Shirley Gransberg Vitoff left St. Paul’s West Side — “that I so miss” — for New York in 1958. Now 90, she remembers a life-altering moment in 1946 when “suddenly, my eyes were opened” to the magic of community theater.
“I grew up dumb and, at 16, knew zero, nothing about anything,” Vitoff said by phone from her apartment on Long Island. “I aspired to nothing.”
That changed nearly 75 years ago when the teenager bumped into a left-leaning librarian named Donald Singerman, an acquaintance of her parents who coaxed her to join his community theater group, the Grotto Players. The troupe had been staging quality amateur plays, edgy and political, since the early 1930s at the Jewish Education Building at Holly and Grotto in St. Paul — known today as the Jewish Community Center in Highland Park.
“Don became the first adult who respected me on an adult level, gave me confidence and introduced me to theater, ideas and character development,” said Vitoff, who between ages 16 and 28 acted in eight Singerman-directed plays. “He was an intellect who showed me a bigger world, absolutely the most important person leading me on to my next phase.”
A mother of four at 28, Shirley left St. Paul with her family for Long Island because of her husband’s job. “But theater had become my life,” she said, acting and directing her own company for years on Long Island. “And I owe that all to Don.”
The son of a Romanian-born cigar maker who emigrated in 1900, Singerman was born in Minneapolis in 1907. He worked as a librarian at the James J. Hill Reference Library in downtown St. Paul, organized the library at Mount Zion Temple and lived only four blocks from the Jewish center. He also spent time in Chicago’s theater scene, according to a new book about the history of Minnesota Jewish theater called “Setting the Stage.” It’s available from the Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest (http://www.jhsum.org/shop/).
Using Maxim Mann as his theater name, Singerman was “a small, witty, dedicated and enormously talented man [who] turned the Grotto Players into what we believe was one of the best nonprofessional theater groups in the community and on a par with the best groups in the nation,” the late civil rights attorney Ken Tilsen told the book’s authors, Doris Rubenstein and Natalie Madgy.
In the book, they say “the period from 1933 to 1939 was one of social protest and criticism” that eventually sent Singerman packing. He was set to stage playwright Clifford Odets’ “Awake and Sing!” — a 1935 play about a Jewish family in the Bronx, with one character calling on working people to overthrow capitalist overlords.
A flap erupted when a board member at the Jewish center objected that the play was too radical, insisting “no plays should be produced that framed the Jewish community in any ill light,” Madgy said in an interview.
So Singerman took his production to the YMCA and changed the name of the theater group. One critic said that “Awake and Sing!,” under Singerman’s direction, “was keyed right; that its pace was swift and sure; and that every one, from the director to the interpreter of the briefest role, contributed much to the complete effectiveness.”
Singerman’s community theater group became a “vehicle for social expression influenced by the Depression, academic frustrations and social unrest,” according to a research paper the authors unearthed in a University of Minnesota archive.
“There are so many remarkable parallels between the 1930s and today,” Madgy said, with high unemployment and the calls for social change.
Singerman considered his troupe’s high point a 1949 staging of “The Dybbuk” — a Russian play, later translated into Yiddish, about a woman possessed by a malicious spirit. Singerman’s production included a cast of 33 and a technical team of 18.
“In his opinion, all dramatic activity served as a great medium for maturing an individual and remedying socially maladjusted individuals,” according to the new book, which says Singerman’s theater group fizzled out by 1955 because of declining membership, illness and the move to Highland Park. But his legacy lives on with the popular Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company, which has been staging thought-provoking plays since 1994.
Back on Long Island, Shirley recalled her role in Singerman’s staging of “Awake and Sing!” as well as his production of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.” At 17, she played a housekeeper when the theater presented “On Borrowed Time,” a 1930s Broadway hit.
She cherishes a cast photo from the play, with her standing next to Singerman on stage. His rosy reference letter helped her earn credits for her St. Paul theater work when she attended college in Long Island as an adult. She last saw Singerman at a poetry reading on a trip back to St. Paul shortly before his death in 1982 at age 75.
“He was such a graceful man,” Vitoff said. “He opened the door and let us know we could be brilliant.”
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at email@example.com. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: http://strib.mn/MN1918.