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The Thomashefskys: Stars Of The Yiddish Stage

Bessie and Boris Thomashefsky were mega-stars in the Yiddish theater world. Their story is told in a new documentary, written and conducted by heir grandson, Michael Tilson Thomas. He also serves as music director of San Francisco Symphony and artistic director of the New World Symphony.


Other segments from the episode on March 28, 2012

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 28, 2012: Interview with Josh Luchs; Interview with Michael Tilson Thomas.


March 28, 2012

Guests: Josh Luchs-Michael Tilson Thomas

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our guest, Josh Luchs, spent 15 years as a sports agent representing talented college football players who hoped to turn pro. He admits breaking plenty of rules in his efforts to get good players to sign with him. He gave thousands of dollars to players who were still in college in violation of NCAA rules, a practice he said was common among agents competing for the attention of top athletes.

He also rented luxury cars for players, bailed one out of jail and brought more than one player in to live with him, just to keep them close and keep competing sports agents at bay. Luchs left the business after being suspended for a rules infraction and told many of his secrets in a 2010 cover story in Sports Illustrated. He has a new memoir about his experiences, co-written with James Dale, called "Illegal Procedure: A Sports Agent Comes Clean on the Dirty Business of College Football." Josh Luchs spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.


Josh Luchs, welcome to FRESH AIR. Tell us about the first player you ever paid money to.

JOSH LUCHS: You know, much like it said on the cover of SI in October of 2010, I'll never forget the first time I paid a player. I had flown to Colorado to recruit a star defensive end pass rusher. You know, to give you some context, I had a hard time renting a car when I flew to Colorado, I was only 19 years old.

And I waited for him outside of his apartment and basically bum rushed him at the door and, you know, introduced myself, let him know what I was there for and that I had come all the way from Los Angeles.

He was very gracious. He let me in, and we sat, and we spoke and talked a while. And he had let me know that eventually that he had some personal matters to attend to in the form of his mother who apparently had recently become unemployed and was in danger of losing her ability to support herself in her home, she might be kicked out of her apartment.

And basically to solve the problem, he needed to miraculously come up with $2,500 somewhere. I suppose that I became the somewhere.

DAVIES: And so what did you do?

LUCHS: I told him I needed to think about it. This was the very first time that I'd even thought about doing something like that. So I left, and I made my list of pros and cons as to, you know, right and wrong and the benefit and the exposure and the issues. And at the end of the day, I decided that I'd go ahead, and I'd give him what he needed.

It would help me to develop a relationship, and that's really what it was all about, and that bettered my chances of signing the guy. And I - 19 years old, I really didn't have a whole lot of cash like that laying around. So I had to dip into my Bar Mitzvah fund, some of the money I had gotten back in the day.


LUCHS: And luckily, you know, being a good boy, I saved it and knew that one day it was going to be used for something very important, and why not this, an investment in my future. Well, my first investment was a poor one, as it turns out, because after lending it to him, I never saw him again. So yeah, it was a rude awakening.

DAVIES: So you become an agent, as you say. There's a simple, you know, registration fee. And you eventually get connected with a gentleman named Harold Daniels, known as Doc, one of the few African-American prominent agents at the time. And you describe that he showed you how to pay players but do it within a certain set of rules that just made more sense. Do you want to go over that and just describe what was the right way to do - the right way to pay players from his perspective?

LUCHS: The right way, the rules according to Doc - who was a six-foot-seven, maybe-a-biscuit-away-from-400-pound guy who was just an unbelievable character and really an amazing person, and he gave so much to so many, and I don't just mean giving money out to college athletes in violation of the rules. He was a very, very charitable man and with a really big heart.

But, you know, Doc had taught me that, you know, rather than giving guys a lump sum of money, where they would take it, say thank you maybe, maybe they wouldn't, and then you wouldn't hear from them again. It would be more productive for us to give it to them incrementally, in smaller doses so that they'd come back on a regular basis, the first of each month, you know, in a systematic fashion that we would have the opportunity to maintain a line of communication and better our chances of representing the player at the end of the road.

And that made all the sense of the world to me. We would determine a minimum amount. I mean, if you just said to a guy, hey, how much credit card debt do you have, and you pay it off, you know, that was one thing. But, you know, if we understood what their needs were and what the shortfall amount was from their scholarship and what their family life was about, then we could better understand what the hot-button issue would be.

And unfortunately, and as unflattering as it might be, we'd be in a better position to prey upon those needs and fill those gaps, and we did. And it may only cost two to three to $500 a month for a player that could end up being a first-round draft choice and generate millions.

