Tag Archives: Mikhail Chekhov

George Shdanoff home, Los Angeles

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George Shdanoff was born Georgy Zhdanov in Russia  on December 5, 1905. He died some 92 years later on August 14, 1998, while living in this unprepossessing Los Angeles apartment house at 11908 Montana Ave., west of the 405 Freeway. It would appear that he lived in Apt. 307. Shdanoff’s was not an entirely obscure life, but it was not one that accrued great general attention, either. He studied under Konstantin Stanislavsky at the Moscow Art Theater in the 1920s but chose to slip out of the Soviet Union and set up residence in Berlin before ever making a mark in Moscow. In Berlin, where he acquired the spelling of his name that would follow him for the rest of his life, he became something of a star, or, at least, a hard-working actor. Mel Gordon, in his Stanislavsky in America: An Actor’s Workbook, tells us that Shdanoff was one of the rare displaced Russian actors who regularly found acting jobs in the major German playhouses. He performed the lead role in Igor Stravinsky’s The Tale of a Soldier at Berlin’s Kroll Opera House. In 1928, shortly after Mikhail Chekhov appeared in Berlin, Shdanoff arranged to meet the great actor and the two struck up a friendship that would last until Chekhov’s death in 1955. As anti-Semitism increased in Germany in the late 1920s, Shdannoff’s acting jobs began to grow fewer and farther between. In 1931 he co-directed a pacifist film called No Man’s Land, or, Hell on Earth, although only his directing partner Victor Trivas was mentioned in the credits. Feeling the increasing hostility of fascism, Shdanoff made his way to Paris in 1933 where he wrote a stage adaptation of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment for a Russian-language theater. Before long he followed the general flow of Russian exiles to the U.K. where he once again connected with Chekhov, who had set up a school and theater at Dartington Hall in Devonshire. From here on out, Shdanoff would forever more be associated either with Chekhov himself, who had now become known as Michael Chekhov, or with Chekhov’s method of acting. While in the U.K. Shdanoff began writing a stage adaptation of Dostoevsky’s The Possessed that Chekhov’s relocated company would perform in 1939 on Broadway (where it was a flop). The two friends and colleagues relocated to Hollywood in the early 1940s, where they created theater together (see my earlier post about the Chekhov Actor’s Lab productions that were performed in a space on North Las Palmas Ave. in L.A.), and taught. Shdanoff’s acting career did not take off like Chekhov’s, but he, like Chekhov, was a highly respected acting coach to the stars. The imdb website has Shdanoff appearing as an actor in two films -an uncredited turn as a lackey in Otto Preminger’s A Royal Scandal (1945) and Ben Hecht’s Specter of the Rose (1946), where he was credited as George Shadnoff.  I have no idea whether that was a mistake or a pseudonym, although my instincts move me to favor the former explanation.

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Shdanoff quickly established himself as a go-to drama coach in Hollywood. In her memoirs, Thank Heaven, Leslie Caron writes with great affection and in some detail about her relationship with Shdanoff. She appreciated the Russian’s serious approach to her art, something that was not favored everywhere in Tinseltown:
He also transmitted – and this was invaluable for the newcomer that I was – something rare in Hollywood in those years: the notion that acting was a craft that could be taught and ought to be learned. Hollywood had a deep distrust of New York stage actors – ‘too arty’ was the term used for them – a stereotype that survived until very recently.
Caron was so serious about her craft that Shdanoff teasingly nicknamed her “the Professor” for her studiousness.
But the two had another bond – their experience escaping danger in Europe.
Shdanoff and his wife, Elsa [Schreiber], were very kind and protective toward me,” Caron continues. “I was, to them, and to other Hollywood couples, the deserving little French girl who had gone through the war and must be cared for. George’s narrow escapes from Bolshevik Russia and Nazi Berlin and my own wartime experiences were bonds that united us… During my lessons, when George knew that I had just come from a dancing class or from filming, he would offer coffee and Austrian biscuits, served on polished Austrian silver. For ten minutes our hearts were transported to the Europe of his youth.”
When Caron was hired to take the role of Madeline Minot in The Man with the Cloak in 1951, Shdanoff worked with her for a year specifically on this character.
Mel Gordon picks up the tale after the death of Chekhov.
After his time at the Lab, Shdanoff and Schreiber began to coach young film actors at their West Hollywood apartment [not the one pictured here]. The word-of-mouth among colony insiders was heartening and their business steadily grew. Even professionals like Lilli Palmer and Rex Harrison, swore by the couple’s Central European theatrical instincts. (Patricia Neal often bristled when Gary Cooper derided her acting avatar as ‘Doctor Stroganoff.’)
Shdanoff held informal master classes in his mixed Shdanoff-Chekhov method for three decades. Finally, in 1974, after a nostalgic and inspiring Moscow tour, he decided to open a school with apprentice teachers. It was advertised as the George Shdanoff Acting Training Center.”
Shdanoff appears to have registered a business, George Shdanoff’s Los Angeles Theater Company, Inc., on or around May 1979 (another source posits 1978) at the address that we see in the photos here. It was a charitable organization and a private, non-operation organization. A few more details can be had at NonProfitFacts.com. and corporationwiki.com. The best place to go now for information about Shdanoff is the 2002 documentary film, From Russia to Hollywood: The 100-Year Odyssey of Chekhov and Shdanoff (directed by Frederick Keeve). A four+ minute excerpt on YouTube features some well-chosen comments by Leslie Caron.

