New York Meets ‘Chicago’ at Red Ball Bash

By Masha Leon

Published March 04, 2005, issue of March 04, 2005.
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The arrival of Catherine Zeta-Jones with husband Michael Douglas at the February 7 Red Ball at The Pierre dazzled the 500 guests, celebrities and paparazzi, who went into flash overdrive. Alluding to event honorees Carey Lowell and her husband, Richard Gere, emcee Christine Baranski gushed, “This feels like a ‘Chicago’ reunion” — a reference to the Martin Richards-produced film “Chicago,” starring Zeta-Jones and Gere.

In 1995, Martin Richards created the Red Ball in memory of his wife, Mary Lea Johnson, and established the Mary Lea Johnson Richards Research Institute for Transplantation of the Liver and Pancreas at New York University Medical Center. Dr. Hillel Tobias, the institute’s medical director, touted the institution’s 1,000th successful liver transplant and mentioned Lenore Shebovsky, one of three successful transplant patient-guests at the ball.

Shebovsky introduced me to Margaret Rosenthal. “She’s my angel… my friend for 30 years. Fourteen years ago I was diagnosed with primary biliary cirrhosis of the liver, an autoimmune disease. After two years on the New York and Miami list, with time running out, “Margaret volunteered, ‘I’ll give you part of my liver’… and here I am!” Shebovsky said. Later, in a light mode, I said to table mate Tom Puccio (who represents Marty Richards), “Usually Italians have Jewish lawyers, not the other way around.” Without missing a beat, he said: “Sidney Zion introduced me to Marty.” We chatted about Jerry Orbach, and Puccio recalled wistfully, “Jerry played me in ‘Prince of the City.’”

When I approached diamond-and ruby necklace-adorned Zeta-Jones, a security guard blocked my way. Quickly I said I knew her Welsh landsmen Yiddish-speaking professor, Tom Bird, and Sony head Howard Stringer. “Her gorgeousness” waved off the guard. I told her how I’d heard Stringer compare the Jews to the Welsh, and his describing an historic statue at Cambridge University whose inscription reads: “‘No one shall be elected Master, Fellow or Scholar here who is deformed, dumb, blind, lame, maimed, mutilated or Welsh.’” Zeta-Jones took my hands in hers. Though she is teaching her children Welsh, I thought maybe their grandfather, Kirk Douglas, could teach his einiklach a few elegant Yiddishisms. Then, according to Queens College’s Professor Bird’s construction, they will grow up to be “Welshmenschen.”

On the evening’s entertainment menu were Gary Beach and Les Cagelles in a high-kicking production number from “La Cage aux Folles,” a musical produced by Richards. Wow!

* * *

“Lost Embrace,” Daniel Burman’s award-winning Argentinian film, is set in contemporary Buenos Aires in a mall pulsing with intrigue and sexual liaisons and peopled by Fellini-esque characters. College dropout Ariel (Daniel Hendler) is in a funk. His mother, Sonia (Adriana Aizenberg), who runs a lingerie shop in the mall and feeds everyone lekakh (honey cake), is secretive about Ariel’s father, Elias (Jorge d’Elia), who abandoned the family to go to Israel to fight in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. His grandmother, played by Rosita Londner, a Holocaust survivor who once longed to be a cabaret singer, owns a Polish passport that Ariel covets so he can become Polish. He is at loose ends and seething with anger at a father he never knew.

Following a series of poignant and humorous revelations, the film’s upbeat resolution is a testament to the human spirit. Be sure to stay past the final credits for an unexpected treat: Londner singing “Shabes,” a Yiddish song, in what appears to be a cabaret setting. Priceless.

Was the film autobiographical? I asked Burman during our interview. “Yes… in the community sense not as much with me,” said Burman, whose own family came to Argentina from Warsaw in the 1920s “helped by Baron Hirsch.” What about the grandmother? “Rosita represents a larger number of immigrants to Argentina from Europe whose stories are similar.… What I wanted to portray most is how day-to-day life continues regardless of [outside] economic or political conditions.” As for the present mall profile, Burman said: “The mall’s once mostly Jewish owners are now being replaced by Koreans and Chinese.”

* * *

The February 27 opening-night gala performance of the revival of “On Second Avenue” by the Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre and by Montreal’s Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre, presented at the JCC of Manhattan’s theater and starring Mike Burstyn, was, as they say in Yiddish, a groyser derfolg — a huge success. Among the evening’s applauders were Arie Mekel, Israel’s consul general in New York (who told Mike’s mother, Lillian Lux, “I saw you when I was 8 years old in 1954 in Kiryat Yam”); Moshe Yassur, director in residence of the Rumanian State Jewish Theater (who hails from Jassy, the birthplace of Abraham Goldfaden, father of the Yiddish theater, whose works were part of the evening’s English-Yiddish revue); as well as Samuel Norich, Roman Kent, Marilyn Michaels, Ruth Westheimer, Eleanor Reissa, Corey Breier, Mina Bern, Malcolm Thomson, Jeff Wiesenfeld, Nahma Sandrow, Fanya Heller, Erica Jesselson, Chana Mlotek, Michael Miller and Rabbi William Berkowitz.

This nostalgic memory- and laughter-eliciting English-Yiddish revue (created by Moishe Rosenfeld and Zalmen Mlotek and directed by Bryna Wasserman) showcases a bravura turn by the multitalented Burstyn, who, to the delight of the audience (and no doubt tearful reaction of his mother), performed “Der Galitzyaner Cavalero,” one of the hits of his father, Pesakh’ke Burstein. Bottom line: Get thee to the box office. There aren’t many shows around like this, in which artists like Robert Abelson, Joanne Borts, and a trio of young and sexy meydlekh, sing up a storm in perfékt Yiddish. Go!

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