Like a lot of poor kids on the Lower East Side around the start of the twentieth century. the brothers Cliff and Max Gordon turned to show business as a way up and out. Cliff, who was older, made it big in vaudeville, and in effect it killed him. Max became one of the most successful producers in Broadway history, and survived to write a memoir about it.
They were born Morris and Mechel Saltpeter in 1880 and ‘92, two of eight kids. Their parents had grown up and married in a village in Poland. They were strict Orthodox Jews who spoke Yiddish, never learning English or participating much in American life. Dad, bearded and pious as a rabbi, pressed pants in a Montgomery Street sweatshop for eleven dollars a week. Mom kept house. Old-school Orthodox tradition condemned theater and movies as time-wasting frivolities. In his memoir Max Gordon Presents Max says his mother never saw a movie and came to only one of the many shows he mounted. At first the family squeezed into three rooms in a tenement on Goerck Street (now Baruch Place), and shared an outhouse behind the building with the other tenants. Later they moved a short distance to a four-room tenement apartment with a bathroom at the end of the hall on Lewis Street.
Cliff left school at the age of twelve to contribute to the family’s income. In his teens he started hanging out at the variety theaters on the Bowery with a pal of his, Will Fox. Born Wilhelm Fried in Hungary in 1879, Will was brought to the Lower East Side when he was nine months old. Impressed with the “Dutch” (German) antics of the comedy duo Weber & Fields, who were Lower East Side guys themselves, the teens simply copied them. Cliff played the Fields part, Will did Weber. They got small bookings in and around the city, making five or ten bucks a night. Cliff’s parents were not happy, but they couldn’t stop him.
According to Upton Sinclair Presents William Fox, an as-told-to biography, one night after a gig in Bayonne Cliff and Will found that the booker had absconded with their pay. Penniless, they walked from Bayonne to Jersey City, where Will found a bit of cardboard and a pencil and made a sign, BLIND. He hung it on Will and stood him next to the ferry entrance with his hand out as the morning commuters headed across the river for Manhattan. They not only earned their two-cent fares but reached New York with four cents extra. Another time they did their schtick in Arlington Hall on St. Mark’s Place as part of a benefit for the former welterweight prizefighter Spike Hennessey, who was then battling consumption. The audience booed and hissed them; Spike was so angry at them for ruining the evening that he refused to pay them, and socked Cliff in the eye as well. “When Cliff arrived home with one eye and no money, and told his father what had happened, his father punched the other eye and blacked that,” Sinclair writes.
Fox gave up performing, but went on to a big career in movies, building the empire that became Twentieth Century Fox. Cliff stuck with performing and soon got a slot as the Dutch comic with Al Reeve’s Big Beauty Show. Born in 1864, Reeves had grown up Catholic in the Five Points, a policeman’s son. By fourteen was performing on the Bowery as a banjo-plucking blackface minstrel. Through the 1880s he toured the early vaudeville and burlesque circuits. He billed himself as The World’s Greatest Banjoist and Comedian, and although by contemporary reports he was neither, he was an impressive, bigger-than-life presence on stage and off. As he got famous he sported a lot of diamonds and other jewels on his person, and got himself a diamond-encrusted banjo.
By the early 1890s he was producing and emceeing his own burlesque revues, which were considered among the finest of the era. Burlesque wasn’t yet equated with striptease; it was more like a minstrel show or vaudeville with a leg show as the centerpiece. “Dirty” burlesque and stripping came along in the next century. The Big Beauty Show featured up to forty girls. Al claimed to have invented the tableau vivant, in which they posed as “living statues” in classical, mythological or just fanciful scenarios, any excuse for them to appear without a lot of clothes on. They couldn’t move a muscle, or cops might stop the show for lewd behavior. Comics, musical acts and Reeves himself rounded out the bill. A young Al Jolson got work touring with Reeves. In The Jazz Singer, when Jolson does the fingers-in-the-mouth bird-whistling break in “Toot, Toot Tootsie,” he’s showing off a trick he learned from Reeves. Jolson’s whole peppier-than-thou approach to blackface performance showed a lot of Reeves’ influence.