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Michael Chekhov Actor’s Lab theater, Los Angeles

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Just down the street from Hollywood Boulevard (see photo immediately below), there’s a little black box – or, at least, that’s what it is on the outside. These days it’s the Sound Nightclub and it looks like lots of other Hollywood dive clubs. The matte black walls remind me of the Roxy when I used to hang out there in the 1970s (I saw Bruce Springsteen blow the minds of 600 people three nights in a row at the Roxy when he was just breaking out nationally). But I digress.
And I digress for a purpose. Because I want to point out how we often live in a world of ghosts without thinking about it. Today I stand in front of this small building at 1642 North Las Palmas Avenue in L.A. but I don’t see what everyone else does. People stare at me photographing as they walk by, but they have no idea why I am taking photos. As for me, I’m peering through the slightly foggy L.A. air on an unseasonably cloudy summer’s day in 2015, but I am looking back 69 years in time. I am looking at something that took place here October 8, 1946: the premiere of a new production of a classic Russian play. The marquee would have been different than the one you see on these photos, but let’s not get bogged down in details. Just imagine a growing crowd of well-dressed Hollywood cognoscenti gathering by the entrance, and that in place of  the words “Sound Nightclub” and “Honey Soundsystem,” you were to see something like this: “Las Palmas Theater presents Hollywood Laboratory Theater. N. Gogol. The Inspector General.  Dir. by Michael Chekhov.”
Damn! What I  wouldn’t give to go back then and there!
One of the greatest roles Chekhov ever played as an actor was at the Moscow Art Theater in 1921 as Khlestakov in Konstantin Stanislavsky’s production of The Inspector General. So this was surely a homecoming of sorts for Chekhov. It becomes even more interesting when you consider that the Art Theater production also premiered Oct. 8. The first night date of Chekhov’s Hollywood production obviously was no coincidence.
According to a website called theaterprint.com, the Actors Lab used this space for several productions in 1946. The others were Volpone, Awake and Sing, and Home of the Brave with Barbara Bel Geddes. The Inspector General was apparently followed by a production of Anthony Palma’s new play, To the Living. I find no indication that Chekhov had any direct involvement in any of these other productions.
Here is what Billboard wrote three days before the opener of The Inspector General: “Actor’s Lab, which has gained national attention for its work, will double last year’s two to four and may go to five this season. Will open with Gogol’s Inspector General Oct. 8 for four-week engagement. Production will be directed by Michael Chekhov.”

