The names Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky may not sound familiar today, but at the height of their fame in the 1920s and '30s, the Thomashefskys were one of the most famous couples in New York City's burgeoning Yiddish theater scene.
Their story is chronicled in The Thomashefskys: Music & Memories of a Life in the Yiddish Theater, a documentary written, hosted and conducted by their grandson, Michael Tilson Thomas. Thomas also serves as music director of the San Francisco Symphony and artistic director of the New World Symphony.
In The Thomashefskys, which will air on PBS's Great Performances on March 29, Tilson Thomas details how his grandparents rose through the Yiddish theater community, eventually owning several theaters while starring in scores of productions.
Boris played heroic, adventurous roles; Bess found her fame in comic parts and created roles that championed the suffragette movement. They put on lavish musicals with equally elaborate scenery, and adapted everything from classical works of Shakespeare to vaudevillian numbers from the Yiddish stage. In 1939, when Boris died, The New York Times reported that 30,000 people lined the streets of the Lower East Side for his funeral.
"Their theater was entirely a theater of social consciousness," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "Their great concern was for the audience, and they wanted to open up the worlds beyond the ghetto experiences of their audiences. They wanted to introduce them to the full possibilities of what freedom could mean in the United States through the plays they presented, through the music they gave the public and also through the kinds of topics their plays addressed."
Among the topics: labor issues, reproductive rights, child labor issues, assimilation and women's rights. Bessie Thomashefsky often played women disguised as men to bring attention to issues affecting women.
"[It was] a little bit like the story of Yentl is," he says. "Where a woman disguises herself as a man in order to gain the advantages of education or whatever that a man can have."
Tilson Thomas says he remembers hearing his grandmother talk about getting arrested for performing in theater productions on Sundays, which was prohibited by law at the time.
"At one point, when Theodore Roosevelt was police commissioner of New York, he and his men raided one of the Thomashefsky theaters," Tilson Thomas says. "And he saw Bessie, who was very young and looked much younger than she was always, and he said, 'Look out little girl.' And she said, 'Little girl, my ass. If anyone's being taken in, it's me.' That's exactly the way she told me the story."
Tilson Thomas says he took that lesson to heart, despite not knowing exactly what it meant.
"As I listened to her tell all these stories about her life and childhood through her stardom, and even her reflections on the way fashions changed and the way she was in her late life a quite lonely person, I took it all in," he says. "And what I kind of understood from her was that it had been a very interesting ride. She was really proud of what had been accomplished. And when she saw somebody who was a very successful entertainer coming up, she was very proud of it, recognized them and appreciated them."
He says he's remembered much of what she taught him while working as a musician and conductor.
"My way of expressing what she said to me is, 'What is it like for people beyond the sixth row?' We play in such big halls in classical music, and they're halls designed to be very rich ... but to get the sound to be distinct is difficult," he says. "And I sometimes tell my students that playing classical music is like making an announcement in an airport. ... You're trying to make every moment completely distinct."