Herman Yablokoff was a master of his craft. He was an actor, singer, songwriter, playwright, director, and producer in a world that has virtually disappeared.
In Der Payatz, his autobiography, Yablokoff the showman stages a vivid recreation of his times. The result is breathtaking and captivating as Yablokoff, with genuine theatrical style, offers the story of his life.
He introduces himself in 1960. In Warsaw, Poland for a concert tour, Yablokoff attempts to enter the Soviet Union to visit his father’s grave.
He then relates the story of growing up in Grodno early in this century. With fascinating detail he reconstructs the vibrant Jewish life of the city. The synagogues, schools, people, and his family’s struggle for existence all come to life again.
Yablokoff’s love for the theater began at an early age as he became acquainted with the visiting Yiddish troupes that came to town. He soon began to perform in children’s roles. Restricted from performing in Yiddish, these groups would deliver their lines in that language until warned by a lookout to revert to Russian.
In 1924 he arrived in America. Immigration had recently been restricted. On Ellis Island, officials, amazed at his youth, greeted with skepticism his claim that he was an accomplished actor. Remarkably, a board of inquiry invited him to audition and his performance was awarded with an entrance to the United States.
He toured with stock companies in the U.S. and Canada and struggled to gain entrance to the tightly controlled Hebrew Actors Union. Herman Yablokoff was not an instant success, but he eventually began his climb to the top of his profession. Songs like “Papirossen” became international standards. Another of his well-known Yiddish melodies, “Shveig Mein Hartz,” was plagiarized into the popular hit “Nature Boy.”
And Yablokoff went on the radio, known only as the mysterious “Der Payatz”–the Clown. His original compositions and unique story telling in song became widely popular and proved to be the turning point in his career. Soon he was not only starring, but producing, directing, and writing his own shows, showcasing Yiddish performers such as Aaron Lebedeff, Maurice Schwartz, and Menasha Skulnik.
Originally published in Yiddish, Der Payatz was translated by Bella Mysell, Yablokoff’s wife and herself a star of the Yiddish stage. They were a popular team for many years.
Herman Yablokoff died in 1981, and the Yiddish culture in which he thrived had already largely vanished. But he leaves an enduring look at that culture. The master showman captures all the drama and excitement of the world in which he lived, giving us a riveting picture of a time that no longer exists.
So have a seat, turn the page, the curtain is going up on another Yablokoff production.