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Rooted in Yiddish theater

Michael Tilson Thomas' grandfather was larger than life. Tilson Thomas never knew him, but 'The Thomashefskys' helped.

December 14, 2008|MARK SWED | MUSIC CRITIC

SAN FRANCISCO — On a sunny Saturday morning in September, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas is padding around his house in stocking feet, dressed in blue jeans and a vibrant blue sweater, his complexion ruddy. He and his poodle have just returned in high spirits from the local farmers market. In his garage, a high school friend is poring over a collection of rocks. In the living room, Tilson Thomas points out an early 20th century poster of Bessie Thomashefsky that faces a costume worn by James Brown -- the mother of New York Yiddish theater more or less meeting the godfather of soul. An arts consultant is just leaving; he and Tilson Thomas have been discussing a Gilbert and Sullivan show for next year's annual June festival of the San Francisco Symphony, Tilson Thomas' orchestra since 1995.

These things (with the possible exception of the poodle and the produce) are related.

Let's begin with the rocks. The collection, gathered by Tilson Thomas on hiking trips with his father, Ted Thomas, is a relic from his childhood in North Hollywood.

Bessie, the model for the zany, wisecracking Jewish comedian Fanny Brice, was Ted's mother, and she spent her weekends when her grandson was growing up entertaining him with numbers and reminiscences from the old days.

It was she who pointed him toward a career in show business -- a career that now links him to James Brown (about whom he recently did a radio program), along with Gilbert and Sullivan and innumerable other forebears.

Indeed, Bessie's husband, Boris Thomashefsky, was the first star of Yiddish theater in America. A flamboyant celebrity to New York Jews, Boris pranced around Manhattan with Diamond Jim Brady, carried a jewel-encrusted riding crop and rode in his Stanley Steamer through the crowded Lower East Side, tossing his top hat to his adoring fans. Thirty thousand of those fans lined those streets for his funeral in 1939, five years before Tilson Thomas was born.

Hence, "The Thomashefskys," an evening-length entertainment that Tilson Thomas will present with the Los Angeles Philharmonic this week. The show -- re-creating a lost era through song, narration, film and theater -- was first produced at Carnegie Hall in 2005 and has been mounted with the San Francisco Symphony, the Chicago Symphony and the New World Symphony, Tilson Thomas' training orchestra in Miami. Each locale had a different audience. New York was the out-of-town tryout. In Florida, some old-timers still think of Tilson Thomas as Thomashefsky's grandson, and the kibitzers weren't shy about shouting out what songs they thought should be included. In San Francisco, he's simply MTT, the city's stellar music director.

But in Los Angeles, Tilson Thomas is bringing it all back home. His heritage, he says, shaped who he is and how he responds to music. Close to Bessie and his father, he has needed a while to come to terms with the looming aura of a larger-than-life grandfather he never knew.

Opening doors

Ted Thomas, who changed his name from Theodore Thomashefsky to be his own man, rebelled against the grand life of his parents and refused to ever wear a suit and tie. Tilson Thomas says that his eccentric father, who made a living writing screenplays for westerns but also painted and played the piano, dressed only in a bright T-shirt, a plaid Pendleton shirt, jeans and Buster Brown Boy Scout shoes.

Boris and Bessie, immigrants from the Ukraine who met in New York, broke up in 1913, and "the sad story," Tilson Thomas relates, "is that they sort of cast my father adrift, and from the time he was 13 or 14 he had to pretty much cope with the world on his own."

"Bessie wanted to develop as an artist in her own right and finally get beyond the shadow of Boris and stake out a life for herself. And Boris was a compulsive sensualist and pursuing his own new projects and involved with his stardom."

Still, neither Bessie nor Ted ever did get fully beyond that shadow. Ted wrote several drafts of a play, "Kaddish for a Giant," about his famous father. When Tilson Thomas' parents died in the '90s (his mother had taught high school in the San Fernando Valley), rescuing this project became Tilson Thomas' mission. He started what he called the Thomashefsky Project to catalog and maintain his grandparents' archive, which now occupies part of his San Francisco home.

"The first time I appreciated how extraordinary my grandfather was," he recalls, "was when I was 12. I was back East and wanted to go to a matinee of 'My Fair Lady,' which had just opened. I was with a cousin of mine, who was a company manager for another show. There was a huge line of people around the block desperate to get a returned ticket.

"My cousin took me to the stage door and said, 'Izzy, see this kid? Thomashefsky's grandson.' Two seconds later, we were in the third row, center of the theater. That impressed me!"

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