The Man Who Lit Lady Liberty
Most people probably haven’t heard of M.B. Curtis, but he made headlines galore in the late 19th century as one of the leading actors of the day.
And there was a lot more to the Jewish immigrant, born in Hungary in 1852 as Mortiz Bertram Strelinger, than just stage performance.
Curtis first gained fame in 1881 as the lead character in the comedic melodrama Sam’l of Posen. He played the lead character — a drummer (a term for traveling salesman). What made the play notable is that not only was the obviously Jewish Sam’l a heroic figure, but he also wasn’t a grossly exaggerated Jewish stereotype.
“Curtis used everything he had at hand, little and big, to make his characters riveting, expressive, and mesmerizingly memorable. One critic described the evocative way Curtis curled his hand and placed his chin on it, the same mannerism made famous by comedian Jack Benny years later. There is even a surviving reference indicating that Curtis first introduced oversized shoes to the stage (clowns had not yet employed the technique) and it was suggested that Charlie Chaplin had borrowed this idea from his immigrant predecessor,” author Richard Schwartz writes.
For the next several years, Curtis toured the country, performing Sam’l of Posen to approving, even adoring, audiences. The cast often included his wife, Marie, a star in her own right.
At the height of his fame in 1886, Curtis stepped forward to pay the costs of lighting the Statue of Liberty’s torch — no appropriation had been made by the U.S. government for lighting beyond the dedication ceremony.
Sadly, Curtis’ star soon began to wane as assorted troubles found him.
A massive hotel he built in Berkeley, Calif., proved to be a financial albatross; real estate seemed to be a constant undoing.
Curtis also had issues with alcohol.
One drunken jag led to his arrest — which led to the arresting officer being shot to death as he brought Curtis and another man to a police station. Curtis ended up on trial for murder, which consumed a good chunk of the early 1890s. One trial ended with a hung jury, while another trial petered out after a juror died and a defense attorney departed. Eventually, Curtis was acquitted, but things were never the same.
Subsequent productions he mounted weren’t nearly as popular, including Sam’l sequels, and even during performances of Sam’l of Posen, Curtis’ behavior grew erratic.
While Curtis did make two early film appearances, including a short as Sam’l, his career essentially was over by the turn of the 20th century.
Still, the New York-based Herald lauded Curtis in his obituary.
“He showed the young Jewish immigrant who landed here as a comic greenhorn who made his way by his shrewdness and his honesty. … It was the first attempt to put before the public any genuine study of the Jewish immigrant in this country,” the paper said.
Philadelphia native Schwartz does a good job of bringing Curtis to life, although the near-linear storytelling structure and the repeated use of lengthy passages from source materials detract from an otherwise solid rags to riches to rags tale.
Hill and Wang, Sept. 12
Record companies have enticed buyers for years to buy back catalogue items by offering remixes of songs and alternative versions, while movie studios have done likewise with director’s cuts and blooper reels.
And the publishing industry is getting into the game, too.
Case in point: the upcoming re-release of Elie Wiesel’s seminal Night, which was first published in an English translation in 1960.
This new version includes President Obama’s memorial tribute to Wiesel, who died on July 2, 2016. While Obama’s tribute is heartfelt, a forward by U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power is far more illuminating.
The new edition also includes a speech Wiesel gave to the United Nations to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camps, his 1986 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, a lecture delivered the following day, and remarks Wiesel’s son, Elisha, gave on Nov. 30, 2016 at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
All are worthy reading, but here’s a better idea: Just read (or, for many of us, re-read) Night, which packs a wallop in little more than 100 pages. There’s not a wasted word throughout. Interestingly, Power noted that Wiesel originally wrote more than 800 words in Yiddish; even after he trimmed his manuscript, he had trouble finding a publisher.
Still, Night indelibly relates the personal Holocaust horrors Wiesel experienced.
Night begins in 1941, with Wiesel a teenager living in Sighet, Hungary. Conditions for Jews aren’t too bad, although the Hungarian government expels those who can’t prove their citizenship. A local known as Moishe the Beadle, with whom Wiesel has discussed the Kabbalah, escapes from a cattle train, returns home and informs the townspeople of the horrors he saw to no avail.
When the Germans arrive in Sighet in March 1944, a familiar pattern emerges: The Jews are forced into ghettos and, two months later, are deported to concentration camps. There Wiesel is separated from his mother and three sisters (two of the sisters ultimately survived).
The remainder of Night focuses on Wiesel and his determination to stay with his father as they endure concentration camp horrors; the goal of each day is to avoid violence and find food. In the latter pages, Wiesel and his father are part of a death march to Buchenwald as the Soviet army approaches.
If anyone ever needs a reminder of the importance of “never forget,” a read of Night will quickly remind them why. At this point, there’s really no way to properly critique Night, which is why it hopefully will remain in print for generations to come.
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