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Chekhov worked on The Inspector General (some sources say they used the title, The Government Inspector) with his longtime cohort George Shdanoff (Georgy Zhdanov), and the production’s design was done by the well-known Russian emigre designer and artist Nicolai Remisoff (Nikolai Remizov). It would appear to have been one of the last big hurrahs of the Russian community in Hollywood of that time.
I immediately admit that my research of this topic at present has been little more than internet/armchair scholarship. So I may be somewhat misleading here. But the big boom of Russian influence on Hollywood was surely coming to an end after the end of World War II. Russians had been greeted with great respect and open arms when they showed up throughout the 1920s and ’30s, but by the late ’40s that influx had dried to a trickle. Those who had found a home in Hollywood  had now either ceased to work (Alla Nazimova) or had become assimilated into the local community, as it were (Akim Tamiroff, Chekhov, etc.). So, although I can’t declare this with certainty, I feel it is a good educated guess that this big project mounted by a team of prominent Russians was probably not followed by many, or even any, more such projects.
Shdanoff (1905-1998, whose name is a wonderful example of the creative ways Russian names were transliterated in the West in the period after the Revolution – a mix of French and German in influence) was Chekhov’s right-hand man. He co-founded the Michael Chekhov Theater (England and U.S.) with Chekhov, and, in Hollywood, he taught alongside Chekhov in the Actor’s Laboratory. He continued the pedagogical work of the lab long after Chekhov’s death in 1955. I’ll have more to say about Shdanoff in the near future.
Remisoff (1887-1975), also known at times in his career under the pseudonym of Re-Mi, was a well-known artist in Russia when he emigrated to Paris in 1920. He came to the States in 1922 and made a good living designing for film and ballet, as well as doing design and decorating for Hollywood stars’ homes.
For the record, the translation used by Chekhov, Shdanoff and Remisoff for their production was done by Serge Bertensson and Arnold Belgard.
A full notice of the production – with cast and supporting team – can be read on page 52 in the Oct. 26 issue of Billboard. The reviewer appears to have been of two opinions. He notes that it’s not the Lab’s best work, but declares the piece “ambitious” and “no small accomplishment.” The critic continues: “Michael Chekhov wields his directorial brush with wide strokes [not a phrase I’ll ever borrow], sometimes overplaying his hand, as he roams from a pattern of straight comedy to near burlesque.”
Among the actors in the cast were Morris Carnovsky and Lloyd Bridges. The make-up design is attributed to Feodor Chaliapin, which, I’m guessing, refers to Feodor Chaliapin, Jr., the son of the great bass.
I wish to acknowledge the contributions made to this post by a large number of people. It took me some time to track this address down and I probably would not have succeeded if the following individuals had not shared their time, knowledge, tips and interest. I’m grateful to them all – Lisa Dalton, Jessica Cerullo, Liisa Byckling, Olya Petrakova, Bryan Brown, Vladimir FerkelmanAnybody interested in researching this further, may wish to know that there are documents and photos pertaining to this production held at the UCLA Library Special Collections.

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Michael Chekhov home, Los Angeles

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Folks in the western hemisphere know him as Michael Chekhov. His fame at home in Russia is still so strong that he will always be known there by his given name of Mikhail. Michael or Mikhail, this nephew of Anton Chekhov remains one of the most revered figures of Russian theater 60 years after he died in Beverly Hills, CA. To this day his book To the Actor: On the Technique of Acting remains one of the most popular how-to books among actors the world over. Many performers consider his advice to be more practical and useful than Stanislavsky’s, and Stanislavsky himself once said that Chekhov embodied all the theories and exercises that he had developed up to a certain point.
Chekhov was born in 1891 in St. Petersburg, the son of playwright Chekhov’s older brother Alexander. It was a family full of drama. Alexander never married his first wife Anna, a woman who loved vodka as much as he did and who was eight years older than he. After her death, Alexander married the governess of his two children and it was she, Natalya, who gave birth to Mikhail, named for the youngest of the Chekhov brothers.  Alexander was a talented man, a published writer, but his status as the “brother of Anton” was a burden he could not bear. By some accounts, he recognized that his youngest son Mikhail was unique, but never found great love in his heart for him. When little Misha was four years old, Alexander reportedly said of him: “His eyes sparkle with nervousness. I think he will be a talented person.” (I pull this quote and some tales from Yelena Gushanskaya’s article about Alexander in Neva magazine in 2011.)
Mikhail studied acting in St. Petersburg and in 1912 was invited to join the Moscow Art Theater. The following year he began to work with Yevgeny Vakhtangov in the famous Art Theater First Studio. He wrote his name permanently into Russian theater history in 1921 when he delivered a legendary performance of Khlestakov in Konstantin Stanislavsky’s production of Gogol’s The Inspector General. It was his first major role there after having played several small parts, including that of Yepikhodov and Waffles in his uncle’s plays The Cherry Orchard and Uncle Vanya, respectively. The success of his performance of Khlestakov led to him being named the director of the Second Moscow Art Theater, originally intended as an experimental version of the mothership. He played several memorable roles there – including Hamlet (1924) and Apollon in a famous dramatization of Andrei Bely’s novel Petersburg (1925 at the Second Moscow Art Theater).
However, as life, politics and art became increasingly difficult and dangerous activities in the Soviet Union, Chekhov followed the lead of many others in his era: He left the Soviet Union in 1928, moving through continental Europe on to England and, eventually, the United States, where he worked first on the East Coast and then achieved a certain insider’s fame in Hollywood as Michael Chekhov, the coach to the stars.

