Throng Thrills to Thomashefsky’s Titillating Tales

By Masha Leon

Published May 06, 2005, issue of May 06, 2005.
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The April 14 premiere performance of “Thomashefskys’ Yiddish Theater: An Evening of Remembrances” at Carnegie Hall/Zankel Hall, hosted by conductor Michael Tilson Thomas (a Thomashefsky grandson) was a nostalgic rollercoaster ride for the YIVO at 80 benefit audience. With over-the-top performances by Judy Blazer (as Bessie Thomashefsky); Shuler Hensley (as her larger-than-life womanizing husband, Boris); plus Judy Kaye, Ronit Widmann-Levy, Eugene Brancoveanu and Debra Winger, the crowd relished the Thomashefskys’ tabloidesque escapades.

Long before undies landed at Tom Jones’s feet, women were ripping off their clothes, giving Thomashefsky their room keys and “entertaining” him on the theater balcony, from which he emoted while the rest of the cast was onstage! Boris and Bessie’s personal and theatrical partnership — which enriched, enlarged and embellished the American Yiddish theater — eventually unraveled. Infidelity and finances (Boris spent $8,000 on diamond garters!) led Bessie to leave him and strike out on her own. As vintage and late-in-life film clips flashed on the screen, Tilson Thomas recalled: “My grandmother was a vilde chaye (a wild one), a femme fatale with red hair and arms full of bracelets…. The last time I saw her, her advice was, ‘Don’t sign a release!’”

Among Tilson Thomas’s applauders at the postperformance party hosted by Mira Jedwabnik Van Doren and her husband, John, were YIVO Chairman Bruce Slovin, YIVO Executive Director Carl Rheins and Forward Executive Director Samuel Norich. Also present were Chana Mlotek, Zalmen Mlotek, Regina Resnik and Vera Stern.

* * *

There were no long speeches at The American Theatre Wing’s April 11 annual dinner honoring CBS and its chairman, Leslie Moonves. Just a glorious musical program hosted by Kathleen Turner and Richard Thomas that included stellar performances by Brian Stokes Mitchell, Leslie Uggams, Lucy Arnaz and James Earl Jones (who recalled studying with Lee Strasberg “Who knew it would lead to Darth Vader?” At the piano, a frail Jerry Herman belted out the title songs from his own mega creations, “Mame” and “Hello, Dolly!” ending with the sign-off from his “La Cage aux Folles,” “… the best of times… is now” and ended with a personal plea, “Promise me that you’ll never go away.…”

“Broadway is where I found my inspiration and passion for the theater,” award recipient Moonves said. He recalled the childhood Broadway thrill of seeing Mary Martin flying in “Peter Pan.” “I was convinced she was doing it without strings.” Moonves touted CBS’s association with the American Theatre Wing, which annually endows the Antoinette Perry “Tony” Awards and offers scholarships and grants to nonprofit theater companies and students. “[Sir] Howard Stringer, my predecessor [who was present], asked me to accept the award…. TV has its roots in live theater…. As long as I am head of CBS, the Tony Awards will remain with CBS.”

Later I asked Moonves, “Whence the name?” He replied, “It’s Jewish, from the Ukraine.” He then added, “My great-aunt who was married to Ben-Gurion poured tea for me.” Aha! With a little research, I discovered that Ben-Gurion met Paula Munweis, a nurse, in 1915 in New York. They fell in love, and he convinced her to go to Palestine. Several people who visited the Ben-Gurions in Israel recalled that Paula always served guests tea “with lemon.”

At Cipriani’s that evening were Tommy Tune, Marian Seldes, Jessica Lange and Hank Azaria. Last Sunday, I spotted Azaria on Ninth Avenue and told him, “I saw you in ‘Uprising’ (the 2001 TV production in which he portrayed Mordechai Anielewicz, one of the leaders of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto uprising). Anielewicz was a friend of my father’s, and Marek Edelman (a Bundist and another of the uprising’s leaders — the only one still alive and living in Warsaw) once baby-sat for me.” Azaria shook my hand. As he walked away, I called out, “You’re great as Sir Lancelot in ‘Spamalot.’”

* * *

“They needed laughs, so they hired two Jews,” Alan King joshed two years ago at the 2003 Boys Town of Italy’s New York International Ball, at which he shared the emcee spotlight with Billy Crystal. At this year’s April 8 Boys Town black-tie ball at the Waldorf-Astoria, emcee and Catskills alumnus Stewie Stone kept the tortellini-relishing crowd laughing and live-auction bidding to support the organization (after which Boys Town Jerusalem was modeled). It was founded in 1945 to care for at-risk homeless children from all over the world. Following Regis Philbin’s award presentations to restaurateur Tony May, CNBC “Wall Street Journal Report” host Maria Bartiromo and Foxwood Resort Casino vice president Tom Cantone, Stone, vice president of entertainment at the Friars Club, said to me, “Imagine! Freddy Roman, Robert Klein and I will be doing a lecture series at Harvard University on Jewish humor, Yiddish and why Jews are so prominent in comedy.” Mazel tov to Harvard.

* * *

When Conan O’Brien asked Ellen Barkin, a guest on his April 28 show, about her Seder, Barkin described her family’s Seders as foul-mouthed shouting matches. At one, her father heaved the brisket across the table at her mother; afterward the family retired to “smoke pot.” Pink-complexioned O’Brien blanched sheet white as Barkin then revealed (to him and his legions of viewers) that husband Ron Perelman wasn’t thrilled to discover that what he assumed was a private amorous technique was actually a move that she had performed on Laurence Fishburne in a film “15 years ago.” Too much Manischewitz in her haroses?

* * *

“One day, my son Connor, who is fatally allergic to peanuts and tree nuts, will live free from fear,” Robert Kennedy Jr. said at the April 12 Food Allergy Initiative luncheon at the Mandarin Oriental new York hotel. The emcee, WABC-TV anchor Lori Stokes, described how, at age 14, walnuts in a Waldorf salad ambushed her. Now she lives with life-threatening allergies to various tree nuts. Brooke Jacobsen, a guest, recalled how, at age 2, she watched her grandmother scrambling eggs. She did not even eat them, but had to be rushed to the hospital by ambulance. Now 17, she warns her dates, “You can’t eat these foods” — otherwise a kiss could be fatal.

Dr. Hugh Sampson, a professor of pediatrics and biomedical sciences at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, suggested that neither peanuts nor peanut products be introduced to children under the age of 3. Harriette Rose Katz, who, with daughter Melissa Rosenbloom, heads Harriette Rose Katz Events, designed the beautiful spring-theme luncheon. Katz offered her services gratis because her 3-year-old granddaughter, Lexi Rosenbloom, is allergic to dairy, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, red meats and seeds. Oy! And some people still think allergies mean sniffles and hives — not possible death. “I’m kvelling,” said Sharyn Mann, a co-founder of the Food Allergy Initiative. “Thanks to the more than 500 people here, we’ve raised $430,000 to help find a way to keep our children out of harm’s way.”

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