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Yiddish Theater Can Still Draw a Crowd : Club's Hanukkah performance demonstrates that the spirit of ethnic entertainment lives, even if it is now bilingual.

December 01, 1991|DAVID SILVER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Edythe Arno remembers the day in 1948 when the Musical Dramatic Club got its start.

She and her husband, Harry, and about two dozen other Yiddish actors and singers got together to make music, dance and sing at the old Park Manor at Western Avenue and 6th Street. Some were from the Old Country, others from Chicago, New York and the borscht circuit.

It was the start of something big. Over two decades, the club grew to hundreds of members, all professional entertainers. In the '50s and '60s, they staged monthly shows and an annual event called the Hasidim Ball, which drew as many as 1,500 people.

"It was exciting," Arno, 75, recalled. "Here we were, primarily actors and singers from the Yiddish stage, putting together monthly performances to enhance and sharpen our acting and singing skills."

Nearly all the charter members are gone now, but last week, Edythe Arno joined the fun as the club celebrated its 43rd year with a Hanukkah performance for more than 250 people at Hollywood Temple Beth El, at Crescent Heights Boulevard and Fountain Avenue in West Hollywood.

The club has changed, Arno noted. By the mid-'70s, membership dwindled to 40, and the remaining members concluded that they would have to admit nonprofessionals if they wanted to survive. The all-Yiddish performances are a thing of the past. The emcee speaks English, and many of the songs are in English as well.

But the club's Hanukkah performance showed that some things have not changed much at all. The emphasis was on tradition as club members and guest soloists performed holiday music and songs. The eight-day Hanukkah festival, commemorating the victory of the Jewish Maccabees over their Assyrian-Greek rulers that culminated in the restoration of the Temple of Jerusalem, begins tonight at sundown.

Club President Ivan Yaro, a member of the Musical Dramatic Club since 1976 and its president since 1984, served as master of ceremonies and led the audience in singing "God Bless America" and "Hatikvah," Israel's national anthem. He also entertained the guests, nearly all of them senior citizens, by playing Hanukkah tunes on his violin.

"It was a night to remember," Yaro, 79, said afterward.

Since the club opened to amateur entertainers and others, membership has surged to 160. The average age is 70.

"Young people call up wanting to join, but when they find out that the average age is 70 and that we have members in their 90s, they hang up the phone," said Yaro's wife, Sylvia, the club's financial secretary.

The dues for the club are only $6 a year, with monthly events costing only $4 for members and $5 for non-members. The money rents the hall at Temple Beth El each month and pays any guest performers. Whatever is left over is given to charities.

"We're all volunteers here and we don't take any money," Ivan Yaro said. "We do it because we love it and because there is a need for it."

"I love coming here and listening to the guest singers and performers," said Mort Varis, 77, a member of the club for 10 years. He also loves performing: At the Hanukkah celebration, he belted out songs in Yiddish and told jokes.

The variety of the shows is what draws many people to the club, Yaro said. The Hanukkah gathering featured a young woman, Tanya Solnok, singing songs in Yiddish, Hebrew, Ladino (a Spanish-Hebrew dialect spoken by Sephardic Jews) and English. At the end of the month, the club will present a group of Russian violinists.

"We always want to make it creative and entertaining," Yaro said.

The club also draws old-time entertainers such as Jackie Hilliard, who performed in the 1943 Ziegfeld Follies with Milton Berle and later performed in Las Vegas at the El Rancho Vegas.

"I love the energy that comes from the people and the performers," said Hilliard, 69.

Much of the recent surge in club membership has come from Russian Jewish immigrants who have joined looking to learn about their Jewish roots and music.

"That is why I sometimes sing a song in Russian that I know," Yaro said. He recently won a Western Senior Centers talent contest in which he sang a Russian Gypsy song.

Cantor Hale Porter has performed for the Musical Dramatic Club on numerous occasions and finds members a great audience.

"They are very appreciative and receptive to the music, and that makes it so enjoyable to sing in front of them," said Porter, who is cantor at the Creative Arts Temple in Culver City.

Edythe Arno, who recalled singing duets in Yiddish with her husband at the club's first gathering in 1948, said she is pleased with the club's recent resurgence. Now, she said, she is looking forward to celebrating the club's 50th anniversary in 1998.

"It will be a big event, and I hope to sing a Yiddish song to commemorate our beginning and our future," she said.

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