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Maurice Schwartz, born Avram Moishe Schwartz was a stage and film actor active in the United States. He founded the Yiddish Art Theatre and its associated school in 1918 in New York City and was its theatrical producer and director. He also worked in Hollywood, mostly as an actor in silent films but also as a film director, producer, and screenwriter.
Schwartz was born Avram Moishe Schwartz in Sudlekov, in Austrian Galicia, to Isaac, a grain dealer, and his wife Rose Schwartz, a Jewish family. Moishe was the oldest of three boys among the six siblings, and had three older sisters. Like many similar families, the Schwartzes immigrated to the United States in stages. In 1898 Isaac Schwartz emigrated with his three teen-aged daughters, so they could all work to get started in New York and earn money for passage for Rose and their three young sons. The following year he sent tickets for his wife and the boys. They got as far as Liverpool, where they were to sail for the US, but got separated and Rose was forced to leave without Moishe. Without any English, he made his way to London, where he lived for two years, surviving with the help of strangers. His father located him in 1901, and they traveled together to New York when Moishe was twelve.
Upon rejoining his family in New York City's Lower East Side, Schwartz took the first name of Morris. His father enrolled him in the Baron de Hirsch school, founded to teach Jewish immigrants. After school he worked in his father's small factory recycling rags for the clothing industry. When an uncle introduced him to Yiddish theatre, he was captivated. At that time groups of boys and young men were partisans of different theatres and actors. Schwartz, who admired the actors David Kessler and Jacob Adler, began reading widely, especially classic plays by such authors as William Shakespeare and Henrik Ibsen.
Because his Orthodox father opposed his desire to act, Schwartz left home and took a variety of jobs to support himself before finally finding work as an actor. He joined various traveling theater troupes, including one that toured the Midwest. On his return to New York City 1907 he found his heroes, Kessler and Adler, continuing to rise in their profession. Soon Schwartz obtained a contract with Michael Thomashevsky's Green Street Theatre in Philadelphia.
Schwartz became an amateur actor in 1905, appearing in Brooklyn as a sixty-year-old father in Zolatorevsky’s "The Twentieth Century", was discovered by Leo Largman and subsequently brought to a Baltimore company for two years. From there he honed his acting skills in companies in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Chicago, and Philadelphia. Even as a young man he was interested in improving the Yiddish theater, experimenting with makeup, giving lectures on naturalness in acting, and purchasing with his own money a spotlight, which was hailed as a great innovation. In Philadelphia Schwartz displayed his unique personality. He read constantly, accepted any role, understudied and played various characters, and entertained as a monologist at fraternal organizations and unions. Legend has it that his big break came when a leading man on Second Avenue fell ill and Schwartz was called in to take the part. He arrived in New York in a few hours, studied the part all afternoon, and performed the same night.
In 1910 he joined the company of actor-manager David Kessler. In order to perform he had to audition at the Hebrew Actors' Union. After failing twice, he visited Abe Cahan, editor of the Jewish Daily Forward and after a demonstration of his acting ability, Cahan persuaded the union to accept Schwartz’s third audition. This was in 1913: Schwartz had been acting in New York for two years.
He continued w ith Kessler’s company taking the starring roles when Kessler was away and in 1918, after a quarrel that split the Kessler company, Schwartz took over the Irving Place Theater with Max Wilner as business partner and manager and Schwartz as director. He published a manifesto on his new theater, promising ensemble acting, rehearsals, and emphasizing its devotion to "art". He hired the best Yiddish actors — Jacob Ben- Ami, Celia Adler, Berta Gersten. Ludwig Satz. and Lazar Freed — and opened with Z. Libin’s Man and His Shadows.
It was Jacob Ben-Ami who forced the theater to art. Ben-Ami’s contract stipulated the performance of one literary play per week. Peretz Hirschbein’s A Secluded Nook was given the traditional slow Wednesday, and, despite Schwartz’s initial lack of support, the play became a success. The company went on to present a rich repertory that season, including plays by Shaw, Schiller, Wilde, and Tolstoy. Still the actors were discontented, claiming that Schwartz remained the star and such an ambitious schedule prevented fully preparing each production. At the end of the year Ben-Ami and other actors left to form the Jewish Art Theater. It failed after tw'o years.
Schwartz went on to build the one enduring Yiddish repertory company. From 1918to 1950 he staged over 150 productions displaying the full range of Yiddish theater. He was star, stage director, play doctor, and manager. He experimented with lighting, revolving stages, and masks and makeup, and employed such fine stage designers as Boris Aronson. He toured the United States and Canada, acted in Yiddish and Hollywood films, and. unsuccessfully, took his company to Broadway.
He left a lasting mark, introducing the art concept in Yiddish theater and providing a laboratory that developed individuals w ho enriched the general American theater. The styles of production, acting, and tradition in his Yiddish Art Theater provided the inspiration and pattern for future groups in the American theater. He insisted on a high standard of Yiddish language, encouraged new talent and the repertory tradition, and created an awareness and respect for Yiddish theater among Jews and non-Jews. Schwartz closed the Yiddish Art Theater in 1950 and toured in South America and Europe. He staged a revival of his famed Yoshe Aalb in 1959. In 1960 he moved to Israe, hoping to set up a Yiddish theater, but died later that year.
Schwartz was a man of contradictions. He was an egocentric actor, both a ham and a magnificent player. He was domineering and boisterous, or childlike and helpless. He was shrewd, stubborn, ambitious, passionate, and charming.
Schwartz was briefly married to Eva Rafalo, a contralto singer born in Cincinnati, Ohio, whom he met while touring with an acting company. They were divorced by 1911, after which he returned full-time to New York. Eva and her older sister Clara Rafalo were both actresses in the Yiddish theatre. After the divorce, Eva married Henry (Zvi Hersch) Fishman, another actor on the Yiddish stage.
In 1914 Schwartz married Anna Bordofsky, a 24-year-old woman from Brest-Litovsk, Belarus, who had been in the United States about a decade. She was initially involved with Kessler's Yiddish theater as well. She became his business partner, helping run the theatre. They remained married until Schwartz's death.
In 1947 the couple adopted two Polish Jewish war orphans, Moses and Fannie Englander, aged 9- and 8-years old, respectively. After losing their parents Abraham Joseph and Chana Englander in 1942, the children had been placed by the underground with Belgian Christian families. Fannie was renamed Marcelle and grew up with Maurice and Denise Vander Voordt as the only parents she really knew. The Vander Voordts protected her as their own during the German occupation. She spoke only French.
After the war, Jewish groups had worked to reunite families and place Jewish orphans with Jewish families. Schwartz met the boy Moses at the Wezembeek Orphanage in Belgium in 1946 while on a theatrical tour for displaced persons. He arranged to adopt Moses and his sister through the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), which had located Fannie and brought the siblings together. The Schwartzes met Fannie for the first time when she arrived with her brother at La Guardia Airport. They renamed the children Marvin and Risa. In New York, they taught them Yiddish and English, and about Judaism.