SFSU prof reviving long-gone puppet theater

Molly Picon and Boris Thomashevsky weren’t the only stars of New York’s bygone Yiddish theater. For a time, Simcha and his wife, Sheyne Pesi, were the toast of the Lower East Side.

Both just happened to be wooden puppets.

In the 1930s, the Modicut Puppet Theater was a source of delight for New York’s Yiddish-speaking audiences. Led by Yosl Cutler and Zuni Maud, Modicut excelled at bitingly comic and politically astute plays performed by custom-made marionettes and hand puppets.

Their work has all but vanished into the mists of time, but San Francisco State theater professor Joel Schecter is pulling every string to prevent that.

On Dec. 11, Schecter will team up with Bay Area Yiddish music maven Gerry Tenney to present “Messiahs of 1933,” a multimedia presentation that brings back to life the puppetry of Cutler and Maud. The event is co-sponsored by the Workman’s Circle and takes place at the Bureau of Jewish Education’s Jewish Community Library.

“They were very successful,” says Schecter. “They were the first Yiddish puppet theater for adults, with their own theater on Second Avenue. They also toured around the country and Europe, everywhere from the Catskills to Poland.”

At the upcoming event, Schecter will speak, Tenney will play Yiddish songs of the era (including songs co-written by Cutler), and then the audience will see the only extant footage of a Cutler-Maud play titled “Simcha and His Wife.”

It’s a musical comedy, circa 1933, about a Jewish couple facing eviction for not paying the rent. “He’s an unemployed garment worker,” says Schecter of the character Simcha, “dealing with the Depression in a very amusing way.”

There is another film fragment of Cutler himself, a demo he made before he headed off to make it big in Hollywood. But he never made it. He died in a car wreck while driving across the country.

“He had planned to go to Hollywood to make a film based on his adaptation of ‘The Dybbuk’ with puppets,” says Schecter. “I have a copy of his 1935 script in Yiddish, which has never been translated. It was a parody and a way of commenting on current events. In his version, a Rabbi Roosevelt is called on to get the dybbuk.”

That rare script is just one of several treasures Schecter unearthed during his research. “I also found old Yiddish magazines, Der Hammer and Der Signal, which published part of ‘The Dybbuk’ after [Cutler’s] death,” he says.

While the art of puppetry has a long and distinguished history in the United States and around the world, Schecter is convinced Cutler and Maud were the first, if not the only, serious puppeteers working in Yiddish theater.

“I know of one other scholar, from the Union Theological Seminary in New York, who has written about these puppeteers. But relatively little has been written about this kind of Yiddish theater.”

A graduate of the Yale University drama program, Schecter has brought his longtime fascination with Yiddish theater to his work at SFSU. In addition to the usual fare of William Shakespeare, Eugene O’Neill and Henry Miller, Schecter has previously staged Yiddish theater plays at the university, all starring his decidedly multicultural drama students.

Now, knock on wood, he will restore the luster of a little-known chapter in the history of Yiddish theater.

“It’s fascinating to see how much of our cultural theater history has been neglected,” says Schecter. “America is due for more puppets.”

“Messiahs of 1933 or How American Yiddish Theater Survived Adversity Through Satire” takes place 3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 11 at the Jewish Community Library at Jewish Community High School of the Bay, 1835 Ellis St., S.F. Admission is free. Information: (415) 567-3327 or via email at [email protected].

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.