On Wednesday, July 15, television and radio personality Budd Mishkin will talk with Louise Kerz Hirschfeld, former President of The Al Hirschfeld Foundation, about her life and career. National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene (Folksbiene)—led by Zalmen Mlotek, Artistic Director, and Dominick Balletta, Executive Director—continues its virtual entertainment series Folksbiene! LIVE that will feature Kerz Hirschfeld.
Kerz Hirschfeld retired as President of The Al Hirschfeld Foundation – which continues to honor her late husband and his art – upon the May 2015 opening of The Hirschfeld Century: An Al Hirschfeld Retrospective at the New-York Historical Society – the most ambitious Hirschfeld exhibition ever mounted, with a comprehensive and historic companion book, written by David Leopold. She pioneered the Al Hirschfeld Project, a curriculum for teaching the arts in New York public schools. She was designated as New York City Living Landmarks in 2012. Her career spans the world of theater, TV, art, and philanthropy.
We spoke to Kerz Hirschfeld in advance of the interview about the Al Hirschfeld Foundation, Hirschfeld’s impact on the theater world, and what it was like for her to be designated an NYC Living Landmark.
How did you meet Al Hirschfeld?
I was working on the play “Rhinoceros” in 1961. Zero Mostel, the star of the play, fell on 86th and Broadway before the play opened. The play was postponed, and then he appeared on the stage on a cane and was incredible. When Al Hirschfeld came to draw a scene from the play, I studied his work. He captured the moment in the play when Zero’sZero’s character was transformed into this pachyderm. I had never seen anything like it.
What did Hirschfeld look for in people when he did a caricature?
He looked for a moment in the play or a time that represented what the author wanted. In 1968, there was a play that opened that was so different from anything else. I remember his drawing – it was of “Hair” when the play opened, and it was filled with hippies, antisocial people, and protestors. I said to my then-husband, Leo Kerz, that Al had captured this moment in history. I knew there was so much going in on his head. He saw the transitions in our history and drew them.
What role did Hirscheld’s art play in the history of theater?
I may be biased, but I think that his work is a national treasure. We have one man’s view of not only the theater but of art. He had combined many skills before he refined his work into the caricature that we see today. He sought it out as a sculptor as a young man. He always drew. He was a watercolorist; he worked in oil. Later his roommate in Greenwich Village was a caricaturist, and he was exposed to great caricatures. Then he went to Bali and was taught how to use light, line, and shadow. That changed his focus. We have this extraordinary flow of one man’s view of the theater and everything else that he drew, including political and literary futures, covers of magazines, and illustrations for TV Guide. We have a single man’s focus and artistic contribution to art in the 20th century.
What is The Al Hirschfeld Foundation?
The Al Hirschfeld Foundation promotes interest in the theater and dramatic arts by supporting not for profit museums, libraries, theaters, and similar cultural institutions.
What was it like to have a theater named after him?
I was thrilled to work with Arthur Gelb and Rocco Landesman to name a theater after him. They called the Martin Beck family to see if they were willing to have a theater name change. The Beck family thought it was a fantastic idea, and 19 people from the family came to the renaming of the theater in June 2003. I was very proud to cut the ribbon. It’s the first time a theater had been named for an artist who was not a producer or a writer. I think the theater represents all of the artists who are involved with every element of theater.
Did Al Hirschfeld have any Jewish influences?
His parents were influential. Al Hirschfeld was born in St. Louis. His mother was a Jewish immigrant from Russia (father born here). His mother discovered a drawing that he did. He had drawn the facade of his school when he was eight years old. They showed it to someone at a museum, and the man told him they had to take the drawing to New York. She moved the entire family to Washington Heights. They found a house, opened a store, and Al went to vocational school and got his break doing posters for silent movies. They had dinner together on Friday nights.
You’ve long been an arts education advocate–why is it so important to educate our children about the arts?
The Al Hirschfeld Project with the NY Board of Education uses Hirschfeld’s drawings to educate students about the performing arts over the last century. I feel that children are so creative, and they have to be nurtured in creativity. I think that children can express themselves through music and art. I’mI’m glad to say that the Hirschfeld Foundation has continued to find ways to use Al Hirschfeld’s drawings to excite children about various art forms about dance, music, stage design, and costume design. All those elements can be found in his work. I wanted schools and nonprofits in New York to get lithographs of his work as gifts every year, so we included places like Symphony Space in our list of recipients. In addition, my husband, Lewis Cullman, who recently passed away, gave all his money away, which is extraordinary. He created a program called “Chess in the Schools” to help children learn how to play chess.
How does it feel to be a “Living Landmark”?
I play it down, but it’s still exhilarating. The real powerhouse landmarks are people who have done so much for NYC. I feel like I’mI’m on the first floor and everyone else is above the 70th floor. I’m also married to two landmarks. So many people love New York City, so it is a real honor. My dream came true.
What does it mean to participate in this interview with Budd Mishkin on Folksbiene! LIVE and what do you hope to talk about?
I’m very pleased about this because it brings back and consolidates a lot of my memories. This pandemic has turned our lives upside down. Our memories are open for reinvestigation. We are inside ourselves and focusing on my life with Hirschfeld is a joyous experience. He was an artist of the first ranking.
What light do you hope to shed on your life and career?
I am happy to have participated in the level that I had. Throughout my life, I was delighted to work behind the scenes and study creativity. For example, I worked with Agnes de Mille the niece of Cecil B. deMille. We became close when I did an exhibit about her family. When I read her books, I learned that she was a great dancer and choreographer, but she was an extraordinary writer. When she saw Pavlova dance when she was 12 years old, she went home and stood on her toes until they bled. I couldn’t believe the single-mindedness of a person with that kind of creativity. It really spoke to me.
Launched in March, Folksbiene! LIVE is an online celebration of Yiddish culture, featuring live-streamed theater, American Jewish performers, concerts, lectures, talks, and other events. Programming provides inspirational and entertaining experiences as cultural and arts venues across the country and world remain closed amid the coronavirus pandemic.
All Folksbiene! LIVE programs are now presented at 1:00 PM. Subscribe to Folksbiene’s newsletter and catch up on past episodes at nytf.org/live.