DAVIES: Right, now...

LUCHS: But the system, the way it is, is the culprit.

DAVIES: And one of the other rules was, you don't pay in cash, right?

LUCHS: No, no, you don't pay in cash, because - the good thing about cash is that it would be untraceable, but the problem with giving a player a stack of cash is he could deny that he ever took it from you. So what Doc had done - and I had no idea what this was, but - I didn't even know what a money order was.

And you could to, like, a 7-11 or a Western Union, anywhere, and you could end up picking up, you know, a money order that essentially was untraceable, but you had a receipt that you could keep in your hands that showed that you gave that money to that player and at least remove the question as to whether or not you gave the guy money.

But no outsider, nobody outside of the transaction could track that unless we wanted them to.

DAVIES: Yeah, it was interesting, because you were breaking the rules, and yet you do want some internal documentation of it. You also said: Make it clear to the player this is a loan. And you actually have him sign some kind of loan document, right?

LUCHS: Absolutely, and that brings me to today. I mean, I understand ethically and morally, people say that giving these athletes loans is questionable or wrong, you know, but upon reflection, if you really think about it, the question is why is it wrong.

I understand it's you don't want to induce guys to signing with you, but, you know, why is wrong - ethically?

DAVIES: But so if you're giving several hundred dollars a month over a period of a couple years, you're going to lay out a substantial amount of money, and in a lot of cases, of course, players end up going off and signing with a different agent. Would they pay you back?

LUCHS: Many did, and quite frankly, not that many people stiffed Doc. I wouldn't have stiffed Doc.


LUCHS: This was not the kind of guy you stiffed, OK, let's just be honest about it. And no, most of the time guys had paid it back, whether they went with us, or they didn't go with us. And that was not so much the issue until the very end. I think in the late '90s, there was a new rule that was implemented that said that if a player had taken money from an agent while they had eligibility remaining, that the player didn't have to pay that money back.

It's an ill-conceived, at best, solution to that problem, because then players who had their hands out would take money from as many agents as they possibly could and stiff all of them without any fear of repercussions and knowing that there would be no, you know, legal mechanism, by which, that an agent could go get repaid.

So it just opened up the floodgates, and it took a problem that clearly was an issue and became - it exacerbated it and made it much worse.

DAVIES: Let's talk just a little bit about what the rules were and who made them. I mean, clearly nobody expected agents to be paying college athletes, but who actually prohibited it? Who were the governing bodies, and what were the rules?

LUCHS: Well, at the time it wasn't against the law. It was simply against the NCAA rules. In fact the NFLPA eventually incorporated NCAA rules, and so did the individual states with the Uniform Athlete Agent Act.

DAVIES: Let's just make the (unintelligible), we say the NFLPA, that's the National Football League Players Association, which is, essentially it's the union for the players, right?

LUCHS: Right, and they say that agents work at the behest of the union, and they are supposed to be the governing body of the agent community. However, you have to ask yourself a question: Why do they care about the rules of the NCAA? They really don't, and that, I think, in and of itself, shows you why the problems exist the way they do today and will continue to exist because they don't have skin in that game. The individual states...

DAVIES: What do you mean by that? What do you mean by that, why they would care about what the NCAA says?

LUCHS: It's almost counter-intuitive, you see. The NFL Players Association, you know, their role has been to generate as much money for players as possible. That's what they've always done. And it seems to me that it's somewhat counterintuitive for them to prevent athletes from getting money from any source at any time.

They want them to get the most possible. And the NCAA rules, the way they're structured, are very prohibitive and quite frankly oppressive for these athletes. You know, when you're talking about loans in particular, it's the ability to receive loans, it's a basic right that all Americans have. And why should college athletes be denied that same right? The only reason why is because the NCAA says so.

DAVIES: Did parents ask you for money, too, parents of athletes?

LUCHS: Absolutely, oh absolutely, not just for loans but, you know, I had a parent - and recently, you know, an Auburn dad had told me that both of his sons were going to be pro players. And although I wasn't going to be giving him money during the season because at that time I had stopped the practice of violating the rules that way. He had said that whatever agent is going to represent my two boys is going to make a ton of money, and that agent is not only going to buy me an S-class Mercedes for that privilege, but I'm going to train my sons, and you're going to pay me what you would have been paying a training facility. Instead of paying them, you're going to pay me.

So, you know, he was laying out the terms of what it was going to take to represent his son, and, you know, you can wrap up an inducement any way you want to, it's still an inducement.

DAVIES: And how did you respond to that request?

