Tag Archives: Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko

The Almost Russian Theater, Los Angeles, CA

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Among my far-flung searches for places connected to Russian culture this surely is one of my favorite finds. As I was doing my scattershot, though deeply immersive, research this summer on Russian artists in LA., one thing led me to another which led me to another and I ended up reading bits and pieces of Sergei Bertensson’s book In Hollywood with Nemirovich-Danchenko, 1926-1927. Imagine my astonishment (well, you can’t if you already knew this, but it was new to me) when I read the following diary entry from June 1927:
Two of the directors of the Hollywood Playhouse payed a visit to Vladimir Ivanovich to discuss the possibility of organizing a permanent drama theater in Hollywood, a true art theater. Both of them are naive and primitive enough, one of them is frankly thinking only of profit. Vladimir Ivanovich spoke about three possibilities: 1) to organize a permanent company on the basis of the Art Theatre, 2) to stage one play using the tasks and methods of the Moscow Art Theatre in order that this play becomes a model for the future work, 3) to work out a detailed plan (artistic, administrative, juridicial) according to which the owners of this theatre could run the company without the help of Vladimir Ivanovich. Vladimir Ivanovich promised to inform them of his acceptance of the first or second plan no earlier than in a month when his plans for the future became clear. He could work out the third plan now. It has been decided to have a tour of the building of the Hollywood Playhouse in two days’ time and after that to come to the conclusion.”
Holy Moses! There was almost a Moscow Art Theater, or maybe a Nemirovich-Danchenko Theater in Los Angeles! Well, as you read on, you realize that this “almost” – like so many “almosts” in life, especially in the life of anyone trying to bridge the cultural gap between Russia and the United States – probably wasn’t much of a real “almost.” And yet, and yet… Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, while in Hollywood, actually visited this theater, the Hollywood Playhouse, and actually did consider – at least for a few moments – the idea of opening a Moscow Art Theater-type theater in Los Angeles.
Indeed, two days later, on June 17, Nemirovich-Danchenko and his secretary Sergei Bertensson headed over to the Playhouse, which you see photographed here in loving delight, for a meeting with the owners. I think it’s interesting – though it may or may not be important – that when the director discovered he had mistakenly scheduled two meetings at the same time, he chose to honor not a meeting with a big Hollywood honcho (Irving Thalberg, the boy wonder at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) who wanted to do a film with him, he went to the Hollywood Playhouse for a tour of the plant and a discussion of the possibilities of collaboration.
The idea – at least of Nemirovich-Danchenko directing a play – remained alive until mid-October. Simeon Gest, brother of the more famous Russian-emigre producer Morris Guest, conducted the negotiations for the Russian director with the American theater owners.  According to Bertensson, the owners were to have informed him of their decision to go ahead with the project or not on Oct. 12, but asked for another day to consider. On Oct. 13 Bertensson writes in his diary, “All the business with the Hollywood Playhouse has fallen through, as the management either cannot or do not want to risk giving Vladimir Ivanovich the necessary financial guarantees. When from high-sounding words we proceeded to dollars, all their pathos disappeared immediately. And the Academy refused to support the initiative officially, referring to the point that the stage is beyond the scope of their interests as they only deal with pure cinematography. However, admitting the general significance of such an event as a production by Vladimir Ivanovich, certain members of the Academy promise their assistance!? Words, words, words...”
Ah, yes, Words! We have heard words, too. But allow me to brush aside my lyrical outburst and provide the proper bibliographical information for my quotes. They were drawn from pages 129-30, and 156 in Bertensson’s published memoir.

