Tag Archives: Valery Fokin

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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Vsevolod Yakut home, Moscow

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I’m afraid there isn’t much that can be done photographically with this blandly imposing Soviet-style apartment house at 6-8 Smolensky Boulevard in Moscow unless your name is Igor Tabakov or Vladimir Filonov – the two great Moscow Times photographers I have had the honor to work with for nearly 25 years. But there are plenty of stories I can attach to it. Vsevolod Yakut (1912-1991) lived here for the last years, if not decades, of his life. I don’t know when he moved in, but I know he lived here when he died, and I visited him a time or two in the late ’80s/early ’90s when he clearly had been living here for some time with his wife. Their apartment was accessed by way of the No. 2 entrance, pictured immediately below, and I recall that they lived somewhere around the 6th to 8th floor.
Yakut, whose real name was Abramovich and whose stage name was taken from the Siberian region from which he had come, was one of the greatest and most popular actors of his time. His loudest claim to fame – although he had many – was the longtime performance of Alexander Pushkin in Andrei Globa’s verse play Pushkin. The play opened at the Yermolova Theater in 1949 and ran for 20 years. Yakut played the role 840 times. Other plays and roles that sustained his fame included Nazim Hikmet’s The Eccentric (1956), Hikmet’s Two Stubborn Men (1959), Nikolai Pogodin’s My Friend (1961), and Eduardo de Filippo’s Saturday, Sunday, Monday (1962). All of that was way before my time in Moscow, although my wife, who was born just one year before Saturday, Sunday, Monday opened, saw it when she was a teenager. That’s how long that show ran. We still have posters and programs from Yakut’s shows in our family archive. I came to know him ever so briefly because my wife’s sister Marina married Maxim Yakut, one of Vsevolod’s sons. Thus it happens that my nephew Ivan is Vsevolod Yakut’s grandson. And the stories begin with Vanya – now an accomplished bassoonist living in Spain – in part because his is maybe the best of them all. A year or two before I came into the picture Vanya, who was, perhaps, 6 or 7 at this point, was riding the elevator with his famous grandfather in the old Actors House on Pushkin Square. There were two elevators side-by-side, very small, and they could almost comfortably fit four people. On this evening Vanya squeezed in as the fifth. And some friendly person looked down and asked the young boy, “So, are you going to be an actor like your grandfather here?” Vanya, who had played a child’s role for a year or two in a production at the Maly Theater thanks to connections his aunt, my future wife Oksana, provided, looked up with pride and replied, “I already was!”
The strangest and most lasting impression I have of Yakut came from a brief meeting that occurred probably in 1990. It followed a holiday evening at Oksana’s parents’ apartment – Yakut would occasionally come over for New Year’s or a birthday. Anyway, he took an interest in Oksana, whose acting career was just getting underway, and he invited us to see him perform. The show was Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser. It was a huge hit, with Yakut playing an actor performing Lear in King Lear and another highly popular actor Zinovy Gerdt playing his set-upon dresser and personal assistant. Oksana and I sat third row center in the Yermolova Theater, where Yakut had been a company member since 1938 (having been a member of the Yermolova Studio from 1931 to 1934). We were absolutely enthralled. The Yakut-Gerdt team was a stunning one. We later learned that some of the sparks that flew between them on stage were generated by a healthy rivalry in life – but that’s what theater wants, the real thing. Anyway, we were slayed by Yakut’s enormous performance. He was monumental in every way. He breathed as one would expect King Lear to breathe. He towered over everything on the stage as one playing Lear should do. We sat there in the third row, staring up in awe at this giant of an actor playing a man of mammoth proportions. And after the show, following Yakut’s orders, we dutifully found our way backstage to his dressing room to pay our respects. We came to a stop before his door where the name “Vsevolod Yakut” was engraved in a modest metal plaque. For a moment we stood not quite knowing what to do. Was it too early to knock? Had we come too late? Oksana, I think, finally stepped forth and rapped on the door with her knuckles. We heard a booming voice from inside say, “Just a moment!” and we waited a moment more. Both of us – rather tall individuals – stood almost at attention and both of us were looking up at the top part portion of the door. That is more or less where we expected our eyes to meet those of Yakut when he finally would greet us. At that moment the door flung open and both Oksana and I found ourselves looking through blank air at the ceiling of the actor’s dressing room. We both slowly corrected our aim, dropping it a significant distance until we saw Yakut’s tired, but smiling face somewhere down around the level of our shoulders. We both were shocked and we have often talked about this instance since. What the magic of the stage can do! Even though we had spent numerous hours in the company of Yakut, even though we knew him quite well, the power of his presence on stage had completely blown our memories out. In those two hours of performing, Yakut became a giant. And we fully expected him to be a giant even after the show had ended. Actually, he remained so for us both. I have always thought of Yakut as a giant after having seen him perform. I don’t care that he was actually a small man in real life. Real life has nothing on the power that actor had over spectators.

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Yakut was so popular he never had to pay for a taxi ride home after shows. He would walk out from the stage door of the Yermolova onto Tverskaya Street – Moscow’s main drag a stone’s throw from Red Square and the Kremlin – and there taxis would be waiting. He could always step into one and be sure the driver would not accept payment for the honor of taking the great man home. It hadn’t always been that way. At our family gatherings, Yakut would tell of years, or at least months, of sleeping under bridges and underpasses to keep dry when he had no work and no place to go. In his early years he acted as a clown in an itinerant circus in Irkutsk. He made his way to Moscow – when he spent time sleeping under the sky when weather permitted – and finally gained admission to the institute and, shortly thereafter, began acting.
On March 3, 1991, the Yermolova had scheduled the final pre-premiere dress rehearsal of Albert Camus’ Caligula, directed by the young Andrei Zhitinkin.  Oksana and I asked Yakut if we could come, but he said it would be better to wait. The show hadn’t gelled yet, he wanted us to see it when it was ready. The next day we received a call – Yakut had performed in the dress rehearsal but had fallen dead before leaving his beloved theater. Thus it was that the last time Oksana and I saw Vsevolod Yakut was in his coffin. The public farewell took place at the old Art Workers’ House on Kuznetsky Most. A religious ceremony was held at the so-called “actors church” at the Church of the Resurrection on Yeliseyevskaya Street. I remember streams of elderly women, their tear-stained faces covered under kerchiefs, standing in line to kiss Yakut’s forehead one last time. He was buried in a tiny plot next to a tree in the Vagankovskoe Cemetery, a burial place that was long ago closed to new “arrivals” because every inch was full. But they found a tiny space big enough to squeeze in Yakut. That evening we attended the family memorial dinner – right here in Yakut’s apartment on Moscow’s so-called Ring Road. This was where Oksana and I first met the composer Alexander Bakshi and his wife Lyudmila – they had worked on Caligula. Also there that evening was the relatively young Valery Fokin. He was the artistic director of the Yermolova, which had recently undergone a mutiny, with half the theater – mostly the older actors – breaking away from Fokin and his “radical” ideas. Yakut was one of the few of the old guard who strongly backed Fokin and who gave Fokin gravitas by his support.
There is no memorial plaque stating that Vsevolod Yakut once lived here. Aside from a handful of posters in the foyer at the Yermolova Theater, there are virtually no other reminders in Moscow now of Yakut. He will always be a giant in my mind.