Although he is only thirty-four years old, Joseph Bulloff, one of the outstanding Jewish actors in the world, has served in the old imperial Russian army, the German army, the Red troops and finally in the Polish army. Still wearing his ragged soldier clothes he turned to the theater, joined the original Vilner Troupe and advanced to stardom and an international reputation in one year. Since then he has played about 123 roles and produced forty plays himself. He has portrayed every conceivable type of role ranging from young boys to old men. In the original presentation of Ansky’s “Dybbuk,” he played all sxiteen male roles at one time or another.
But, he told The Jewish Daily Bulletin, he has little time to think of the past. Life is too full now and there are still many juicy roles to play and the great Jewish theater to experiment with. And Joseph Bulloff if above all avid for experiment in the theater, which to him is a living, growing garden.
His artistic training he received in the war when a world was being torn apart before his eyes. “Can you imagine a better theater than that?” he asked.
ENLISTED AT FIFTEEN
At fifteen, Bulloff, a stripling just graduated from a Wilno high school, enlisted in the old Russian army because he was informed that if he wanted to attend a university, war service would ease his path. In a uniform that was much too big for him he began his war service. Perhaps there was something funny in the solemn youngster in his baggy uniform, for he was laughed at and began to entertain his officers and his fellow soldiers with impersonations of the Jews as they imagined them. “I played the traditional Jew for them,” he said. “It may not have been pretty, but it was the only way a Jew could exist and be let alone.”
But army life was not all theatricals and laughing at the Jews, and soon the Germans were in Wilno and young Bulloff was a prisoner and was sent with working parties to do heavy work behind the front, where the German guns were pounding the Russians. Again his natural sense of mimicry and his ability to portray others came to his rescue and he was made an interpreter.
The Germans finally left and the Communist troops entered Wilno and again Bulloff put on a uniform, this time that of the red army. Wilno was taken by the Polish troops and once again Bulloff put on a different uniform.
JOINS TROUPE IN WARSAW
When he was finally discharged from the Polish army, ragged and hungry, in a world that had gone mad and showed no signs of returning to sanity, he was in Warsaw, wondering how he could get home. He finally heard that the Vilner troupe was playing in Warsaw and went to see them hoping, as he explained, not for work but that there would be someone he knew in the group who would help him return home.
He joined the troupe as a member and recognized that at last he had found himself and his work. Since 1922 when he first joined the group, he has toured Europe, the United States and South America, conducted an experimental theater of his own in Chicago, producing about twenty plays, and is now the director and leading man of the New York Art Company, which is playing in the Yiddish Art Theater.
Of his work in the theater, Bulloff speaks simply, almost naively, but without any false sense of modesty. Thus of his role in the “Singer of His Sorrow,” a play by Ossip Dymov, Bulloff said, “I played 310 nights in that piece in Rumania alone. It was a great success and even the royal family came to see us and applauded us. They still speak of it in Europe.”
Another play he dismissed with a wave of his hand, saying, “that was a terrible bust.” He is particularly proud of his success with roles out of Moliere, which the Vilner Troupe played, of his work in the Comedia del Arte and in the great Jewish classics.
BROUGHT HERE BY SCHWARTZ
He was brought to this country by Maurice Schwartz and played with him in the Yiddish Art Theater. Bulloff’s great talent was immediately recognized and the Yiddish press said that the “loss of Muni Weisenfriend had been compensated in the appearance of Joseph Bulloff.”
Of the Yiddish theatre, Bulloff is fondly critical, comparing it with the theater in Europe. “The Jews there are poverty-stricken to an extent which is hard for an American to imagine,” he said. “But how hungry they are for theater They come to the theater ragged and hungry, sometimes without shoes, but they drink it all in and they beg for more. Many times I have seen poor Jews come to the theater carrying a hen or a goose or perhaps a bag of flour, and beg to be admitted.
“The poverty of the audience is reflected in the poverty of the theater. There is very little scenery and few costumes, but we showed a wide range of plays, from original musical comedies to the great classics.”
“But here in the United States things are different. The poorest group here is better off than most of the European Jewish theatrical groups.
ARTISTIC LEVEL HAS FALLEN
“True, the Jewish theater has degenerated to a great extent and has been reduced to a low level, making it virtually impossible to produce finer types of plays. The era of the ‘theater of immigration’ is over and our audiences are now mixed. The assimilated Jews come there condescendingly and for them it is necessary to produce to cheapest types of plays showing ‘the Jewish idiot.’ Again, half our audience does not understand Yiddish and that makes the work of the actors harder and makes it essential to reduce characterizations to their bare essentials. It is the audience that has lost the theater and not the other way around.”
But Bulloff does not despair for the Yiddish theater, for he believes there is a real need for it and a great future, although he slyly adds, “Perhaps the lack of Jewish talkies and movies will prove a factor in saving the Jewish stage.”
Critical as he is, Bulloff continues to portray Jewish roles in superlative fashion. He talked enthusiastically of his next production.
He is married to Liuba Kadison and usually plays opposite her in his productions. They met and were married when Bulloff was the star of the Vilner Troupe.