Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Born Today May 17: Bertha Kalich


Silent film and Yiddish stage actress Bertha Kalich (sometimes spelled "Kalish") was born Baylke Kalakh in Lemberg, Galicia--then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (now Lviv, Ukraine) the daughter of a brush maker and amateur violinist father and a seamstress mother.  Her mother had a love of the theater and this rubbed off on young Bertha.  As her interest in the stage grew as a young child, her impoverished parents were able cobble together enough funds to send her to a private school and the take private music lessons.  By the age of 13 she was a member of the chorus in the local Polish theater and had enrolled in the Lemberg Conservatory.  By her very early teens, she had already been a member of the chorus in at least one opera performance.  Throughout her teens, she performed in Polish, Russian and German.  She had also entered the Yiddish theater owned by Max Gimpel.  She wound up the leading lady for the company and they performed, primarily, by that time in Budapest.  She then left for Romania, quickly learning the language, she was able to appear in large or starring roles in the national theater there.  She was wildly popular--even winning over the admiration of staunchly anti-Semitic theater-goers.  It was not long, however the she would become a victim of her own success.  Her fellow actors became insanely jealous of her; there was even rumoured a murder plot against her.  As a result of this, she was offered a sponsorship in New York by Joseph Edelstein who had just opened the soon to be famous Thalia Theater, a Yiddish language house.  They set themselves apart from other Yiddish play houses, by offering Yiddish language versions of high works of literature, especially Shakespeare.  She was so popular, that she was dubbed "the Jewish Bernhardt"--a reference to actress Sarah Bernhardt--a nickname that stuck.  A couple of plays that she starred in made the move from the Yiddish stage to Broadway--rare for the time!  However by 1910, he star on the live New York stage had begun to fade.  In 1914, she left New York for Hollywood.  Her success there was ever so fleeting, as she appeared in only 4 films.  The first of these was a reprisal of one her most successful roles on the Broadway stage in New York; Marta Of The Lowlands was made in 1914, and was directed by none other than J. Searle Dawley after he went to work for the Famous Players Film Company.  She didn't exactly set the town on fire.  The other three films that she appeared all came in 1916 (SlanderAmbition and Love And Hate).  She then returned to the Yiddish theater scene in New York.  By the late 1920's her eyesight began to fail, suffering from a degenerative disease that would eventually result in full blindness.  Much later in life, she engaged in some radio work, reprising many of her most beloved stage roles.  Kalich died from undisclosed causes on the 18th of April in 1939 at the age of 64 in her adopted home town of New York City.  She is buried in the Mount Hebron Cemetery in Queens in the Yiddish Theater Alliance section.

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