Max was nine when Cliff took him to a matinee of the Reeves revue at Miner’s Bowery Theatre. It was Max’s first time in a theater. He remembered that though the chorus girls were big and fleshy they were also “gay, spritely, buoyant, full of grace and delight.” He was agog at Reeves, “the grandest man I had ever seen,” and all his jewels. Cliff, in baggy trousers and long frock coat, with a loopy bow tie under a fly-away collar (think Professor Irwin Corey), was then perfecting his signature routine, “the German Senator.” It was a combination of a Dutch act and a minstrel show stump speech, a comic monologue on political and social topics of the day. “Friendts and Vellor Voters,” Cliff would begin, “I am gladt to address such a massage of beoples, and vill distress you mit all der elephance dot is in me.” He’d go on in that vein to crack jokes about whoever was president at the time, the newfangled automobile, trade unions, women’s suffrage, whatever was in the headlines. Max was entranced and began haunting the variety and vaudeville houses on the Bowery and around Union Square.
Max was a ten-year-old participant when a riot broke out at the funeral procession for Rabbi Jacob Joseph on July 30, 1902. Several of the small Orthodox synagogues on the Lower East Side had chipped in to bring Joseph from Poland in 1888 to be their first (and as it turned out last) chief rabbi. From the start he ran into opposition from other Orthodox and Hasidic congregations, who elected their own chief rabbis in protest, and from the Reform German Jews in the city, and from the Lower East Side’s large contingent of radical and Communist Jewish intellectuals. He struggled largely in vein to bring some order to the graft-ridden kosher butchery trade. Demoralized by all the controversy and reduced to dire poverty in his own tenement flat, he suffered a series of paralyzing strokes and died on July 27 1902 at the age of only fifty-four.
Despite all the acrimony during his life, the entire Orthodox population of the Lower East Side went into mourning. On July 30 much of the neighborhood shut down for the funeral procession that carried his plain pine coffin from his home on Henry Street over to the Grand Street ferry, bound for a cemetery in Brooklyn. A crowd estimated at fifty to one hundred thousand mourners thronged the streets. As the cortege approached the waterfront it passed the giant R. Hoe & Company factory on Grand Street, where printing presses were made. The more than two thousand workers there, many of them Irish, were infamously anti-Semitic. When the horse-drawn hearse went by, accompanied by two hundred black-creped carriages and the immense crowd on foot, workers on the factory’s upper floors jeered, shouted obscenities out the windows and hurled whatever they could get their hands on — nuts, bolts, blocks of wood, buckets of water. The crowd flew into a rage and charged the building. Max was among those who ran over to Delancey Street, where the Manhattan end of the Williamsburg Bridge was under construction, and carried back loose bricks to be thrown through the factory’s lower windows. A delegation of Jewish leaders who got into Robert Hoe’s office to try to end the situation claimed Hoe chased them out with a pistol. (In the publishing world Hoe is remembered as a collector of rare books and a founder of the Grolier Club.) A riot squad of some two hundred police showed up. Also mostly Irish, the cops enforced calm by wading into the Jews with clubs swinging. Hundreds of Jews were injured and scores went to jail, while only one factory worker was detained. Ironically, in 1929 the factory would be torn down and replaced by the wonderful Amalgamated Dwellings apartment building, cornerstone of the largely Jewish Co-Op Village.
By the time of the riot Cliff was touring the country with the Imperial Burlesque Show and making a princely seventy-five dollars a week — enough that he could soon move his whole family off the Lower East Side, first to 106th Street near Central Park, later to Jewish Harlem. His father retired, though he continued to press his kids’ clothes, including Cliff’s tuxedos.
Max expanded his theater-going to Broadway — legit dramas, George M. Cohan’s musicals. He supported the habit by selling score cards and peanuts at the Polo Grounds when the Giants were in town. Despite Cliff’s urgings, he dropped out of Townsend Harris Hall — in effect the prep school for City College, where Yip Harburg, Ira Gershwin and Paul Muni also went — to take a job as an advance man for a touring burlesque show. He’d go into a town ahead of the show to put up posters and do p.r. At seventeen he was traveling around the country in the company of chorus girls, low comics and cigar-sucking impresarios, getting a type of education he never would have gotten at home.
