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71 71 4 queen of off broadway: lucille lortel Alexis Greene Attorney Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side is a short street by New York standards. Beginning at a wide thoroughfare, East Houston, it travels three blocks south before hitting the entrance and exit ramps of the Williamsburg Bridge, where it leaps the parkway and picks up for another three blocks until dissolving into Hester Street and the remains of a oncepopulous Jewish neighborhood. Most of the tenements that used to line Attorney Street have disappeared. Victims of fire, demolition, and the shifting patterns of urban lives, they have been replaced by garages and abandoned, garbage-strewn lots. But on December 16, 1900, when Lucille Wadler was born at 153 Attorney Street, this was a bustling if poor neighborhood. Peddlers’ carts filled the street from dawn until dusk; women stood on fire escapes and shouted across to their friends or hung laundry between buildings that were airless in summer and icy in winter. In a ground-floor shop at 153 Attorney, Lucille’s maternal grandfather, Heiman Moskowitz, repaired watches and clocks. A few blocks further east, Lucille’s father, Harry 72 alexis greene Wadler, worked as a tailor, probably sewing men’s cloaks and suits. Both Harry Wadler and Lucille’s mother, Anny, had emigrated from Poland with their respective families when they were children, had married young, and were struggling to extricate themselves from the ghetto. In 1900, the Lower East Side, where Lucille Wadler was born, and the New York theater, where, as Lucille Lortel, she would one day play a significant role, shared an aggressive approach to the world: each arena was rough-and-tumble and determined to survive. But after those similarities are taken into account, few places could have been farther apart than the overflowing tenements of Attorney Street and the profitable engine of the American theater known as Broadway. There the competitive, hardscrabble life of the stage was hidden behind glittering buildings, elaborate scenery, and glamorous costumes. Broadway was the hub of the nation’s theatrical universe. From its stages and producers’ offices radiated the plays that took stars across the country, in seemingly endless circuits of big cities and small towns, to perform in opera houses; provincial halls; and the final stopping places, winter- and summer-stock theaters. As for “Off Broadway,” the concept did not even exist in the United States in 1900, although within two decades the community theaters of the Little Theater Movement would begin to provide alternatives to Broadway’s commercial productions. How or when Lucille Wadler fell in love with theater is unknown. She studied dance as a youngster and, in later years, talked about how she always wanted to act in movies. Certainly her family possessed an artistic bent. Her mother Anny’s two brothers were musicians, and Lucille’s older brother, Mayo, was a child prodigy on the violin. Her sister, Ruth, became a painter. As Harry Wadler established his own dress-making business and made money, he moved his family from the Lower East Side to the Bronx, and finally, in 1914, to one of the elegant new apartment houses lining the upper stretches of Riverside Drive. By the time Lucille was a teenager, she had undoubtedly seen a good amount of theater and preferred theatergoing to school (she was a middling student at her finishing school, and there is no record that she graduated). Acting probably looked a likely career to an attractive, personable, somewhat spoiled, starstruck girl. From 1920, when she entered the American Academy of Dramatic Arts’ one-year training program, until 1931, when she stopped acting, Lucille Lortel immersed herself in theater (the stage name was a friend’s sugges- 73 queen of off broadway tion; Lortel liked the alliteration). The academy promised to prepare a young actor for commercial productions, and Lortel, with her dark eyes, voluptuous figure, and long dark hair, was soon typecast as the exotic woman with a low reputation. Thus she went into David Belasco’s popular production of Willard Mack’s The Dove, a sultry melodrama set in Mexicana, Mexico; thus she toured with Florence Reed in John Colton’s hit melodrama The Shanghai Gesture, acting the dissipated, half-English, half-Chinese girl Poppy. And she portrayed a half-Spanish dancer named Rosieta in a dreadful one-act called The Man Who Laughed, playing top vaudeville houses opposite silent film star Sessue Hayakawa. It was, she always believed, the highlight of her acting career...


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