YIDDISH THEATRE 101 > THE YIDDISH PLAYS > THE PLAY IN HISTORY  >  ROAMING STARS                                                 

ROAMING STARS1, by Sholem Aleichem

(Yiddish: Blondzende shtern)


Introductory note -- "The present play is a dramatization by Maurice Schwartz of Sholom Aleichem's novel of the same name. It portrays the life of the Yiddish stage folk--their wanderings, adventures, rivalries, intrigues, peccadilloes, loves--and traces the development of the Yiddish theatre from its cradle in the South of Russia, where a stable often served [as the] playhouse, and where both managers and actors were forced to live by their wits, rather than the all too meager box-office receipts, to New York, scene of its maturity and splendor. A strange story, preposterous, pathetic, incredible, yet true in its essentials. The reader will understand that this is not a synopsis of Sholom Aleichem's novel, but of the play which Mr. Maurice Schwartz has fashioned from it." (note prepared by Maximilian Hurwitz).

"Roaming Stars" opened on 23 January 1930 at the Yiddish Art Theatre, Broadway and Twenty-Eighth Street, New York, a romantic comedy in three acts and sixteen scenes by Maurice Schwartz, based on the novel of the same name by Sholom Aleichem, with incidental music by G. Thuler. Staged by Maurice Schwartz; settings by Boris Aronson. Executive Staff: Martin Schwartz, Manager; Oliver M. Sayler, English Press Agent; Leon Hoffman, Yiddish Press Agent; Lewis Kasten and Irving L. Cone, Treasurers, Anne Bordofsky, Manager Subscription Dept. Stage staff: Boris Aronson, Scenic Director; Jacob Mestel and Ben-Zion Katz, Stage Managers; Joseph Schwartzberg, Librarian; George Teuller, Musical Director. Technical Staff: William Mensching, Master Carpenter; Chris. Logan, Master Electrician; Rudolph Pfeiffer, Master Properties; Israel Misbin, Superintendent. 

photo: Maurice Schwartz, as "Hotzmach". Courtesy of the New York Public Library.

The cast of this production included:

Louis Weisberg, Mark Schweid, Michael Gibson, Joseph Greenberg, Lazar Freed, Anna Appel, Maurice Schwartz, Adella Lamdon, H. Frank, Pincus Sherman, Bina Abramowitz, Judith Abarbanel, Stella Adler, Ben Zion Katz, Berta Gerstin, Sonia Gurskaya, Sonia Cutler, Jacob Mestel, Gershon Rubin, Izidore Casher, Joseph Greenberg, Misha Gibson, Morris Strassberg, Hyman Wolkoff, Boris Weiner, and M. Nussbaum.

According to the play program, the action takes place in the first decade of the current century.

So, here is the synopsis of Sholom Aleichem's "Roaming Stars". The name of the actor or actress who portrayed a particular role is indicated in parentheses:



A company of strolling Yiddish players arrives at Holoneshti, a small town in the then Russian province of Bessarabia, not far from the Romanian border. The director of the troupe is Albert Shtchupak (Louis Weisberg), a crafty, tight-fisted and unscrupulous man, while the star (and also master of properties) is, despite his chronic cough, Bernard Holtzman (Maurice Schwartz), better known as "Hotzmach", because of his brilliant impersonation of the Figaro-like character of that name in Goldfaden's operetta "The Witch", -- a character, be it added, with whom he has much in common. There is little love wasted between director and star, Shtchupak planning to get rid of Hotzmach at the first opportunity, and the latter threatening to form a troupe of his own.

For [a] playhouse Shtchupak hires the stable of Rafalovitch (Michael Gibson), the local Croessus, and preparations are begun for a number of performances. As might be expected in a town so small and so poor, the advance sale of tickets is practically nil, and the actors are forced to live pretty much by their wits. Hotzmach soon ingratiates himself with Rafalovitch's youngest son Laybel (Joseph Greenberg), a stage-struck lad, who thereupon plunders his father's pantry and purse and keeps the star in comfort. Realizing that the boy has the makings of a great actor, Hotzmach persuades him to steal a large sum of money from his father and to run away with the troupe.

Now Laybel is in love with the local cantor's pretty daughter Raisel (Judith Abarbanel), a girl with a beautiful voice who is likewise stage-struck. The girl's talents and stage possibilities do not escape the eyes of Shtchupak and of his assistant Sholom Mayer (Mark Schweid); but when they ask her parents to let Raisel join the troupe, her pious folks would not hear of it. When, however, Laybel reveals to her his intention to run away with the actors and begs her to go with him, she consents and the two youthful lovers vow never to part.

But fate wills it otherwise. When the troupe leaves town with the two runaway children, the boy is put in the same wagon, while the girl is put in the wagon that carries the director. And too late Hotzmach discovers that Shtchupak has "red-lighted" him--i.e. cast him of and fled to parts unknown.