Cliff’s star meanwhile continued to rise. He was never the headliner, but he got near. On big-time vaudeville circuits he filled the toughest spot on the program: he was a “closer,” the last act of the show, who came on right behind the headlining star. Closers were also known as chasers, because the audience, having just enjoyed the big star, often started walking out on them. Vaudevillians called it playing to the haircuts. It’s said that Cliff’s monologues were so funny and timely that audiences stayed and roared — until one day in 1913, when he took on the daunting burden of closing for the grande dame of divas, Sarah Bernhardt.
Bernhardt had been coming to America since 1880, was approaching seventy, and though some critics had ceased to be kind to her a decade earlier, her fans still adored her. Martin Beck of the Chicago-based Orpheum vaudeville circuit startled all of show biz when he convinced her to stoop from legit theater for the first time. Rumor was he agreed to pay her $500 — in gold coins — after each performance. (She’d learned a few things in a lifetime in show business.) Touring his Midwest vaudeville houses in preparation for a three-week stand at the new Palace in Times Square, she slayed audiences with excerpts from her tear-jerking greatest hits — Tosca, Camille, Racine’s Phedre.
Cliff was booked to close for her at the Majestic in Chicago that April. He told Max he wasn’t sure he could make a crowd laugh right after La Bernhardt had them all sobbing and weeping, but he’d give it his best shot.
Even for a successful performer vaudeville was a precarious life and an exhausting two-show-a-day grind. Cliff had been suffering migraines. At the April 21 matinee, Bernhardt got the whole house bawling with her Tosca. Cliff, his head pounding, walked out to a cold and distracted reception. After struggling to get a chuckle out of them for five minutes he left the stage to no applause. He hadn’t laid such an egg since the early days with Will Fox. Legend has it he moaned to the Majestic’s manager backstage, “Any comedian who tries to follow Bernhardt is bound to die.” He went back to his hotel room to gear up for the evening performance. Apparently he drew a hot bath and took some of his migraine medicine. When he didn’t appear for the evening show, they broke down the door to his room and found him on the floor. A doctor on the scene called it a heart attack. He was thirty-two.
Desolate, Max soldiered on. He formed a partnership with Al Lewis. Another son of Polish Jewish immigrants to the Lower East Side, Al had also done a Dutch act. After some rough sledding at first, their Lewis & Gordon booking and producing agency earned a reputation for developing classy one-act plays to insert into vaudeville programs. One of the early ones was Eugene O’Neill’s In the Zone, which had premiered in Greenwich Village.
Max was one of the few people in show business who became friends with the imperious Edward Albee, the playwright’s adoptive grandfather, who ran the Keith-Albee circuit and was generally considered one of the meanest sonsabitches in vaudeville. In 1927 Max engineered a late-career comeback for one of everybody’s favorite old troupers, Eddie Foy, Sr., who’d been on the boards clowning and hoofing since the days of minstrelsy (Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday had caught his act out West) and raised seven children in the theater. Bob Hope plays him in the 1955 film The Seven Little Foys. Foy even died on stage, of a heart attack, at the Orpheum in Kansas City in 1928.
By then vaudeville itself was dying. Everybody in it struggled to adapt to the big changes motion pictures were making to the entertainment industry. Lewis and Gordon broke up the partnership. Lewis went to Hollywood to work for Cliff’s old partner, William Fox. Gordon watched in dismay as the upstart Joseph Kennedy took over Albee’s empire, which became RKO. Fox invited Max out to Hollywood too. Max would later dabble in film, unhappily, at the urging of his friends the Marx Brothers, and produce a little television as well, with equally muted results. But for now he went in another direction: to Broadway.
