The earlier tapes were derived from a 1931 film titled "The Voice of Israel," which was produced and directed by Joseph Seiden, an early creator of Yiddish-language cinema.
Cantor Murray Simon of the Princeton Jewish Center, also a Philadelphia native, served as original editor of the tapes, and has now added supplementary material to the new DVD set.
Simon has brought great passion, energy, creativity and expertise to this project, based on his life-long involvement with Jewish music and the art of cantorial singing, and his musical education at Temple University and Hebrew Union College.
The original videotape contained performances of five superstar cantors from the "Golden Era of Chazzonos," including an almost magical selection by the most famous cantor of them all — Yossele Rosenblatt.
These musical excerpts had long been available on audio recordings, but the videotape enabled chazzanut lovers to see, as well as hear, their favorite cantorial superstars as they sang, with all their hearts, souls and very visible sweat.
Simon asked the late Cantor Max Wohlberg, formerly the Nathan Cummings Professor of Hazzanut at the Jewish Theological Seminary, to comment on each cantor, based both on his scholarship and on his personal friendship with all five artists; Cantor Wohlberg's commentary was added to the videotape.
In March 2004, Simon was requested by Sharon Rivo, executive director of the National Center for Jewish Film, to produce a new DVD and supervise the transfer of the videotape materials to the newer medium.
"Maybe I could find new material! That would really be exciting," Simon said, describing the beginning of a long investigative search for old cantorial films to present.
Simon is so proud of the results. First, he discovered screen tests of Rosenblatt made for Warner Brothers at an audition for the father's role in the original "The Jazz Singer" of 1927. The Library of Congress had stored a silent copy of Rosenblatt's singing "My Yiddishe Momma," and Cantor Daniel Gildar of Northeast Philadelphia had the shellacked audio disc.
"I sent off the film and the disc to Paramount Studios, where my daughter supervised the synchronization of the images and sound," explained Simon.
He also unearthed a comparatively recent home movie from a 1956 wedding, showing the superstar Chazzan Moshe Koussevitzky as he officiated at the simcha and sang at the party.
Other discovered clips show the singing of cantors Moishe Oysher, David Roitman and Adolf Katcho.
More on the Way
"The reaction to the new DVD set has been phenomenal, and the first edition has sold out," Simon said proudly, with another edition set for some time this summer.
"There is a real revival of interest in this genre," he insisted. "The Cantors World organization" — a new group dedicated to presenting programs of traditional works — "went crazy over it!"
The sound on the new DVD has been digitally enhanced, and improvements were made to the videos. The clip of Cantor Leibele Waldman's version of "Chazonim Oif Probe," by Sholom Secunda, a satirical song depicting three different cantors auditioning for a selection committee, is hysterical, as Waldman plays all three cantor-hopefuls, complete with some outrageous costume changes.
This DVD comes at time of increased interest in virtuoso chazzonos artistry throughout the traditional Jewish world, as evidenced by the large number of cantorial selections on YouTube and other similar Web sites. It will undoubtedly find its way into many Jewish homes.
The DVD can be ordered at: www.jewishfilm.org.