When I set out in search of this little theater-that-couldn’t-quite, I never expected to actually find it. I thought for sure it would be one of those places that has since fallen to the bulldozer and the parking lot. But no. As I drove north on Las Palmas Ave. toward Sunset Boulevard from De Longpre Ave. with my sister Margie riding shotgun, my eyes began to grow bigger and bigger as we drove through a mostly residential block in which a strangely theater-like building stood up ahead on the left, right about where 1445 N. Las Palmas Avenue should be. I jumped out of the car and began taking photos, hoping against hope this was what I thought it was. Then I walked around a big bougainvillea plant and looked up. I might as well have seen a live dinosaur. There it was, the old Hollywood Playhouse sign still intact. A bit worse for the wear, a bit faded for the years, but there was no mistaking what it said. I must also say that the maniac in me began having incredibly wild ideas, because there it is, written on two places on the building – the place is available for rent. Anybody got a couple million dollars they want to invest? With Russians flooding abroad these days (I recently read an article about 100 top Russian intellectuals who have abandoned Putin’s Russia in recent years), this could be the next big thing in L.A. Anybody think? I’ve got contact information here, if you get my drift… I got ideas…
Back to earth, however.
As much as it pains me to say it, this location had at least one more brush with Russian emigre cultural figures. I happened upon that tidbit recently when researching Ivan Lebedeff’s biography. You see, Alisa Rosenbaum’s debut play was staged here. Alisa Rosenbaum? Oh, you mean, Ayn Rand. Ugh. Yes. Ayn Rand.
As reported in Anne C. Heller’s Ayn Rand and the World She Made, Rand’s first stage play, The Night of January 16thopened as Woman on Trial at the Hollywood Playhouse in October 1934, in a production by sometime actor E. E. Clive and featuring former silent-screen actress Barbara Bedford. Critics and a star-studded first-night audience, including Rand’s Polish idol Pola Negri, Frank Capra, Jesse Lasky, Mary Pickford, Gloria Swanson, Marlene Dietrich, three members of the White Russian aristocratic diaspora, and Rand’s friend Ivan Lebedeff, among other film celebrities, praised the plot and were beguiled by the volunteer jury” [drawn from the audience].
So there you have it. Stand back and squint. Do you see Nemirovich-Danchenko, looking not at all Hollywood-like in his heavy Russian beard, entering the door? Is that Bertensson – who would immigrate to the U.S. a few years later and would publish his notes of his time with Nemirovich and later write a biography of Sergei Rachmaninoff – following his friend in the door? Or is it Rand, the Russian wannabe emigre writer, sneaking out after the premiere of her play, not wanting to be noticed because she really didn’t like people? Or might that dashing figure coming out now be Lebedeff, monocled and mustachioed, who absolutely loved opening nights and Hollywood crowds!
Whoever it is, there are some pretty good Russian ghosts here.

 

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Olga Knipper-Chekhova plaque, Moscow

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If you’re a Moscow Art Theater fan, this building at 5/7 Glinishchevsky Lane is a treasure trove. It was built in 1938 and a whole gaggle of Art Theater employees moved in. At the same time the street was given the name of Nemirovich-Danchenko Street, which held sway until 1993. Writing about this building and the numerous plaques hanging on its outside walls, I could speak of any number of people – Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko himself, the actors Vera Maretskaya, Iosif Tumanov, Vasily Toporkov, Mikhail Shtraukh, Ivan Moskvin, Mikhail Tarkhanov, Alexander Kaidanaovsky, Alla Tarasova and many, many more. Some of you will notice that not all of these people were connected to the Art Theater – this building was one of those Soviet structures that went up for specific purposes, to house people from a particular walk of life. But it so happened that many of those who moved in here in 1938 were from the Art Theater. In any case, one new resident that year was Olga Knipper-Chekhova, the widow of Anton Chekhov. She lived here, as her plaque proclaims, from 1938 until her death in 1959.
The building was erected by architects Vladimir Vladimirov and G. Lutsky (I wasn’t able to ascertain his full first name) with aid from artist Vladimir Favorsky and sculptor Georgy Motovilov (see the last photo below for what I presume is their joint work). It’s an imposing building, perhaps a little too large for the tiny street it stands on, and very official-looking. I personally find I am put off by it lightly when I approach it, although I also recognize its effective compositional design. The dark marble running along the base of the building looks funereal to me, just as many of the plaques look like gravestones.

