From the cover of "The Man Who Lit Lady Liberty" by Richard Schwartz
From the cover of "The Man Who Lit Lady Liberty" by Richard Schwartz

Turn-of-the-century actor who changed the way people saw Jews

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A Berkeley historian who spent two decades researching a nearly forgotten Hungarian actor who helped to promote a positive image of Jewish immigrants to America is having his moment.

Richard Schwartz’s “The Man Who Lit Lady Liberty: The Extraordinary Rise and Fall of M. B. Curtis,” published in 2017, is coming out in paperback in August, and a three-month exhibition largely based on the book opens May 18 at the San Francisco Public Library. Before the author’s library appearances, he will speak at the Richmond Museum of History on Sunday, May 5, as part of the “Pioneers to the Present: Jews of Richmond and Contra Costa” exhibit.

Richard Schwartz
Richard Schwartz

Schwartz stumbled onto his subject out of sheer curiosity. A visit to the Berkeley Historical Society on the day they were throwing out old local newspapers, which he ended up rescuing, turned into a rich source of material for his inquiring mind.

“It changed my life,” he told J. “It got me started on American history, and I’ve never stopped.”

Schwartz first wrote “Berkeley 1900: Daily Life at the Turn of the Century,” followed by “Earthquake Exodus 1906,” about the role East Bay residents played in rescuing San Francisco survivors. In the course of his research he found a few mentions of Curtis, a colorful character whose amazing and influential life seemed to have fallen into obscurity.

Some 20 years and 1,200 written pages later, Schwartz published his story of the actor, theatrical producer, champion of immigrants, silent film pioneer, builder and philanthropist, who earned the distinction of being the only American citizen to pay out of his own pocket to keep the lights on at the Statue of Liberty when, in 1886, Congress refused to do so. He also ended his life in poverty and scandal.

“His life reads like a Greek tragedy, filled with adventure, challenges, huge joy and deep grief,” said Schwartz, whose finished book came in around 300 pages.

“Liberty” won the 2018 bronze medal for biography from the Independent Publisher Book Awards. The paperback includes an expanded prologue on the Statue of Liberty story, which will also be the focus of Schwartz’s talk at the Richmond museum.

A poster advertising M. B. Curtis' character Sam'l of Posen
A poster advertising M. B. Curtis’ character Sam’l of Posen

M. B. Curtis, born Moritz Bertrand Strelinger in 1849, immigrated to the U.S. from Hungary with his family when he was 6. They came through an immigration center in Battery Park called Castle Clinton, predecessor to Ellis Island. The family made their way west to Detroit, and Curtis eventually settled in San Francisco. Maurice and his brothers all changed their last name to Curtis, in the interests of Maurice’s burgeoning acting career in the 1870s. He was deemed a talented performer and played the range of theatrical productions, from Shakespeare to plays of the times.

In 1880, as immigrants were streaming into America, Curtis starred in “Sam’l of Posen,” a comedy about a loveable Jewish immigrant and traveling salesman. Curtis had purchased the script written by a San Francisco journalist and developed the character of “Sam’l,” adding humanity to a type that he knew quite well.

“The public went wild about it,” Schwartz said. “His character had friends, a love interest, was trustworthy and was not obsessed with money. It was the first time a Jew was portrayed as a human being, not a stereotype. Well, maybe he didn’t get rid of all of them, but this was the first time an audience laughed with Jews instead of at them.”

The role catapulted Curtis to fame and fortune. He performed it nationally for two decades, opening up discussions about immigrants, traveling salesmen and Jews throughout the country wherever he toured.

Curtis was also the first Jewish man to portray a Jewish male character onstage in America, opening the door for the others who followed him.

“He was the Jewish Jackie Robinson of the theater world,” Schwartz said. “The Trojan horse of comedy allowed him to break this unspoken rule.”

With the book’s upcoming paperback release, Schwartz sent a proposal for an exhibition at the San Francisco Public Library.

“I pounced on it,” said Moazzam Sheikh, a librarian in the Art, Music and Recreation department at the Main Branch. “I could immediately see the exhibition’s relevance to the volatility and hopelessness of the times humanity is passing through. Mr. Curtis’ story allows us to imagine the kind of creative richness immigrants have brought to the American soil, time and again.”

The resulting collaboration will feature texts, historical documents, archival photographs and other memorabilia, both from Schwartz’s collection and donated by others.

“The themes of Curtis’ life are currently our national focus as well,” Schwartz said. “Immigration and anti-immigration, the Statue of Liberty, and the hope that an individual can still make a huge difference in a seemingly intractable situation.”

“Richmond’s Illuminating Connection to the Statue of Liberty,” a presentation by historian and author Richard Schwartz from 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday, May 5 at Richmond Museum of History, 400 Nevin Ave. Free.

“The Man Who Lit Lady Liberty: The Extraordinary Rise and Fall of Actor M. B. Curtis,” exhibit on view May 18–Aug. 22 at San Francisco Public Library Main Branch, 100 Larkin St. Richard Schwartz will read from his book on June 2 at the library and lead a tour of the exhibit.

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull is J.'s former culture editor.