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March 24, 1989 - Image 24

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1989-03-24

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

The

Reminiscent

ELIZABETH KAPLAN

Features Editor

A two-act play with only a touch of schmaltz: Four Detroiters recall the Yiddish theater and radio.

ACT ONE, SCENE ONE: In which
Gussie Wasserman, 15 years old and in
need of work, arrives at the offices of
Littman's Peoples Theater in Detroit.

The Curtain Opens

pretty girl with long blond
hair and dark eyes sits read-
ing the latest issue of The
Forward, the Yiddish paper
from New York. She looks
quickly across the pages, her eyes
pausing momentarily at an ad for a
new dress. At $1.50, it is much more
than she could afford.
Then she sees it. An advertise-
ment seeking chorus girls at Litt-
man's Peoples Theater on 12th and
Seward streets. She puts the paper
down and runs to the mirror. Well,
this dress will have to do and there is
no time to re-braid her hair. She
slams the door as she leaves.
Gussie arrives at Littman's an
hour later. She opens the theater door
and walks into the first office.
"Hello:' she says. It is the only
English word she knows.
Gussie stands lower than the top
of the man's desk. "Yes?" he says.
Then Gussie begins chattering
away in Yiddish. "I'm only here eight
months and I'm looking for a job."
"Well," the man says. "What can
you do?"
"I can sing and dance a little."
The man slowly rises from his
desk and walks with Gussie to the
theater stage. "This is Abraham
Grushkoff, our music director," he
says, pointing to the man at the piano.
Grushkoff smiles at the little girl.
"What do you know?"
Gussie thinks for a moment, then
announces "Oyfn Pripichik."
The piano player doesn't hesitate.
He begins playing the Yiddish lullaby
as Gussie sings along in a sweet voice.
She is hired on the spot.
A teacher came to train the eight
chorus girls. Gussie was nervous and
the teacher was cranky. "If you didn't
know the routine he screamed and
yelled and tore his hair out," she says.
But the other chorus girls were
kind. "They felt sorry for me;' she
says. "I was just a greenhorn?'
The girls wore short skirts and
dancing slippers when they perform-
ed on Friday, Saturday and Sunday
nights, with Saturday and Sunday
matinees.

A

24

FRIDAY, MARCH 24, 1989

It took a lot of talking, but the
theater owners finally persuaded
Gussie's mother to let her daughter
appear in a play. Her role was as a lit-
tle girl whose mother dies.
Gussie still remembers the pro-
duction. The stage was set like a
cemetery. Wearing torn clothes, her
long blond tresses flowing over her
shoulders, Gussie paused before a
tombstone.
"Oh stone! Stone!" she cried. "You
used to be my mother!"
"The whole theater was crying,"
she says. "I'm telling you."
Gussie loved the Yiddish theater,
but she loved Harry Wedgie more.
She met her future husband when
he came backstage at Littman's to
visit with two chorus girls. "I walked
up to him. I was wearing a real short
dress;' she says. "Right away, he
asked me if I wanted to go out."
The 17-year-old Gussie missed her
first date, but the two met up soon
after and became an inseparable pair.
The young chorus girl even got her
beau into the theater for free.

Within a year, Gussie and Harry
got married. Gussie left the stage to
take care of her new husband and
never returned. The couple stayed in
the Detroit area and never left. Today,
the Wedgles live in Oak Park.
Several years ago Gussie was in
the audience at a Jewish Communi-
ty_ Center program. As it ended, so-
meone turned around and recognized
her.
"Look!" she called. "It's Gussie
Wasserman! From Littman's
Theater!"
Other men and women turned to
see. They nodded their heads in
recognition.
"Sing, Gussie!" a voice cried out.
"Yes, sing, Gussie!" another
demanded.
Finally, Gussie relented and went
to the stage. Her voice was pure and
strong as she sang a Yiddish melody.
The audience was spellbound.
When she finished, Gussie re-
turned to her place. And then she was
silent. 0

ACT ONE, SCENE TWO: In which
Maurice Dombey brings to life the
words of Sholom Aleichem.

Gussie Wasserman in "Rosie from
Chinatown."

Big Event

The work was good, but the
money was tight after Gussie's step-
mother threw her and her sister out
of the house. The two girls took a
room on Benton Street. The landlord
was a poor woman with many
children and a gambler for a husband.
Gussie found -a second job with
Reliable Linen Supply to help pay the
rent. It still wasn't enough money.
- So she went to Abraham Littman.
His thick glasses perched on his nose,
Littman stood alone in the quiet hall
of the theater. Gussie came close to
him and held his arm. "Mr. Littman,"
she whispered. "I need a little raise?'
Littman and his wife, who was
rarely seen without her little dog in
her arms, had no children. Gussie was
like Littman's surrogate daughter.
"All right," he said. "But don't tell the
other girls."
Gussie had learned long ago how
to take care of herself. Born in Russia,
she was 5 years old when her mother
died. Only six months earlier, Gussie
appeared in a prophetic play on the
Yiddish stage.

aurice Dombey raises his
cup of tea. Its taste is
sharp from a little bit of
lemon and sweet from
several teaspoons of sugar.
He loves it at Cafe Royal on Se-
cond Avenue in New York City. So do
many of the top Yiddish actors of the
day, like Menashe Skulnik, Dombey's
friend.
When he finishes his tea, Dombey
picks up his scruffy suitcase and
heads for the train station. It is a long
way home to Detroit.
As the sound of the wheels click
against the track, Dombey prepares
for his upcoming performance. It is
taken from a short story by Sholom
Aleichem.
Dombey performed one-man
shows for small groups and at com-
munity gatherings in Detroit.
Sometimes he took his show to
Cleveland or Florida.
Although a 1950 poster an-
nounces a Dombey performance: "Big
Event!" he never made it to the big
stage. He didn't have the personality

31

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A poster announcing a performance by
Maurice Dombey.

for it, says Dombey's son, Southfield
resident Dave Dombey.
"My father was a frustrated ac-
tor," Dave Dombey says. "He never
made it really big because he wasn't

E
0

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