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Olga Knipper-Chekhova (1868-1959) began a relationship with Chekhov in 1899, just before he sold his small family estate in Melikhovo. She actually visited that home south of Moscow once, maybe twice. I happened to be in Melikhovo with American playwright Nilo Cruz a week or so ago and our tour guide told us that it is thanks in large part to Knipper-Chekhova that the writer’s former estate is now such a respected museum and retreat. The local people, official and otherwise, were not especially interested in having the estate made into a museum. But Knipper-Chekhova threw her weight behind the project and, as I understand it, helped financially, to ensure that the museum was opened and that it survived. Chekhov and Knipper-Chekhova first met in 1898 at rehearsals of Chekhov’s The Seagull and A.K. Tolstoy’s Tsar Fyodor Ioannovich. They were married in 1901 and she was with her husband when he died in Badenweiler, Germany, in 1904.
There are all kinds of words written – good, bad, insulting and indifferent – about the relationship between these two people. I don’t know a thing about that. I do know that Knipper-Chekhova carried the banner of her husband’s greatness for the rest of her life. During his lifetime she played many of the great Chekhovian heroines – Arkadina in The Seagull, Yelena in Uncle Vanya, Masha in Three Sisters, Sarah in Ivanov and Ranevskaya in The Cherry Orchard. There is a short video of Knipper-Chekhkova reviving her role of Ranevskaya decades later in a kind of concert performance, when she was already an elderly woman. Whatever flaws the advancement of time may have introduced into her performance, you cannot take this from her – she was extremely light on her feet, had a wonderful sense of humor and a feeling for her character that was natural and buoyant. You can see a short clip from that performance on YouTube.
Knipper was born to a German father from Alsace and an ethnically German mother in what was then called Vyatskaya gubernia. He, Leonard Knipper, was an engineer and was the administrator of a local factory. She, Anna Zaltz, was a gifted singer, who gained some fame before her marriage, although her husband would not allow her to continue performing. Olga’s father also forbid Olga to become an actress when she declared that as her life’s dream. Leonard wanted her to become a painter or a translator. She was educated in languages in her early years and was said to have been fluent in English, French and German. Things changed when Leonard died unexpectedly. This left the family in dire straights and most everyone had to go to work. Although Knipper’s mother, like her father, was against the idea of her daughter becoming an actress, she also recognized how strong that dream remained in her daughter’s head. Eventually Olga was allowed to begin studying acting with Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko and the die was cast for history to be made.

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Anton Chekhov statue, Moscow

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This is one of the most maligned statues in Moscow, for all of the wrong reasons to my mind. I hate to begin with this, but everybody else talks about it first of all. I could ignore that, you say, and you’d be right. And maybe I should. But I also want to have my say about it because I’ve never agreed with the complaints.
To the point: It seems to really irritate people that there used to be two public restrooms right where this statue of Anton Chekhov was unveiled in 1998 during the celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the Moscow Art Theater.  It doesn’t bother anybody that the prestigious Chistiye Prudy, or Clean Ponds, region of Moscow is built on an old dumping grounds for the reeking remains of butchered animals. And rightly so. Things change. Big deal. So there were restrooms here? I remember my beloved mentor Alma Law going off about this and I could never understand it. I remember the restrooms. They kinda stunk when you walked by. I never went down in there – didn’t quite have the nerve, even if I had the need a time or two. So, for me, it was a great thing to close those things up and put them in the slot where all those things from the past go that we are able to forget. But no! Seventeen years later people are still making snide comments about the restrooms that used to be here, are long gone, and will never again rise to stink! What is the deal? I say it because I saw a comment on the net yesterday about my post about Nemirovich-Danchenko and Stanislavsky – somebody just had to bring up the old restrooms back in the corner of one of my photos. With all the things to talk about in Russia and the world!…
For the record, this statue was sculpted by Mikhail Anikushin, who died a year before it was unveiled. There is information, repeated in Russian Wikipedia, that then-Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov is the one who decided that the monument would stand in this corner in place of – yes, the former restrooms! – and before one of the walls of the once-famous Hotel Chevalier, which sheltered many great Russian writers and personages in the 19th century. I’ll get to that some day on this blog.

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I love Anikushin’s work. It is precisely what I look for in sculptural art – it is a rendition, an interpretation. Sure he gets the general likeness, for which we are grateful. But that exaggerated lean, almost gaunt look is an interpretation, a suggestion. It makes us think about Chekhov, his life, his beliefs , his art. It is also true of the face, which I really love. There is something of the Pieta in this, isn’t there? A kind of mix between the expressions both Mary and Christ that are given by various artists working with that subject. And that suits Chekhov. This is a face that knows so much, almost too much for the individual to bear. As with any good work of sculpture, the expression changes as you move around it. Look at the two close-up shots above, taken almost, but not quite, from the same angle. I see something approaching stoicism in the first, an attempt to be strong against suffering, while in the second I see suffering beginning to take precedence. Actually, go up to the top photo and you see still another aspect – here there’s a kind of resignation and sorrow that predominates the image. All of these suit well the man who wrote “The Steppe,” “The Black Monk,” “Three Sisters,” “The Cherry Orchard” and much, much more.
I wrote in yesterday’s post about how the new monument to Nemirovich-Danchenko and Stanislavsky now marginalizes this Chekhov monument. You can see that in the last photo below. Chekhov really looks stuck in a corner now, dwarfed and diminished. Before the appearance of the new statue, one’s attention when arriving on Kamergersky Lane was drawn immediately to Chekhov. No more. He is now an afterthought. Ever since he appeared and ever since that silly restroom debate unfurled, there has been talk about moving the monument. I wouldn’t be surprised if that were to happen now. To my tastes, anyway, this is too good a work to be shunted off into the shadows.