Max and Al had previously put on a few shows there, including one hit. In 1925 they produced a play close to both their hearts: Samson Raphaelson’s The Jazz Singer, set on the Lower East Side where they and Raphaelson had grown up. They did it at the small Fulton Theatre on W. 46th Street, formerly the Folies-Bergere (and much later renamed the Helen Hayes Theatre, which it remained until it was torn down with its neighbors in the 1980s to make way for a giant Marriott). George Jessel, who’d been doing vaudeville since he was a kid, starred as Jakie Rabinowitz. The newspaper critics found it too schmaltzy, but it was a big hit with audiences. When Warner Brothers bought the rights to film it they decided it should be a musical — the stage version was a play with some incidental music — using the Vitaphone sound-on-disc system. They clashed with Jessel over money — he demanded more to do sound — and over the simple fact that he couldn’t sing. The studio went with Jolson, who had inspired Raphaelson in the first place, and had already done a popular Vitaphone short, A Plantation Act.
Now it was the 1930s, and the Depression was laying waste to Broadway. Yet Gordon thrived there. His very first production was a hit. Three’s a Crowd was a little musical revue with a lot of talent participating: Clifton Webb, Libby Holman (whom Webb nicknamed the Statue of Libby), Fred Allen and Fred MacMurray on stage, with songs for Holman like “Body and Soul” and “Something to Remember You By,” and Max’s pal Groucho contributing some gag material. It ran from October 1930 into the summer of ‘31. He followed it directly with more hits — the revue The Band Wagon, starring Fred and Estelle Astaire, which featured “Dancing in the Dark”; a Jerome Kern musical, The Cat and the Fiddle, with Eddie Foy Jr. in the cast; Noel Coward’s racy Design for Living, starring Coward, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, who all co-produced it with Max.
In the 1933-‘34 season he had four hits running simultaneously, a pretty stunning feat. The next season Gordon achieved what everyone said was impossible, convincing the Rockefellers to back his idea for a lavish operetta about the Strausses, The Great Waltz, to be performed in the large Rockefeller Center Theatre (the companion to Radio City Music Hall, torn down in the 1950s). At three dollars a ticket in the depths of the Depression it filled the 3500-seat hall with families and tourists, ran for more than 250 performances and made tons of money. Max’s friend Cole Porter doffed his cap in lines from “Anything Goes,” “When Rockefeller still can hoard/ Enough money to let Max Gordon/ Produce his shows,/ Anything goes.”
On the street they called Max a miracle worker. But it didn’t all come easy. Over twenty years producing on Broadway he’d have his huge successes and his miserable flops. The flops could send him into bleak depression. When things weren’t rolling his way he might go to the top of a stairway or a window ledge and threaten suicide. Remembering the peculiar way his brother had died, people took him seriously. More than once he would seek professional psychiatric help.
Through it all his broad interests and tastes showed in the range of comedies, dramas and musicals he put on the stage. They included George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s flag-waving spectacle The American Way, starring Fredric March; the historical costumer The Farmer Takes a Wife, starring the young Henry Fonda, who’d soon head to Hollywood to get his screen debut in the Fox film adaptation; Othello with Walter Huston (another vaudeville vet) in the lead and Brian Aherne as Iago, a flop; Huston in the much more successful Dodsworth, from the Sinclair Lewis novel, later made into a film; Clare Boothe’s satire The Women, another big hit adapted for film; Ethan Frome, with Ruth Gordon, Tom Ewell and Raymond Massey; Kern’s musical Roberta, which yielded the standard “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” and helped make Bob Hope a star; Cole Porter and Hart’s musical Jubilee, soon forgotten except for “Begin the Beguine,” a giant hit for Artie Shaw a few years later; the massive hit My Sister Eileen, which ran from 1940 into 1943 with Shirley Booth in the role Rosalind Russell plays in the movie; and Born Yesterday, the Judy Holliday vehicle she reprised on film. His last production was the hit The Solid Gold Cadillac, with the great Josephine Hull (Aunt Abby in Arsenic and Old Lace), which ran from 1953 into 1955. Holliday stars in the 1956 film adaptation.
Through a long retirement Max couldn’t resist kibitzing and threatening to come back and do one more play, but he never did. He died in 1978.
by John Strausbaugh
(photo: Cliff Gordon)