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The house seen in these pictures is located at 1310 San Ysidro Drive in Beverly Hills. This is where Chekhov settled in to live and this is where he resided at the time of his death in 1955. It is a relatively modest, but very cozy and attractive, home. It looks across the street at one of those steep, earthen cliffs so common in the hills of Hollywood and Beverly Hills.
While living here Chekhov became Hollywood’s favorite acting coach. Together with his great friend George Shdanoff (Georgy Zhdanov) he ran his acting laboratory and staged shows at the Las Palmas Theater (expect a post about that in the near future).  The number of the great and famous who worshipped Chekhov for his guidance was enormous. It included Jack Palance, Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn, Marilyn Monroe and many, many others. Chekhov himself did some acting in Hollywood, earning an Oscar nomination for his performance in Alfred Hitchckock’s Spellbound (1945). You can see the entire film on YouTube (with French subtitles, even). But if you want to know my opinion, the film to see Chekhov in is The Man from the Restaurant, a silent from 1927 by the great Russian director Yakov Protazanov. Chekhov is absolutely brilliant as the put-upon waiter in a hifalutin eatery.
It took a village for me to find the exact location of Chekhov’s last home, although once things began coming together, they did so quickly. Various roles were played by Lisa Dalton, President of the National Michael Chekhov Association, and Jessica Cerullo, a pedagogue with the Michael Chekhov Association, both of whom sent me leads. I finally nailed the address down when I happened upon an internet publication of a July 18, 1950, letter from Chekhov to the pianist Vladimir Horowitz in regards to help the actor was soliciting for his friend, the sculptor Arkady Bessmertny. It’s quite a story, actually. Let me turn the gist of it over to Chekhov himself in this excerpt from the published letter:
“…I appeal to you almost in despair. My old, good and dear friend, the sculptor Arkady Bessmertny lives in Paris. He is handicapped – his legs have been paralyzed since childhood. When Hitler entered Paris, Bessmertny, as a Jew, had to escape. He then had a three-wheeled motorized invalid chair with hand controls. When I worked and I had money I helped him, but I now am helpless myself – my health is gone, I have no work, and my friend Bessmertny is begging me for help. He needs to buy a motorized chair and it costs $300. Vladimir Semyonovich [sic: Horowitz’s patronymic was Samoilovich], I am tormentedly ashamed, but I see no other way out of this, although I’ve thought a great deal. A few days ago I awoke with the thought: perhaps Vladimir Semyonovich might want to help! Forgive me for God’s sake, but it is so hard for me to think about my friend’s inescapable plight! If you would like to help, dear Vladimir Semyonovich, then here is my address:
Mr. Michael Chekhkov
1310 San Ysidro Dr.
Beverly Hills, Calif.
Yours ever and ever,
Mikhail Chekhov

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Ivan Shmelyov plaque and home, Moscow