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Nemirovich-Danchenko and Stanislavsky monument, Moscow

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Unless you’re “reading” this monument in Persian, Urdu, Arabic, Hebrew or Yiddish, the first man you see here is Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko. It appears to be a bit of an effort to up the director and playwright’s status. Everybody knows Konstantin Stanislavsky founded the Moscow Art Theater; not everybody knows that he did it with Nemirovich-Danchenko, a slightly older man who wrote a lot of workmanlike, traditional plays that were pretty much forgotten once they appeared at the end of the 19th century. Stanislavsky is the star, the “author” of “The System,” the great innovator and modernizer of theater in the 20th century, the discoverer of Anton Chekhov’s genius as a playwright. It’s pretty hard to overestimate Stanislavsky’s place in history. He kind of wears a halo. I think it’s fitting that in the photo immediately below it’s Nemirovich-Danchenko who has something like a halo hovering over his head, thanks to the latest snowfall shortly before I took these pictures. Still, in the description of the monument, the names chiseled in stone below the likenesses, the historical hierarchy is maintained. The letters proclaim simply: “To Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko.” Stanislavsky is back out in front.
There are all kinds of reasons to give oneself over to cynicism and satire with anyone as famous and mythical as the founders of the Art Theater. There is the legend of their not speaking to one another over the last couple of decades of their “collaboration.” Mikhail Bulgakov lampooned that beautifully in his Theatrical Novel, often known in British English as Black Snow. There are the stories of Stanislavsky later in his life being caught by people entering his office as he played on the floor under the table and muttered to himself as he continued to search for new keys to the acting profession. There is the reality that the books which made Stanislavsky’s reputation in the West only partly corresponded to what he really wrote in his Russian originals. My colleague Sharon Carnicke wrote a great book about that called Stanislavsky in Focus.
So, yes, there’s plenty to laugh at and to be confused by in the story of the work these two men did. But, hey, what have you done for world history lately? There may be a lot of nonsense, confusion and misinformation out there because of the Moscow Art Theater. But it has long been the theater of the world. It is ground zero for the dramatic art. It is to dramatic theater what La Scala is to opera. The place. I have seen famous, would-be famous and rank amateur actors, directors and writers from all over the world stand with seeming lockjaw before the walls of the Art Theater. Brain freeze. My God, is this really the place? Am I really here?
And for all of that it was not until the fall of 2014 that somebody in Moscow saw fit to unveil a monument to the two men who dreamed the Moscow Art Theater up and then brought it to fruition, sacrificing their friendship to do so.
According to the website of the Russky Mir Foundation, the monument was created by Alexei Morozov and unveiled Sept. 3, 2014: “Alexei Morozov worked on the monument in Italy for two years. The statuary group was cast in bronze in the city of Pietrasanta, the world capital of bronze casting. The pedestal was created in Verona using the most modern technologies in the field of multi-axis stone processing.”

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Ah yes, justice done. For a moment, anyway. I was at home the day the unveiling took place and the tongues began to wag almost instantly on the internet. Why do the two founders of the Art Theater stand with their backs turned to: 1) the theater itself (photo immediately above), 2) to Anton Chekhov (photo immediately below), who now looks terribly forlorn as if he has been shunted off into a dark corner to do penance. There was talk about the way Morozov made the pedestal lower beneath Stanislavsky so that he could make Nemirovich-Danchenko stand slightly higher than his more famous comrade. There were questions about just about everything one can question – taste, veracity, intent and timing. Within hours of the monument being unveiled it seemed to be that the chatty internet sphere had already chewed the statue up and spat it out.
Most of that is gerbil talk, of course. But I must admit that when I first came upon the statue I was underwhelmed, too. I wanted to be able to talk back to the naysayers, but I found myself circling the sculpture looking for something to hang onto and not quite finding it. It’s big, I’ll give it that. You can see that by comparing it to people walking by in these photos. But the two men – great men, let’s wipe off the sarcasm for a moment – look quite generic. I see no character in Stanislavsky – I see a certain justifiable resemblance. Nemirovich looks a little more interesting, perhaps, but then I say that and look at him again and I realize he looks like a Roman senator and that can’t be right.
From behind, at least at night, the ensemble is swallowed by the harsh glare of capitalistic, technologically-advanced Moscow. As big and important as these two men are for Russian culture, they drown in illuminated pixels and chaotic traffic when seen from behind.
I’ve written about plenty of great monuments on this blog that were ridiculed when unveiled and later recognized to be masterpieces. Who knows, maybe that will happen here, too, in time. As yet, however, it hasn’t.

