From the Beginning: Forums, Theater, and Music

ken-tilsen-memories

I grew up in the Dale-Selby neighborhood of Saint Paul. To be more exact, we lived in the upstairs of a duplex just off the corner of Dayton and St. Albans, one block from Dale and one block from Selby. Then, as now, it was a neighborhood of mostly small single-family homes with a large number of duplexes and a few small apartment buildings. The owners typically lived downstairs in the duplexes.

At that time the Jewish community had mostly, but not entirely, left the West Side and what we called the Fourteenth Street Community, approximately where Regions Hospital now stands, for Dale-Selby. Dale-Selby had a movie house, pool hall, Agronoff’s Tailor Shop, Rosen’s Barber Shop, a kosher butcher shop, a kosher deli and bakery, Gray’s Drug Store, Red Orenstein’s Drug Store, and down a couple blocks at Grotto, Boranian’s and Anderson’s, whose wares defy easy description. Many years later, Red Orenstein told me that he left the candy bars out near the door for the kids to “steal” because they were old and stale and it was better than throwing them out.

On the corner of Dale and Selby, Jack Peck with the help of his younger brother Sid had a newsstand. Nobody subscribed to newspapers in those days. When an extra came out, we would gather our wagons at the newsstand, pick up the papers, and walk down the center of the street hollering and hawking the papers.

If you walked down St. Albans just four blocks past Selby, you were at Webster Grade School. If you walked down Grotto the same four blocks, you were at Marshall Junior High School, later to become Marshall High School, and you would also arrive at the Temple of Aaron, which at that time was the largest Jewish congregation in the city.

Webster and Marshall and the playground between them occupied the entire block between St. Albans and Grotto and between Ashland and Holly. Today Webster and Marshall are linked together by a building addition and serve as Webster Elementary School.

Immediately to the west on Grotto and facing Marshall Junior High was the Temple of Aaron and the Jewish Community Center, separated from each other by a small alley. This geography is important because at age six or seven and for some time thereafter, my whole world lived between these blocks.

We really owned the streets in those days. Jack Christiansen lived across from our house. At age ten or eleven, I remember running a wire from our upstairs porch to an upper window of his house across the street to which we attached some kind of cups to serve as our private telephone.

I entered Webster in the second grade and should have passed on to Marshall Junior High in the seventh. But these were the World War II years. They added seventh and eighth to Webster. Thus, I was a “senior” at Webster for three years. When I entered the tenth grade at Marshall, it had its first graduating class as a high school.

The building housing the Jewish Community Center was built in 1930 and began its life as the Jewish Educational Center, helping teach and integrate immigrants into the community. It served as a cultural and recreational center and as a facility for a Hebrew school. It ran into financial trouble in 1934 and split into three parts. The Hebrew school became basically a tenant, and as the Jewish Activities Association, it became a community chest organization. The present-day Jewish Community Center was organized in 1948.

What I really knew about the center was that we played basketball in the same league as the Neighborhood House, Hallie Q. Brown (now the Martin Luther King Center), Catholic Youth Center, and the Boys Club. They all had better gyms than our center. Originally they had designed a swimming pool for the center and for some reason never built the pool but converted the proposed pool into the gym, so the gym floor was sunken and the out-of-bounds lines were essentially the walls of the pool. It was also the smallest gym I have ever seen. I can always blame the fact that I was never much of a basketball player on the gym and our inadequate coach. But I did learn a little about wrestling and I am, or was, a fairly decent ping-pong player. (Only really good players call it table tennis).

Thus it came to pass that I not only attended Hebrew School at the JCC after regular school across the street but also used the center for clubs and basketball and ping-pong and wrestling and generally hanging out.

I had grown to love the place, and during my senior year in high school I met some of the students doing plays with adults and began to see how the center ticked.

So it should come as no surprise that after I returned from a short spell in the Navy, became married, had children, went to the U of M, had more children, began to practice law, and had more children, that I would become active at the JCC.

In the early 1950s I became a member of the Adult Activities Committee. Almost from the days the building first opened, a similar committee had brought in speakers and sponsored a forum. Dr. Abraham Newman spoke in 1940 on “The Emerging Pattern of American Jewry.” The same year a speaker talked about Jewish wit, satire, drama, and folklore. In 1949 the chair of the University of Minnesota Physics Department spoke on “The Social Implications of Atomic Energy.”

In 1955 I became chairman of the committee. We brought in Dr. Otto Nathan, who was a close friend of Albert Einstein and executor of his will. His topic was “Communism and Capitalism, Can They Co-exist?”

Not everyone was happy, but the place was packed.

Shortly after Dr. Nathan spoke, we had an open forum on “The World Situation Today” and followed up with “An American Foreign Policy for 1956.” It was presented as a round-table discussion by political science professors from Hamline University, Macalester College, and the University of Minnesota. Dr. Mulfred Sibley was the U of M speaker. He should be remembered as a socialist, a pacifist, and indeed the most loved and most reviled Minnesota professor of the era. I remember clearly Dr. Sibley’s remarks. At the time, China and the Soviet Union were bitter enemies. The Cold War was at its height. Dr. Sibley said simply, “The Cold War will pass. In your lifetime China will become the nation whose economy will influence and change the world.”

In later years we had Herb Kaplan of NBC speak on foreign policy and Felix Green, a very controversial Far East expert and writer, speak on “What Will Happen in Vietnam?” This was before major U.S. involvement began. He predicted pretty much exactly what happened.

Apparently from its earliest days as the Jewish Education Center, the center also sponsored a theater group known as the Grotto Players. In the middle 1940s, Don Singerman, then known by his stage name “Maxim Man,” moved to Saint Paul from Chicago. In Chicago he was part of the Group Theatre, one of the spawning grounds for the great actors of the era. Don, a small, witty, dedicated, and enormously talented man, 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 finest groups in the nation.

Among the plays presented in the 1950s were Clifford Odett’s Awake and Sing! and Waiting for Lefty; George Bernard Shaws’s Arms and the Man and The Shewing-Up of Blanco Posnet; E. Y. Harburg and Fred Saidy’s Finian’s Rainbow; Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman; Arthur Laurents’s The Time of the Cuckoo; and Paul Osburn’s On Borrowed Time.

I hung around the Grotto Players doing miscellaneous little tasks while my wife, Rachel, along with my friends, including Bob Levey, acted in several plays, including Death of a Salesman and The Shewing-Up of Blanco Posnet. Rachel also co-directed The Time of the Cuckoo.

Although I played no active role in the center symphony, it always had a special place in my heart. It began in 1933 and, like the Grotto Players, was pushed to excellence by a director whose life was devoted to his art. Peter Lisowski was always a little scary for those of us who were not part of the symphony. He had an incredible scowl and a booming voice that defined authority and power.

We did not tread in his territory.

My doctor as a child and our family doctor was Cecil Warren. He was the assistant to the conductor beginning around 1936. His name was listed in 1943 with an asterisk and the explanation that he was “in the armed forces.” After the war he returned to the symphony as first violinist. His wife, Edna, a friend and wonderful woman, was the featured pianist and piano soloist. The orchestra’s musical level was incredible, widely acclaimed, and often compared favorably to some of the best-known professional groups.

The three most significant programs at the center for me were the forum, the Grotto Players, and the center symphony. All began in the center’s earliest days and all continued to enlighten and inspire for several generations.

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