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This, I presume, is precisely why someone once came up with the idea of putting memorial plaques on buildings: To help keep us from slipping entirely into ignorance. I’ve lived in the neighborhood of this building at 7 Malaya Polyanka, Bldg. 7, for a decade and a half now (it’s right at the corner of Malaya Polyanka and 1st Khvostov Lane), but only recently came to realize its significance. One day as I was snooping around with my camera I, for the first time, pushed my way past the old yellow two-story building on Malaya Polyanka and took a look at the imposing red building that rises behind it. It’s one of those odd examples of the way Moscow sometimes crams large buildings into small former courtyards, creating congestion and claustrophobia when you think maybe they really shouldn’t have done that. I usually blame benighted Soviet architects for doing that – there are hundreds if not thousands of examples of this being done in the Soviet period – but this is another case entirely. This building went up before the Revolution, and it surely must have stood out at the time as a remarkable, if overbearing, addition to the neighborhood.
So I slipped back to look at what this building looked like and I was greeted by two different plaques. One is one of those generic types indicating when the building was erected (1915 by prominent architect Vladimir Shervud), and that the building was occupied in its first seven years by the writer Ivan Shmelyov (1873-1950). A second plaque devoted to Shmelyov alone hangs on the wall on the other side of the entrance to the building.
I had only vaguely heard the name Shmelyov. So cursorily, in fact, that it meant virtually nothing to me. I went back to my encyclopedias and history books and was fascinated to find that Shmelyov was a major writer of his time. In fact, I knew perfectly well a film adaptation of one of his early and most successful novellas, The Man from the Restaurant. Published in 1911, it was made into a famous film in 1927 starring Mikhail Chekhov by Yakov Protazanov. Shmelyov was a fascinating man with a rich, very Russian family history. His father was a merchant who kept shops, bathhouses and other enterprises around Moscow. The family identified with the Old Believers, a branch of the Russian Orthodox Church which did not accept reforms that were pushed through in the 17th century. Ivan grew up in a strict, religious, patriarchal home. This remained a part of his world view for the rest of his life, sometimes as he rebelled against it, sometimes as he reclaimed it. He grew up mostly in the general region of this building in the Zamoskvorechye neighborhood, where outside, on the street, he ran into a very different kind of life among the street urchins and the children of many emigrants from Central Asia who have always gathered in this area (it continues to be true today). Shmelyov talks about the “education” the street offered him, and it helped add a strain of tolerance and curiosity to his unbroken strict views of the world.


By the time Shmelyov moved into this building he was already an established writer with close friends in high places – Anton Chekhov, Maxim Gorky, Ivan Bunin and many more. Shortly before taking up residence here a large, 8-volume collection of his works had been published. I can’t quite put a finger on how long he actually lived here. The plaques, and various internet sources, say he was here from 1915 until 1922 when he emigrated to Europe. But these same sources and others also say that, while he welcomed the Revolution at first, he soured on it quickly and left for Crimea to avoid the excesses he saw taking place before coming back through Moscow in order to emigrate. One assumes, then, that Shmelyov actually resided at this address regularly only from 1915 to, perhaps, 1918. But that’s my guess.
In any case, by emigrating, and by continuing to make his religious upbringing a large part of his work, Shmelyov was guaranteed to be shut out of the pantheon of Soviet writers. He was well-known in emigration, earning the praise of Thomas Mann and Gerhart Hauptmann for a documentary book called The Sun of the Dead (1923) about the horrors of the Revolution and Civil War coming to Crimea. Shmelyov’s son Sergei was captured and shot by the Red Army, and Ivan himself, being a reserve in the Tsarist Army, was in danger of encountering a similar fate.
Beginning in 1990 Shmelyov’s works began to be republished in Russia prolifically, either for the first time or for the first time since before the Revolution. The brilliant encyclopedia Russian Writers of the 20th Century (Russkie pisateli 20 veka: Moscow, 2000) counts around 45 major works by Shmelyov. “Shmelyov,” writes the scholar O.N. Mikhailov, “was far from the classical precision and clarity of Ivan Bunin’s descriptions; from Boris Zaitsev’s penetrating, moody lyricism; and from the semi-grotesque protuberance of Leo Tolstoy’s or Yevgeny Zamyatin’s characters. But at times Shmelyov nearly attains equality with each of these writers…”   Wolfgang Kasack, in his wonderful Dictionary of Russian Literature since 1917, writes, “Shmelyov’s style can be too lyrical and overly emphatic. Masterly is his grasp of the skaz style, interrupting the action of the plot by switching to a fictitious narrrator. Here Nikolai Leskov’s influence can be seen. Leskov’s writings, with those of Fyodor Dostoevsky, had an effect on Shmelyov.”

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