LUCHS: At that time, I had moved on from that, and I wasn't going to play that game. And as it turns out, in hindsight I made the right decision, not only because I wasn't interested in playing by those rules anymore, but because one player I think was a seventh-rounder, and one ended up in the third round, and a year later, he hurt his knee and never, you know, made it in the long run anyhow.

So just from an investment point of view, whatever agent went ahead and paid that price probably ended up losing.

DAVIES: Now, there were times when athletes did make some pretty extravagant demands, and you played, right?

LUCHS: Yeah, absolutely, and, you know, one thing you've got to understand is that, you know, we tried to limit our exposure as much as possible. I remember one time that a player's father, who was a minister, had said that the other people who were competing to represent his son, you know, they were going to be providing, you know, a certain amount of money available to that player.

In addition, they wanted an automobile, an Escalade on dubs, with every single imaginable customized upgrade. And, you know, not just that, but they wanted it delivered to the church to inspire the flock. And I inspired the flock, let's put it that way.


DAVIES: You did it, you came up with the Escalade.

LUCHS: Yeah, we - hallelujah, it was very inspirational, but bear in mind, when I talk about, you know, trying to deflect and limit liability, we had a financial advisor who was interested in working for that player be on the hook for that car. Because if we were, you know, ending up representing, you know, seven, 10 players a year or whatever it was, and we ended up having to be on the hook for cars for all those players and the credit lines for all those players, it got pretty hairy.

So we tried to outsource as much of that as possible, limit our liability.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Josh Luchs, he is a former sports agent, whose book about his experiences is called "Illegal Procedure." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is former sports agent Josh Luchs. He's written a book about some of the experiences he had representing athletes and some of the improper things he did in the course of that. It's called "Illegal Procedure."

You got into the business in 1990, and you were an active agent for, what, 15 years or more and finally left when you got a one-year suspension from the National Football League Players Association, right. Now, this followed some very long and complicated litigation you had with a former partner, Gary Wichard. What were the circumstances of the suspension, and how did that affect your decision to leave?

LUCHS: Well, you know, I was suspended for providing a $5,300 commission check that a player had paid to us, to my attorney during a civil proceeding. And they were able to use that as a stick, or a bat, to knock me down. And I understand there will be a lot of people that will say, well, you know, you did all of these things so this was your comeuppance, this is what you deserved, you got what you deserved.

And maybe so. You know, I'm willing to accept that. But at the end of the day, what I was suspended for wasn't something that I did. So I leveraged, I bartered, and I traded the stories that I had, the experiences that I had so that I could create an opportunity for myself, long-term, in another business, so I'd be able to take care of my family.

You know, Google, it's amazing, you can Google somebody, and whatever's there, no matter what people say about you, it's there forever. You can't get rid of it. And so I felt like the only way to obliterate that, would be to agree to do this tell-all for Sports Illustrated, which I did.

DAVIES: So that was 2010, and you describe some of the stuff you've described in this book and here in the interview. And in the book, you advance some ideas for reform. What should change in the system?

LUCHS: Well, there's lots of things that need to change. Unfortunately, players, student athletes as they call them, are living below the poverty line. There was a study done by the NCPA, the National College Players Association. They had done a joint study, the National College Players Association and Ithaca College, that showed that there was an average shortfall amount between the cost of full attendance and what players received of around $3,000.

And unfortunately, a lot of these players have no way to fill that gap. There's no mechanism by way to get that money that they need, aside from Pell grants and other things that people will bring up in defense of why nothing needs to change.

So what I'm advancing is it just deals with the agent problem. College football has a lot more problems than just the agent issue. In fact, a lot of the scandals that took place over the past few years - in college football, in college basketball - had nothing at all to do with sports agents.

But with respect to the agent problem itself, I'm suggesting that if the NCAA doesn't want to share profits, and they want to continue to have this unpaid workforce, then let the market determine their value. Let us give them money if that's what they need, in a non-recourse loan at very favorable interest rates.

You know, allow us to fill that gap because as of right now it's being done, but it's not being done in a way that can be controlled or monitored by anybody at the NCAA or the NFLPA, the National Football League Players Association or even at the state level.

And the NCAA, they don't have subpoena power, and they have absolutely no impact on the agent community at all whatsoever. And what I'm recommending is for participation in that program, an agent then could offer up in trade the equivalent of subpoena power, access to phone records or bank records and finally give the NCAA the ability to actually enforce its rules, one little tweak.

I mean, at the end of the day, do they want to lose a toenail, or do they want to lose a foot? I'm saying sacrifice the toenail.

