THE GHOSTS OF 14th STREET
Written and directed by Barbara Kahn
Presented at Theater for the New City
Cast (in order of appearance)
Set Design Mark Marcante
“Yiddishe Yankee Doodle Boy” lyrics by Barbara Kahn,
“Shine On, Harvest Moon” written by Jack Norworth and Nora Bayes
“Pine Apple Rag” written by Scott Joplin
The Ghosts of 14th Street is set in New York City in 1908, when 14th Street was the entertainment capital of the city. It has both a gay male and a lesbian love story.
In Act One, set in the Biograph Studio at 11 East 14th St, the actors film scenes of a primitive one-reeler, with the required action and emoting that made the “flickers” so popular. Between takes, these characters reveal their dreams, they practice routines they hope will take them to live theatre, they fall in love, betray each other, and go through many of the same emotions they express in the film.
Danny and Tess, brother and sister performers, seek love in the world of theatre and silent movie making. While Danny knows the hangout for gay men (The Slide on Third Avenue), Tess has a more difficult time when she falls for Lily, who claims to be “not…like that.” Tess complains to Danny, “What should I do, take an ad in Help Wanted—Female?” Lily, who really is “like that,” is an immigrant who left her abusive husband from an arranged marriage, only to have him pursue her to the Biograph Studio where she is the housekeeper. Danny and his new-found lover Al, along with African-American dancer Phillip “Pip” Gibson and the acting team of Mr. and Mrs. Edward J. Thornton III, help Lily escape her husband, now a gangster in Harlem. They use the popularity of Female Mimickry to resolve the dilemma faced by Tess and Lily. In 1908, female and male impersonators were the rage. Performers like Julian Eltinge and Zelma Rawlston became headliners by appearing in drag. They portrayed both celebrities and fictional characters, and audiences flocked to see them perform.
Act Two replicates a typical evening of Vaudeville at the Olympic Theater, which includes music, dance, comedy routines and female mimickry, as well as the finished film they were shooting in Act One.
Lily. I come from Sherstagrad in Russia, the Ukraine. My father was the teacher in Sherstagrad. When I was five years old, I told him I wanted to study like my brothers. He said narishkeit [nonsense] and never spoke of it again.
Tess. What does that mean?
Lily. It means like, uh…nonsense or foolishness. I would listen outside the door to my father’s study, so I could hear the lessons. When I was eight, I told my mother I wanted to study music so I could play the violin like Kolya, the Russian boy who lived in our village. His music came to us on the wind every evening. My mother said mare narishkeit – more nonsense--there will be no time for music when you grow up.
Tess. I’m sorry.
Lily. When I was twelve, third cousin Alla who lived in Kiev came to visit. She talked to me about books and music, she stroked my cheek, she kissed me. I begged her to take me back to Kiev with her. She said be patient, Lily.a. When you’re older, I’ll come back for you. When I was fifteen, I told my parents I’m never getting married. They said taken narishkeit, and my father went to see Jake’s father to arrange our betrothal. I insisted I would never marry Jake. I would go to Kiev to live with Cousin Alla. I cried for days. I wouldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. My mother pleaded, my father shouted. They were afraid I would die. On the fifth day, they sent to Kiev. Word came back that Cousin Alla had gone to America two months before. I was defeated. The next year was the wedding, and I came to America with Jake and his family.
Tess. Did you look for Alla?
Lily. Why? Why would I look for someone who abandoned me? I was afraid before. I wanted, but I was afraid. Forgive me
Tess. I would never abandon you.
Lily goes to Tess and kisses her.
Jake. It takes the husband to get a divorce, even in America.
Lily. So get a divorce or don’t get a divorce. It’s all the same to me. I’m never going back to you, and I’m never marrying another man, so do what you want.
Jake. You’re my wife!
Lily. Why do you want someone who doesn’t want you?
Jake. It isn’t right people seeing you walking around without your husband, living with the shvartzes.
Lily. I don’t see a color when I look at a person. I see how he treats other human beings.
Jake. Other people ain’t like you, Lily. They already talk behind my back. It’s bad enough you make a fool of me, but to do it with a colored man…You ain’t got a lick o’ sense.
Lily. Let them talk. I don’t care.
Jake. I care! They say that Jake Rabinowitz can’t keep his own wife-- that she’d rather be with a colored. I want you should come home to me. I insist!
Lily. You don’t got a right to insist nothing! Now go away. I got work to do.
Jake. (grabs Lily’s arm) You’re coming with me.
Al.. You two are still here.
Danny. We’re working up an act. Mr. G said we can stay after hours to use the piano.
Al. How’d you like your first day in the movies?
Danny. It was fine.
Al. You picked it up right away. You’re a natural for moving pictures.
Al. So, what kind of act are you doing?
Tess. It’s not finished yet. And it won’t be if we don’t get started.
Danny. (interrupting her) We’re writing a musical act.
Al. Then what?
Danny. Then we’re gonna try for one of the Variety shows. Or the circuit.
Al. Right here in New York City is where you want to be. Take it from a pro.
Tess. A pro?
Al. I’ve danced from one end of the country to the other my whole life.
Danny. I didn’t know you were a dancer.
Al. I grew up on the circuit. My folks are still living out of a trunk. But now I’m off the road, and I’m staying right here in New York City. Even if it means doing moving pictures until I get something in a show.
Danny. We’re going to get on the bill somewhere here in the city. When we finish writing our act.
Tess. If we ever finish…
Al. My neighbor’s uncle used to work for Mr. Tony Pastor himself. Right up the street from here.
Danny. No foolin’!
Tess. What did he do there?
Al. Dunno. I never met him. When you’re ready, if you like, I could ask my neighbor to talk to his uncle. Maybe get you an audition.
Danny. You think he’d do that for us?
Al. If I ask him he might. Can’t hurt to ask. I’m gonna ask him for myself one of these days.
Tess. Pastor’s is not doing Vaudeville anymore. They changed to movies.
Al. It’s gonna go back to Vaudeville. That’s what I heard. They’re gonna change the name since Tony Pastor got sick.
Danny. He ain’t coming back?
Al. That’s what I heard.
Tess. So then how is this friend of yours supposed to help us?
Al. It’s all right. I just figured if the uncle worked for Pastor’s, he has to know other people.
Danny. That makes sense.
Al. If I can help you, why not? We show people have to stick together. (checks his watch) Well, it’s time for me to skidoo. I’m going to The Slide.
Danny. The Slide?
Al. On Third Avenue.
Danny. I know where it is.
Al. Good, good. (smiles) Maybe I’ll see you there sometime. Goodnight. (exits)
Tess. (not wondering at all) I wonder what that was about.
Danny. With you, there’s always something more than meets the eye.
Tess. Let’s get to work. We lost enough time already.
Danny. Geez, Tess, we didn’t even thank him. I’m going after him.
Danny. Next time we’ll work twice as long. I promise. (kisses her cheek) You’re a good egg. I don’t know why you put up with me. (quickly exits)
Tess starts after him, but stops before exit.