to get into a sold-out show? Done. I wanted to meet someone who never met with anyone? Done. I wanted advice on what was hot and new? Done. I mean, Eleonora Matveevna, or Nora, or Norochka, as I ended up calling her, was the gate-keeper to Nirvana. She didn’t like everything in Nirvana and she’d tell you so. “John. I got you tickets to thus-and-such a show. Now, I didn’t like it much myself. But everybody’s talking about it. So, you must see it.” Got something else to do that night? Tough. Nora got you tix to the hottest show in town. Nora sent me to the first shows I ever saw directed by Kama Ginkas, Yury Lyubimov, Mark Zakharov, Pyotr Fomenko, Valery Fokin, and virtually everyone else, I guess. She once thought I needed to have a chat with Naum Orlov, a director who had made his fame working in the city of Chelyabinsk, and so when he was in the building one day, she sat me in a chair in the corridor and brought him to me. It was her way of promoting “provincial” talent, which, indeed, was horribly undervalued in the Soviet period. She didn’t like that and she bucked it. She introduced me to the playwright Alexei Kazantsev – another one of those things she just figured I needed to do. She had no hopes, I don’t think, that I could appreciate what she was doing for me, but she was on a mission. If I was thick in the head, that was my problem, not hers. As it happened, I ended up becoming quite close to Kazantsev. I was thrilled when my old friend founded one of the most important theaters at the turn of the millennium – the Playwright and Director Center – and I was devastated when he died suddenly of a heart attack only a few years later.
I had the special honor on occasion of taking lunch with Nora in the famed VTO restaurant, where for 3 to 5 rubles you could eat as if you were at Maxim in Paris. If I happened to come by before lunch, she’d drag me down there, disgusted at me for some reason, but intent on giving me some culture, dang-blast it, and some food. Look at the photo immediately above – you see the “turret” at the left. The restaurant was in the ground floor in the turret. I can’t walk by without seeing Nora pushing food in front of me, introducing me to people, regaling me with stories and always reminding me why I probably wasn’t worth all this attention. Did I forget to add that her eyes would twinkle when saying things like that? Did I really need to?
When I desperately wanted to get into a sold-out concert organized by Grigory Gurvich (he had not yet opened his soon-to-be famous Bat Cabaret Theater), Nora took care of it. When Oksana Mysina and I – not yet married – desperately wanted to get into a sold-out concert by Alla Bayanova, a romance-singer who had lived for decades in exile in Bulgaria but had now come home to Moscow, it was Nora who whisked us past the ticket takers.
Oh, yes, on Oksana. Nora once informed me that I was accompanying her out to an event in Melikhovo, the estate where Anton Chekhov lived for much of the 1890s. “You need to see this place,” Nora told me, “maybe it’ll even do you some good.” So I met the hired bus at the appointed time and Nora and I took seats next to each other to the left of the aisle, about 1/3 of the way back behind the driver. I was a bit dreamy that day. I had met Oksana perhaps a month before and I wasn’t thinking about much else at the time. The bus door slammed shut, lurched forward and we were off. I still remember where we were when Nora asked about Oksana – it was on Zemlyanoi Val, just after we had passed the Kursk train station. And Nora, assuming all rights to meddle wherever she so pleased, asked point blank, “So, I hear you’ve taken up with that Mysina girl from the Spartakovskaya Theater. Is that so?” I wasn’t the least taken aback. I hadn’t told Nora about that, but I certainly never would have doubted that she would know whatever there was to know out there. “Yes,” I said, probably a bit cowed. She turned to me and let her eyes burn into me for a second or two and said, “Do you love her?” I looked back at her, surely still cowed, but now less so, and said, “Yes, I do.” She shifted in her seat and looked straight again again. “Good!” she said. “She’s a fine young girl.”
Somewhere in my archive I have a photo of us taken later that day, in Melikhovo. Or maybe I lost it in my last move. What I do know is that I can never lose Eleonora, Nora, Norochka, just as I’ll never lose the sensations I experienced under her wings at the old VTO.
Nora, by the way, just turned 90. Happy birthday Norochka Matveevna!

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Grisha Gurvich’s Bat Cabaret No. 2, Moscow

Click on photos to enlarge.

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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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