A number of years later Hotzmach has made a great actor of Laybel (Lazar Freed), now known as Leon Rafalesco, the greatest star on the Yiddish stage in Europe. Hotzmach has given up acting and become Rafalesco's manager. His sole fear is that some other manager may lure the star away from him. In order to strengthen his hold upon Rafalesco, Hotzmach tries to make a match between his sister Zlutke (Sonia Cutler) and the great actor. As a step in this direction he trains Zlutke in the art of acting and has her play opposite Rafalesco; but poor Zlutke, for all her pathetic efforts, has neither the talent to become a leading lady, not the charms to make the star forget his beautiful Raisel, whose loss has left him disconsolate.

Hotzmach and Rafalesco are now in Lemberg, where the latter's acting is the rage of the town. In the same city there is a theatrical manager named Isik (Pincus Sherman), whose sister Henrietta (Berta Gerstin) is a beautiful and gifted actress. Each manager tries to steal the other's star, Isik relying on his sister's beauty to captivate Rafalesco, between the two of whom he would like to make a match. Finally, Isik and Hotzmach form a partnership, each investing the only thing he has to invest, namely his star, and it is decided that they all go to London, where Isik has a brother, Nissel (Izidore Casher), a fortune awaits the appearance of two such great stars as Rafalesco and Henrietta.

Rafalesco readily agrees to go to London, for he has just learned that his long-lost Raisel is in that city. Raisel, it turns out, had become a great Yiddish actress. One day a rich man named Mayer Stelmak (Gershon Rubin), father of the renowned violinist Grischa Stelmak (Misha Gibson), saw her act and was so captivated by her beautiful voice and loveliness that he provided for her musical education under the celebrated Mme. Sembrich. Now Raphael, known as Rosa Spevak (Stella Adler), is a famous singer and appears in joint recitals with Grischa, whom his father would very much like to marry Rosa.

The new theatrical company duly arrives in London only to discover that the financial backing Nissel had been counting on did not materialize. Everybody is disappointed. Henrietta, because her affair with Rafalesco has not made any headway; Zlutke--now with child by the actor--for that same reason; Rafalesco, because by the time he came to London, Rosa and Grischa had already left for London. Rosa and Grischa had already left for America, and Hotzmach, whose lung trouble has been aggravated by the London climate, because he suspects his partners of plotting to deprive him of Rafalesco. After the company is thus stranded in London for six weeks, Nissel and Isik inveigle...

Mr. Clummel (Joseph Greenberg), a kosher restaurant keeper, to invest his hard-earned money in their venture and to go with them to America, where they are sure such a team as Rafalesco and Henrietta will coin money. They put the proposition up to Rafalesco in the presence of Hotzmach, now far gone to consumption. The latter, realizing his theatrical days are over, urges his former protégé to accept the offer. Whereupon all save Hotzmach and the self-sacrificing Zlutke sail for New York.


Rosa Spevak, after she and the Stelmaks settle down in New York, sends for her Old World, widowed mother and installs her in an East Side apartment with all the appurtenances of an orthodox Jewish home. The elder Stelmak, overcoming the objections of Rosa's mother, who does not like the idea of her daughter marrying a fiddler, and the reluctance of Rosa herself, who cannot forget the truth she plighted to her childhood lover Laybel, is overjoyed when Rosa, with her mother's consent, finally agrees to marry Grischa. To celebrate the occasion, and to please Rosa's mother, the Stelmaks and Rosa decide to dine that day in an East Side restaurant and to polish off the evening by attending a performance at a Yiddish theatre where a celebrated European star, Leon Rafalesco, is to make his American debut that night.

Nissel and Isik and Clummel, accompanied by their stars, arrive in New York and soon after enter into partnership with one Nickels, who has a theatre on the Bowery. Having settled that Nissel and Isik get Rafalesco drunk, and while he is in a state of intoxication, formally announce Henrietta's' betrothal to him.

The night of Rafalesco' s first appearance in America. In a box, watching him act, are Rosa and the Stelmaks, and Rosa, who was once a Yiddish actress herself, can hardly believe that the art of acting has attained such perfection on the Yiddish stage. In the neighboring box sits Henrietta, who does not play that night. During the intermission the two women get into a conversation, and Rosa soon learns that the great actor Rafalesco is none other than her long-lost Laybel. But she and the Stelmaks are forced to flee from the theatre a moment later when Nickels, bent on publicity, tactlessly announces her name and Grischa's among the celebrities present; for Gnscha, who sniffs at everything Jewish, fears that it will hurt their artistic careers if it gets to be known that they go to see Yiddish plays.

Rafalesco's grief upon learning of Rosa's precipitate flight from the theatre can easily be imagined. He becomes so wrought up that he botches the rest of the play, and what promised to be a great artistic triumph ends as a miserable failure. The anger of the producers and financial backers know no bounds.

But Rafalesco is indifferent to their anger and threats. He can think only of his Rosa, lost and found and lost again! But the next day a liveried footman brings him a letter from Rosa which breathes of love for him and summons him to a tryst in the Bronx Park. And there, in the house of the lions, the lovers are at last reunited.


1 -- From the play program of "Roaming Stars", Yiddish Art Theatre, 1930. Courtesy of YIVO.





Photograph courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.

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