Pesach’ke Burstein Dead at 89

Services were held here Tuesday for Pesach’ke Burstein, a giant of the Yiddish theater who died Sunday at Lenox Hill Hospital, following a short illness. He would have been 90 years old on April 15.

Known throughout the world as the “Vilner Komiker,” Burstein, together with his wife, Lillian Lux, played to packed houses in America, Canada, Israel, throughout South America, as well as South Africa and Europe. They had their own theater companies in Buenos Aires and in Israel. They were married in 1940 in Uruguay, but had been partners in the theater since 1938.

“I don’t think there is a Yiddish actor alive (except, maybe, in Rumania) who did not star with or play with him,” Lux told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Burstein was born in Warsaw in 1896 to Mordechai Burstein and the former Rivka Stollak. He arrived, prophetically, “erev Pesach,” his name already chosen, as his mother was washing the floor for the holiday. His father promptly put the two of them to bed. (“As his mother washed the floor, Pesach fell out,” said Lux.)

THE BEGINNING OF A CAREER

At the age of five, Pesach and his family moved to Berdiansk, a town in the Crimea. He became a singer in the synagogue choir. At the age of 14, Burstein ran away from his religious home, joining a wandering Yiddish theater.

Following inauspicious box office receipts, Burstein wrote to his father, asking him for money to come home. His father wired him 50 Rubles, but the company manager intercepted the money without telling Burstein about it. Using the funds to continue on their way, Burstein sadly traveled on with the troupe. He never saw his father again.

He saw his mother one more time, in Warsaw, where he was wanted for conscription by the Polish army during World War I. His mother brought money to take him to a doctor, where he was given a powder that made him anemic for 24 hours, enough for him to fail the physical. Following the “cure,” Burstein and his acting colleagues continued on their way to the Yiddish centers of Eastern Europe, where he was becoming a matinee idol.

Once more he found himself in deep trouble, as the sundry armies passed through the same territory every few weeks. On a return to Warsaw, his sisters rented a room for him. Unbeknownst to them, the same lodgings had just been occupied by a Russian soldier away without leave. Burstein, of course, was arrested as the soldier. On his person, not yet found, was a bogus Russian passport his mother had bought him.

Sending the building janitor the few blocks to his sisters’ apartment to alert them to his arrest, Burstein “accompanied” the Russian soldiers to their headquarters. Feigning cramps, he ran to the bathroom, where he destroyed the passport, which ironically, says Lux, would have saved him from further trouble.

Burstein told the officers the truth, explaining his life story in the various languages he knew. The Russians looked at each other and decided he was a spy, finding it otherwise incomprehensible that he could speak so many languages. They immediately beat him up, dragged him to the train station, and shipped him off to the front. There, he was befriended by a young Pole, and they escaped together, jumping out the window and made their way to Warsaw.

A SUCCESS ON BROADWAY

Having survived the war, his fame increased, and in 1923 the legendary Yiddish actor-producer Boris Thomashevsky sent for him, bringing him directly to Broadway. It was Thomashevsky who dubbed him “Pesach’ke.” Burstein played the Nora Hayes Theatre upstairs with fabled Yiddish actor Rudolph Schildkraut, while Al Jolson played the downstairs theater.

During his very first appearance, says Lux, the manager of the foreign-language department of Columbia Records was in the audience. The man came backstage and made an appointment for the multi-talented Burstein for the very next day, when he signed him to a 20-year contract. During those 20 years, Burstein recorded 300 songs for the company. He recorded “Sonny Boy” in Yiddish on the same day as Jolson, using the same studio and the same orchestra.

Besides being a song-and-dance man, Burstein also wrote “couplets” — as a “cupletiste” he wrote songs himself and performed. And he was outstanding in comic roles. In 1927, he became a member of the Yiddish Actors’ Union.

In the years following his performances for Thomashevsky, Burstein founded his own theatrical companies in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, and The Bronx, both thriving centers of Yiddish life and theater. His credits included the Hopkinson, Liberty, Mckinley and Prospect theaters. Between 1928-29, Burstein played Philadelphia.

In 1945, Lux gave birth to twins, Michael and Susan, who grew up in the theater. Susan continued acting until her marriage. Mike Burstyn (his theatrical name) went on to become an internationally known stage and screen actor, playing “Kuni Leml” in Israeli films and performing throughout the world in eight languages, including a three-year stint on Dutch television, where his parents performed several times.

The Bursteins emigrated to Israel in 1954, where they kept their home base for 20 years. Dual citizens, they always moved between the twin poles of Tel Aviv and New York, continuing their international appearances. On Burstein’s 80th birthday, celebrations were held at the Mann Auditorium in Tel Aviv.

In Europe, Burstein was known as the Jewish Maurice Chevalier. At a meeting between the two of them, they exchanged canes. Until he died Burstein used the silver cane with “M.C.” engraved that he received from Chevalier.

Burstein remained active till the end. Only last week, he was scheduled to appear as a presenter at the Goldy Awards, of which he had been a recipient last year. It was on that day that he was taken to the hospital. His son Mike acted as master of ceremonies for the first half of the program and then left for the hospital amid the hearty well wishes of his colleagues.

He had been due to give a concert April 22, “erev Pesach,” at the Hebrew Home for the Aged in The Bronx. Last Friday, he was notified that he was to receive the Manger Prize in Israel in June, a prize established following the fame given the play “The Megillah of Itzik Manger” which Burstein and his family made famous the world over wherever Yiddish theater lovers are.

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