East Bay man puts the spotlight on Jewish stars of the silver screen

“Casablanca” was a Jewish film? Well, not really, but did you know that pretty much the only non-Jews involved in the project were the “name” actors, such as Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman and Paul Henreid as Victor Laszlo?

“Michael Curtiz, the director, and [many of] the other actors — including those playing Nazis and French sympathizers — were Jews who had worked at a famous film studio in Germany,” Irwin Tallarico of Moraga said in a recent interview.

Tallarico, 78, lectures all around the Bay Area about movies and musical theater, highlighting the Jewish connections in the respective genres. One of his most recent talks was titled “The Jewish Connection in Making the Film ‘Casablanca,’ ” and it was held at the Contra Costa JCC in Walnut Creek.

Tallarico told the audience that not only the director of “Casablanca” was Jewish, but so were the three screenwriters (Julius Epstein, Philip Epstein and Howard Koch) and some of the stars: Claude Rains (as Captain Louis Renault), Conrad Veidt (as Major Heinrich Strasser) and Peter Lorre (as Ugarte). And Henreid, though not believed to be Jewish, helped Jews in the entertainment industry escape from Nazi Germany.

Tallarico said that many of the actors and most of the crew working on “Casablanca” came from the principal film studio in Germany during the Weimar Republic and through World War II. Known as UFA, the studio was headed by Erich Pommer, a German Jew, but the studio rescinded his contract during the early months of the Nazi regime in 1933 and he was forced to work abroad.

“UFA invented film noir,” Tallarico said. “They made ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’ and ‘M’ with Peter Lorre … The studio was run by Jews, with Jewish actors and actresses. With the coming of Hitler, most of them came to the U.S., and many of them worked on ‘Casablanca.’ ”

Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, though not Jewish, starred in the apparently very Jewish “Casablanca.”

A retired educator and aficionado of the arts, Tallarico lectures at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute’s Cal State East Bay Concord campus, the Reutlinger Community for Jewish Living in Danville, the Peninsula JCC in Foster City and the Contra Costa JCC in Walnut Creek.

“He’s a very popular speaker,” said Shoshana Eliahu, director of the adult programs department at the Contra Costa JCC. “He has been coming here for several years, and he always draws a good audience, an interested audience, a happy audience.”

In his talks, Tallarico shows film clips and shares his vast knowledge.

“From the 1930s, when George and Ira Gershwin and Irving Berlin were writing Broadway musicals all the way up to ‘Cabaret’ [composed by John Kander and Fred Ebb] in 1966, 95 percent of the composers, lyricists, book writers and directors working on musicals were Jewish,” Tallarico said.

His top three Broadway musicals of all time? “South Pacific” (1949, music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein and libretto by Hammerstein and Joshua Logan); “West Side Story” (1957, book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, choreography by Jerome Robbins); and “Cabaret” (1966, book by Joe Masteroff, music by Kander and Ebb). Each of the individuals mentioned is Jewish.

Irwin Tallarico

Tallarico noted that up until Jerome Kern and Hammerstein’s “Showboat” in 1926, everything on stage was vaudeville and revues. “Kern invented the idea of putting in a story line,” Tallarico said. “He was Jewish, and so was Hammerstein.”

Tallarico also lectures about classical Westerns, always noting that Fred Zinnemann, who directed “High Noon,” was Jewish. And he loves to talk about films starring Fred Astaire (also Jewish).

And here is what he says about movie score composers: “Up through 2000, 100 percent of famous movie composers were Jewish.” Specifically, he mentioned scores for “Gone With the Wind,” “Dr. Zhivago” and “Exodus.”

Tallarico was born and raised in Oakland, where as a young man he taught music classes at Temple Beth Abraham. He earned his undergraduate degree at U.C. Berkeley and his doctorate at the University of San Francisco. He and his wife, Sharon, have three children and four grandchildren.

“In college, I was a music major. I was going to train as a concert pianist, but after 25 years of practicing, I decided I wanted to be a teacher of music instead,” Tallarico said. He retired in 1995 as the administrator for curriculum and instruction at the central office of the Stockton Unified School District.

“After I retired, I started looking into the history of Broadway musicals,” Tallarico said. “Then some senior centers asked me to teach what I had learned. The reaction is always the same — people love learning about this. They tell me what they saw years ago on Broadway or at the Metropolitan Opera. I’m just keeping all this alive.”

In July, Tallarico will conduct a four-week class at the Contra Costa JCC titled “A Retrospective of the 20th Century” that will cover the arts, science, industry, social issues, wars and influential people. The cost for the series is $50 for JCC members, $65 for the public. Individual sessions cost $15 for JCC members and $18 for the public. For more information, call (925) 938-7800.

Irwin Tallarico’s all-time

Top 10 Jewish movie directors:

1. Billy Wilder

2. Fred Zinnemann

3. Steven Spielberg

4. Joseph L. Mankiewicz

5. Roman Polanksi

6. Stanley Kubrick

7. Woody Allen

8. William Wyler

9. Jerome Robbins

10. George Cukor

Patricia Corrigan

Patricia Corrigan is a longtime newspaper reporter, book author and freelance writer based in San Francisco.