Tag Archives: Leonid Utyosov

Vasily Lebedev-Kumach plaque, Moscow

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We continue our stroll up and down Moscow’s renovated Pyatnitskaya Street today by turning our attention to Vasily Lebedev (1898-1949), a poet and song lyricist who, during the period of the Revolution, added the appendage Kumach (calico red, turkey red) to his last name. He was born  at No. 6 Pyatnitskaya Street and lived here more or less until his 12th birthday. Lebedev-Kumach is a wonderfully evocative name in Russian, with hinted references to swans and turkeys, white and red. I used to run across his name often when researching my book Silence’s Roar: The Life and Drama of Nikolai Erdman. Not only did the two writers begin their careers at approximately the same time (Lebedev-Kumach preceding Erdman by about two years) and in the same general circles, but they had the opportunity to collaborate several times in the 1930s. Lebedev-Kumach wrote the songs for three works that Erdman collaborated on with others. They were: The Musical Store (1932), a musical/dramatic sketch written with Vladimir Mass for the popular jazz musician Leonid Utyosov; Jolly Fellows (1933/34), a film scripted with Mass and based very loosely on the idea of The Music Store; and Volga-Volga (1938), a film scripted with Mikhail Volpin.
Lebedev-Kumach was a hugely successful figure in the Soviet pantheon. He was the winner of a Stalin Prize (1941) and his songs were wildly popular, bringing him a financial security that could not be dreamed of by the average person in the workers’ paradise. It’s enough to know that he was the author of the words to the once- song “Wide is My Native Land” to understand the scope of the writer’s fame.
I really don’t want to step into the controversy about Lebedev-Kumach’s alleged plagiarism of some of his best-known lyrics. I don’t know enough to do that. Although it is now a part of his biography and can’t be ignored either. I will say this – the songwriter’s popularity was such that he could easily have had enemies who would have been happy to take him down a rung or two. One of his greatest detractors was the novelist and head of the Writers Union Alexander Fadeev (see an earlier blog about him on this site). But Fadeev was a slippery character, having caused untold numbers of writers to suffer pain, humiliation, loss of freedom and even death. Were his claims legitimate? I don’t know. It appears to be a fact that as he aged Lebedev-Kumach became horribly depressed by his wealth, fame and high position in the Soviet hierarchy. According to Russian Wikipedia he was asked late in life to write a poem about Joseph Stalin and he refused. (He had previously written numerous songs about and featuring Stalin.) I’m not sure Fadeev would have been able to refuse something like that…

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The building in which the future poet and song lyricist was born is one of the oldest buildings on Pyatnitskaya Street. In the second half of the 19th century it either replaced a one-story building that was built in 1842, or had a second floor added. As best as I can understand, the one-story version was erected at the end of the 18th century and replaced structures that were part of the property of Count Mikhail Dashkov in the 17th century.
One website devoted to Moscow’s neighborhoods has this to say about Pyatnitskaya: “Eclectic and gaudy, Pyatnitskaya still retains that charm of a secluded, isolated corner of the city which is characteristic of the Zamoskvorechye region. It’s as if it was created especially for knowledgeable connoisseurs of architecture and hosts of old buildings that are steeped in urban legends and attract curious researchers hoping that the city will reveal something of its past to them.”
As for Lebedev-Kumach, I would add that he translated Horatio into Russian; worked for a time in the organization connected with the famous ROSTA Windows (where Vladimir Mayakovsky also worked); wrote for the great humorous publications The Whistle (Gudok) and Krokodil; and took part in the famous and influential Blue Blouse traveling theater projects. According to one website, an incomplete listing of his songs numbers more than 150. He is buried in the cemetery at Novodevichy  Monastery.

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Lyubov Orlova plaque, Moscow

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Lyubov Orlova (1902-1975) was the Soviet cinema star.  Her name was synonymous with Soviet film comedies, musicals and whatever else comes in between. She was enigmatic, beautiful, controlled and, in her on-screen persona, kind, accessible, funny and bubbly, the veritable girl next door. She began her film career late, after having spent more than a decade as a chorus girl, a dancer, a singer and a piano player for silent movies in the cinema. She was 32 when she got her big break starring in the wildly popular Jolly Fellows, sometimes called A Jazz Comedy, because it was a comedy featuring the jazz music of Leonid Utyosov and his big band. Orlova’s second official husband was her first serious film director – Grigory Alexandrov, formerly the premier assistant of the great Sergei Eisenstein, but, afterwards, the top Russian director of film comedies. Together they made a string of hits from the ’30s through the 1940s – Jolly Fellows (1934), Circus (1936), Volga, Volga (1938), The Bright Way (1940), and Spring (1947), after which her career tapered off. Orlova made two films in the 1950s and one each in the 1960s and 1970s. For the record, Jolly Fellows was written expressly for Utyosov by screenwriters Nikolai Erdman and Vladimir Mass. It was a radical expansion of a musical theater piece called The Musical Store, which the duo wrote for the musician and actor in 1932. However, when Alexandrov took on the project of making the film, and when he was smitten by his leading lady, Orlova’s part in the film was raised to that of an equal with Utyosov’s. Indeed, they made, and still make, a marvelous pair. Jolly Fellows continues to run with frequency on Russian television in the second decade of the 21st century, as do most of the other Orlova films mentioned above.

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From 1966 until her death in 1975, Orlova lived in a prestigious new building on Tverskaya Ulitsa, just across from Pushkin Square. As can be seen in the photo immediately above, it is the building that has housed Moscow’s flagship MacDonald’s restaurant since the early 1990s. The address is Bolshaya Bronnaya 29. While living in this building, as well as for a decade or so before, Orlova officially was an actress of the Mossoviet Theater, located about a kilometer north of here, just off of Triumphal Square (about which I previously wrote a little). Orlova did not perform often in the theater, but her two shows at the Mossoviet, Jerome Kilty’s Dear Liar and John Patrick’s The Curious Savage, in the 1960s and 1970s respectively, were both extremely popular with audiences. Orlova’s aura as a star never waned even as she worked significantly less. I would go so far as to say that it has not waned even now, 40 years after her death.

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