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Bertha Kalich

Biography: 

(1874-1939)

The greatest tragedienne of the American Yiddish theatre began her career as an opera singer in the Polish theater. Trained in voice and dramatic arts at the Lemberg Conservatory, the talented Beylke Kalakh was supported by poor, self-sacrificing parents. At seventeen she secured a place in the Lviv Polish Theatre Opera, where her work impressed actor Max Gimpel, then organizing the Yiddish theater troupe, Yakev Ber Gimpel. He hired her as a supporting actress, but when his lead decamped for the United States, Kalich was elevated to prima donna. Her success in Gimpel's production of the operetta "Shulamis" prompted its composer Avram Goldfadden to hire her for his company based in Romania. Triumph followed triumph.

In 1894 having ascended to the pinnacle of Yiddish Theater in middle Europe, Kalich emigrated to New York City. There Joseph Edelstein secured her services in his newly formed Thalia Theatre Company, the group that would shape the golden age of American Yiddish drama. Kalich in America transmuted from opera diva to dramatic lead. Performing with the broadly emotive style typified by Sarah Bernhardt, Kalich became the incarnation of feminine passion. In Yiddish translations of Shakespeare, in Jacob Gordin's morality plays, and in explorations of Jewish life such as "The East Side Ghetto" she vivified the stage earning a reputation as the greatest actress of the Yiddish Stage. Her break out role in English was Etty in "The Kreutzer Sonata."

During the first decade of the 20th century working for Harrison Gray Fiske and Minnie Maddern Fiske, she refined her grasp of idiomatic English, but never ventured playing an American woman. She invariably represented cosmopolitan and troubled European women or folkloric embodiments of feminine power. This limited her exposure on an American stage increasingly devoted to popular entertainment. Yet a friendship with producer Lee Shubert enabled her to stage several pieces during the 1910s and 1920s. The greatest of her latter successes "The Riddle: Woman" (1918), however, was not under his auspices.

After the First World War her emphatic emotionalism seemed a relic of another theatrical era. Yet her reputation among those who saw her perform with the Thalia Company was so great, that she was invariably accorded respect and deference receiving frequent invitations to guest on stage and appear in benefits. In the 1930s progressive blindness hindered her stage activities. David S. Shields/ALS