May 17, 1874 (or possibly 1875) is the birthdate of actress Bertha Kalich, who began her career on the Yiddish stage while still a teenager in her native Galicia, and succeeded not just in making the physical transition to the United States, but also in becoming a star in the English language.
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Bertha was born Beylke Rachel Kalakh in the town of Lemberg (today Lwiw, Ukraine), and grew up speaking both German and Polish, in addition to Yiddish. Her father, Solomon Kalakh, was a brush maker and amateur violinist, while her mother, the former Babette Halber, was a seamstress whose clients included Lemberg’s theater companies. Babette also was an opera aficionado who shared her love of the theater with her daughter.
Although later in life, Kalich said her parents had been very much opposed to her having a professional career on the stage, they apparently saved up their money to be able to provide Beylke with musical and dramatic training during her childhood.
By age 13, Beylke was singing in the chorus of Lemberg’s Skarbek Theater, before she enrolled in the Lemberg Conservatory. In 1889, Max Gimpel, having heard her in the chorus of “La Traviata,” offered her a position in his own Yiddish theater group.
Mastering Romanian in three months
After his leading lady left for the United States, Bertha, who now began calling herself "Kalich" instead of "Kalakh," took over.
During these years, the great Yiddish playwright Abraham Goldfaden was in Lemberg working with Gimpel, and Kalich played the title role in his operetta “Shulamith.” Soon, she received an offer to come to Bucharest, where the opportunity to perform with the Romanian National Theater arose — if she could master Romanian in three months.
She did. Kalich’s first appearance in Bucharest was in a Romanian-language version of the French comic opera “La Dame Blanche.” There was some apprehension preceding her debut that the anti-Jewish sentiment then prevalent in Romania would lead to a hostile reception, but as the historian Daniel Soyer has written, Kalich “was such a success that anti-Semitic theatergoers, who had come with the intention of pelting her with onions, threw flowers instead.”
Sources disagree on most of the key dates in Kalich’s life; some stories about her have the air of the apocryphal. But it is said that she was so popular during this period that some of her artistic rivals plotted to assassinate her.
Safe in New York
Fortunately, an offer to come to New York materialized, and Kalich’s life was spared. In 1894, she joined the Thalia Theater Company, based in Manhattan’s Bowery district, beginning a period of regular work in New York’s Yiddish theater. She appeared with the Thalia in a number of Shakespearean plays in Yiddish, including the title role in a 1901 production of “Hamlet.”
A number of her plays were popular enough to make it to Broadway, so perhaps it was inevitable that the call to perform in English would follow. In May 1905, she appeared for the first time in English in the play “Fedora,” by French playwright Victorien Sardou.
In the audience was journalist and writer Harrison Grey Fiske, who decided to make it his business to advance her career. Working with his wife, actress Minnie Maddern, who worked with Kalich on minimizing her accent in English, Fiske arranged for a number of big roles for her. Even though she never played an American woman, most of her roles were dramatic if not tragic.
In 1914, Kalich was off to Hollywood, though her movie career was short-lived, and she was soon back in New York and reliant again largely on Yiddish roles.
In the late 1920s, Kalich began to lose her vision, and she retired formally from the stage in 1931. She underwent a number of operations in the coming years, exhausting her savings, so that in her final years, friends and family organized a series of benefit performances for her.
Bertha Kalich died on April 18, 1939, a victim of what The New York Times called a “malignant eye ailment.” Thousands of fans lined the streets of the Lower East Side to accompany her funeral procession.