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The Golden Land
by Zalmen Mlotek and Moishe Rosenfeld

About Richard F. Shepard
Theatre Critic, New York Times

by Moishe Rosenfeld


To the Yiddish Theatre of the 1970s and 80s Richard F. (Dick) Shepard was as important as oxygen is to a human being. He was the New York Times columnist whom the paper assigned to review every Yiddish production during a time when audiences were dwindling and productions became more scarce. He understood that a positive review, words of praise for a Yiddish star, a note about a pretty song, a nod to the scenery, the costumes, the director ... in a New York Times review was the most important factor in determining if there would be ticket sales. In other words -- no Dick Shepard -- no Yiddish theater. It was obvious that he knew this, and that he understood that he had a historical role to play in these years when the Yiddish-speaking population of New York was aging and shrinking -- either by natural attrition or by the allure of Florida. Yes, there were a few Yiddish papers and critics, there were other papers that covered the shows, but it has always been understood by the Yiddish theatre -- for that matter by the entire theatre industry -- that it was the Times review that determined yea or nay, life or death. So the weight of history was on Dick Shepard, who had a particular love and appreciation for Yiddish culture and understood the impact of the Holocaust on the language of its six million victims. He also happened to be one of the nicest people in the world with a proverbial heart of gold. One could discern, if one knew Dick, that a particular production may have disappointed him. He clearly struggled to find words of praise while not betraying his own honesty and integrity. "The actors delivered precisely what the author had intended" might be code for "I hated the play." It was his intention to find enough positivity in order to encourage his readers to go see for themselves. On the other hand, if he loved something, he became effusive and brilliant in his appraisal of the entire production. In 1984 Zalmen Mlotek and I were the beneficiaries of such a rave by Dick Shepard for our production of "The Golden Land" at the Norman Thomas High School Auditorium. Opening night was on October 28, 1984. In the lead up we had set up a small production company with a box office on the first floor of the Workmen's Circle building across the street from the high school. We had a small staff handling advance tickets and group sales. It was our first production, and we were learning as we went along. Our partner was Art D'Lugoff, the iconic owner of the Village Gate nightclub, and we fretted as the costs of the production kept growing far beyond the income we were generating from advertising, and all day phone calls and arm-twisting. We had a wonderful cast, we had gorgeous costumes, we had orchestrations by the amazing Pete Sokolow. We had an American director/choreographer, Howard Rossen, who kept the show flowing and emotionally charged from the beginning scene of immigrants traveling to America, to the end, celebrating the creation of Israel, as well as the welcoming of the post-Holocaust wave of immigrants to America. Lots of emotion and gorgeous music packed into a two-hour show. So, yes, we were excited. We were proud ... but how would we sustain this expensive show after we opened? The answer came the morning after we opened. A headline across five columns on the first page of the Arts Section read "A Jewish Journey." A three-column photograph of Avi Hoffman and Betty Silberman in their period costumes designed by the super-talented Natasha Landau, radiated with youth and exuberance. "Love at first sight! It has sparkle and oomph! Brilliant!" Richard F. Shepard had authored a rave review that said to the New York theatre world -- if you miss this gem, you are nuts! And what happened next was like we had entered a separate world that could be compared only to heaven on earth. Suddenly we were sitting on a major hit. There were four phones in the office ringing off the hook. They didn't stop all day, all night, day after day.

The way we would get the phone to ring was to hang it up. The orders were piling up. Groups were calling. I'll take eighty tickets ... Saturday is sold out? How can I get two tickets -- name your price ... Calls like that, one after the other. After the first day, the following weekend of three performances in the seven hundred-seat theatre was completely sold out ... After the second day the month of November was gone ... It was incredible. So it went for weeks, and extended the show into the Spring. The show was invited to Westbury Music Fair for seven sold-out performances (2,100 seats per performance). I admit it was a beautiful show. But it was really Dick Shepard who opened the floodgates. It was, of course, the only time in my life that I'd sit with partners in a room every Monday morning dividing piles of hundred dollar bills among us. It was the only time in my life that I had to have a safe-deposit box in a bank basement to handle all the excess cash I was accumulating. I can get used to this, I remember thinking. Of course, like doesn't stand still, and things change and it never happened like that again. But what a memory! I was so lucky to have Dick Shepard in my life. But it wasn't his work at the Times that allowed me to become a friend a colleague of his. A few years before "The Golden Land," I met a remarkable editor and photo journalist, Vicki Gold Levi, who told me she's working on a photo collection about Yiddish culture in America and asked if I would join the team as a researcher. The book was a collection of illustrated stories about Yiddish icons, and the influence of Yiddish culture on the American identity. The writer was Dick Shepard. It was then I learned that Dick, who had a high-pitched speaking voice with a very heavy New York accent and was always ready with a joke and a clever commentary on his surroundings, was fluent in Mandarin, and belonged to a club that would meet at the Mandarin Inn on Mott Street in Chinatown for dinner and a deep Chinese conversation. Go know. While collaborating on the book, Dick also took over the "Going Out Guide" in the Times, and I was lucky to accompany him to various bars and restaurants that he would review or just give shout-outs in his column. More than once he'd slip in a comment that I'd made the night before in the column -- a wink to the pleasant time that we had shared the night before.

Having a credit as a researcher in "Life & Be Well" is a great honor because I had collaborated with two of the city's true class acts -- Vicki Gold Levi and Richard F. Shepard.




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