Legends of the theatre
Local actress Irene Braverman has performed in over 50 Gallery Players productions at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Columbus. “Some of the happiest moments of my life have been when I am in theater,” says Braverman.
Braverman is one of six individuals who will be honored on Thursday, April 7 at Legends of Gallery Players, a new tradition at the JCC paying tribute to those who have made extraordinary contributions to Gallery Players over the past six decades
Before beginning her career with Gallery Players she went to school for acting in her native Chicago. She moved to Columbus in 1948 to live with her brother after her parents passed away. She performed with Players Club at first, but she quickly found her home at Gallery Players. “I was very comfortable at the Center, being Jewish. They jumped into plays that had Jewish origins or a Jewish playwright… And it was good to [be in] a place like that. I was very comfortable there. I met a lot of outstanding people.”
This comfort and Jewish pride was what inspired the creation of Gallery Players 67 years ago. Players Club, the primary theater group in Columbus in the 1940s, would often deny Jewish and African-American actors the opportunity to audition for their productions. In response to this practice, Florence Zacks Melton and the Hadassah group she chaired took the initiative to organize theater activities in which everyone could comfortably take part.
The first residence of this theater group was the loft– or gallery –of the R. G. Barry Corporation on East Long Street which was owned by the family of Melton (then Zacks). This is where Hay Fever, the inaugural production of what would be known as Gallery Players, was held in May of 1950.
The success of Hay Fever attracted the invitation to relocate to the newly built Jewish Community Center on College Avenue and become a part of the Center’s adult programming in 1950. Gallery Players readily accepted and the JCC has been its home ever since.
The leads of Hay Fever, Bea Roth and Marvin Bonowitz, would continue to act in prominent roles in several other Gallery Players shows. Anne Bonowitz says of her husband’s performance in Finian’s Rainbow in 1957, “Even though that was well over 50 years ago, people still talk about it.” Roth, after years of participation in Gallery Players, helped endow the Roth/Resler Theatre at the JCC which was built in 1983 and in which shows are still held today.
Shortly after moving, Gallery Players decided that opening auditions to the community at large was necessary to produce better theater and meet the playwrights’ intentions for parts. Gallery Players implemented an inclusive casting policy that did not discriminate based on race, religion or gender, making it the first of its kind in Central Ohio.
Gallery Players reached a milestone in 1958 when the JCC hired Harold Eisenstein in the Adult Activities department of which Gallery Players was a part. With an already extensive career in theater and television, Eisenstein immediately began developing Gallery Players. From there he built up the Cultural Arts department and made it what it is today. The first of many plays Eisenstein directed was the comedy Tender Trap in 1959. He served as Cultural Arts Director and Director of the Theater for fifty years before retiring in 1998.
Eisenstein was the inspiration for many actors and directors to keep returning to Gallery Players. “He was a real mentor and I learned a lot from him,” says Braverman who cites Eisenstein’s direction as a big reason why she acted with Gallery Players for over fifty years.
After 50 plays with Gallery Players, doing about one show each year until just recently, Braverman has played many roles. However, the one that stands out the most is Yente from Fiddler on the Roof whom she has portrayed at least three times, most recently in the 2013 Gallery Players production.
“I learned more about her each time I played her. The lines had more meaning to me each time. The more you do a role, and you delve into this character, it’s easy to really become that person.”
Although comedies were Braverman’s specialty, she also performed in serious, thought-provoking roles. “We did several plays that involved the holocaust, and those were very difficult. My role in Book of Ruth [in which a grandmother and granddaughter are held in a Nazi internment camp] was the most challenging role I’ve ever played.”
Lillian Strouss, who directed over 20 plays and chaired Gallery Players for many years, often demanded that Gallery Players productions feature challenging stories such as this. Many have described Strouss as “quality control” for her high standards and passion for important and Jewish-based content in plays.
Braverman, Melton, Roth, Bonowitz, Eisenstein, and Strouss will be honored at Legends of Gallery Players on Thursday, April 7 at 7:30 p.m. All of the honorees, with the exception of Bonowitz and Braverman, will be honored posthumously. The evening of music and memories will celebrate the honorees with a caviar and champagne preview party, a theatrical production highlighting the honorees’ achievements, and a dessert reception.
The show will be a multi-media production, using narration, pictures, poems, music, and video to tell the stories of the six Legends. The casts of Guys & Dolls, Fiddler on the Roof and Damn Yankees will perform a selection of songs from each show. Using resources ranging from local news coverage of shows to quotes from the honorees themselves, Legends of Gallery Players brings the most wonderful memories of Gallery Players’ history back to life for one special evening.
Tickets may be purchased individually for $35 or for groups of 10 or more for $30. Sponsorship opportunities are also available which will include admission as well as special benefits. To purchase tickets and find more information, visit jccgalleryplayers.org.