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Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko house, Moscow

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I’m being a little prickly by doing this one today. Everybody and his uncle is writing about the unveiling today of a monument to Konstantin Stanislavsky and Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko on Kamergersky Lane in front of the Moscow Art Theater. Google it, you’ll find it. I’m not doing that because I’ve been working all the day right here at this computer of mine. I’ll yet have to find the time to get down to the Art Theater and shoot the new statue (as well as the new one of Anton Chekhov which was unveiled yesterday at Moscow University), but until that happens this little post will have to do. It’s a pretty good one, actually, even if on the surface it looks rather bland. You see, you’re not going to find this information in many other places besides my blog. There is no plaque here, no statue, no reminder, no nothing, that would inform you that in the 1920s and 1930s Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko himself, one of the great members of the duo who created the Moscow Art Theater, lived in this building in Apt. No. 1. I know that because of some cool old books I once picked up at various used bookstores in the days where there used to be such a thing – I mean, a bookstore. The books are from a series of theater catalogues that give all kinds of unexpected information about theaters and theater artists for the year in which they were published. I have copies for 1927-28, 1928, 1930, 1935 and 1936. All bear similar but different titles – Theatrical Moscow, Theater Catalogue, Theater-Musical Catalogue for the USSR, etc. In addition to listing scads of details about every venue in town, at the end of each book there is what we could call a phone book for the theater community. Everybody’s listed there, with name, address and, often, phone number. Need to find Mayakovsky quick? Meyerhold? Tairov? Koonen? Erdman? Bil-Belotserkovsky (spelled with just one “l” unlike everywhere else I have ever seen)? They’re all here from the big to the small, the famous to the important. If you’re interested, Nemirovich-Danchenko’s phone in 1936 was 4-54-02.

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When Nemirovich-Danchenko (1858-1943) lived in this building the street was called Gertsen, or Herzen, Street. The name now has gone back to its pre-Revolution name of Bolshaya, or Big, Nikitskaya. The house number is 50. It’s a lovely, solid, Russian-looking building that just oozes impressiveness. Look at how high the ceilings are on what appears to us to be the second floor. I’m guessing that’s the actual first floor and that our hero of the day would have looked out of some of those high, arched windows while nursing a nightcap in a crystal goblet after a long day’s work at the world’s most famous theater.
Nemirovich-Danchenko is an interesting figure who, in the West, is eclipsed in fame hundreds of times over by Stanislavsky. The latter was more charismatic, he was an actor and a director and he had that good fortune of writing a couple of books that – well – that made him one of the greatest theater gods ever. Nemirovich-Danchenko was a quite conventional playwright at the end of the 19th century and later a director who could never quite muster the respect of his partner. I wrote “partner” and realized I have to justify that quickly. According to legend the two fell out relatively soon after they founded their theater and they didn’t talk to each other for the last couple of decades of their lives. Mikhail Bulgakov created a pretty funny parody of that in his novel Theatrical Novel (Black Snow). What many in the West may not know is that Nemirovich-Danchenko’s penultimate production – Chekhov’s Three Sisters in 1940 – is considered one of the great productions not only of that era, but of that theater, of that writer, and of that incredibly storied troupe of actors.
According to the two-volume Moscow Art Theater: One Hundred Years encyclopedia, Nemirovich-Danchenko said the following to his actors at the last meeting before the show premiered: “This work on Chekhov’s play has stirred up all the problems of our [contemporary] theater art. It also made us remember the past. There was a time when Chekhov came to our young theater with the new tones of his plays. We are accustomed to calling them ‘half-tones’ but that word is incorrect. It’s just that they are different tones […]. Little by little the Chekhovian tones became cliched and offputting. That happened because they slowly began to degenerate into a crestfallen tone (‘Ah! the Art Theater!’). Let’s take care that we don’t go down that road!”
Okay, and I’ll use this opportunity to clarify something that always irks me. The proper use of the term is the Moscow Art Theater. It is not The Moscow Arts Theater. It was intended as a theater of art, that is, an art theater, i.e., a theater which engages in art, hence the Moscow Art Theater. Period. End of that discussion.

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