DAVIES: The toenail, meaning this restriction on financial transactions between agents and college players?

LUCHS: Right. The ability to receive loans is a basic right that all Americans have. Why should college athletes be denied that same right? The only reason that they're denied that right is because the NCAA says that they should.

DAVIES: You know, I have to say when I read about, you know, these players getting loans from agents, a lot of them paid them back. Particularly when you compare this to other kinds of corruptions, you know, members of Congress who betray the public trust for money or Wall Street derivatives manipulators who bring the financial system down, I mean, this doesn't seem so terribly destructive.

LUCHS: No, in fact if it's a crime, it's certainly a victimless crime. People need to understand the way that the structure of the NCAA works and what they're protecting. Lots of people will argue, well, hey, you know, if you're not going to give them loans, the right way to do it is to actually pay the players.

But what they fail to realize is that if they paid the players, then an argument could be made that they're employees, and if they're employees, now suddenly there are benefits, such as workers' compensation, that need to be considered and the impact that that has on college football. And quite frankly, they should be employees.

They should be students who are also employees. I don't see how that's even wrong.

DAVIES: You began when you were 19 years old, getting started in the business, and were confronted with an athlete who wanted $2,500, and you faced a moral choice and decided it was worth a try and started down this road. Now you're in another business, you're in real estate. Are you a different person? Do you consider these kinds of dilemmas differently?

I mean, there are shortcuts in all kinds of businesses.

LUCHS: Absolutely, and, you know, let me say that very few of us see the world the same way at 22 as they do at 42, which I am now. So, obviously I don't suppose I do everything the same way I did it back then. But as far as providing loans, you know, I know people - the knee-jerk reaction, and I think they're conditioned by what they've grown up with, you know, since the '50s, I guess, when the NCAA coined the phrase student athletes, and the amateurism, the way that we know it to be today - I really question the morality and the ethics of the entire structure that leaves these players in a position where they have to, if they want to not live in poverty, take money from some of these sources.

So as far as ethically, I mean, yeah at the end of the day, I was helping myself. I acknowledge that. It was a shortcut that I took. Would I do it again? No, I wouldn't do that again. I made the choice not to do that stuff again, when after my suspension I had to decide if I was going to continue the business or move on somewhere else. So my ambition exists but no longer in a blind form.

DAVIES: Well, Josh Luchs, thanks so much for speaking with us.

LUCHS: Thank you so much for having me.

DAVIES: Josh Luchs spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Luchs' memoir is called "Illegal Procedure: A Sports Agent Comes Clean on the Dirty Business of College Football." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Tomorrow night, the PBS series "Great Performances," features a tribute to two stars of the Yiddish theater, Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky. It was written and stars their grandson, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, the music director of the San Francisco Symphony. The tribute features music, readings, archival film clips and photos, and Michael Tilson Thomas's personal memories of his grandmother.

In the show, Thomas conducts the New World Symphony, which he founded. The Thomashefskys were pioneers of the Yiddish theater. Boris was a producer. He built theaters and he and Bessie starred in productions of new plays and new musicals, as well as classic plays translated into Yiddish. Boris did the first Yiddish production of "Hamlet." When he died in 1933, 30,000 people gathered on the Lower East Side of Manhattan for his funeral.

Boris and Bessie each immigrated to America from the Ukraine in the 1880s. Before we talk with Michael Tilson Thomas, let's hear an archival recording of Boris Thomashefsky singing a song he did in the film "Bar Mitzvah."


BORIS THOMASHEFSKY: (Siniging in foreign language)

GROSS: So that's Boris Thomashefsky, the star of the Yiddish stage, who was the late grandfather of my guest, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas.

Michael Tilson Thomas, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: Thank you. Pleasure.

GROSS: So your grandfather sang in synagogues in the Ukraine and on the Lower East Side of Manhattan before singing on the stage. Do you think he was influenced as a singer by the cantorial tradition?

THOMAS: Very much so because in Boris's family all my great-great-grandfathers had been mostly khazns, cantors, except the ones who had become instead badchens, that's to say a kind of village entertainers, people who would get up at a chair at a wedding and sing a song which was completely appropriate to the occasion, which was expected on that occasion. And yet, it would have improvised lyrics, little outtakes that made it completely individual to that night. So there was that sacred and profane division always in the family. And Boris's father, who already had a kind of wandering spirit - as it was called - nonetheless, sent Boris to the best cantorial school in Russia in Berdichev where he became a star.

GROSS: The role of the Yiddish theater was very important for Jewish immigrants in the United States, many of whom spoke only Yiddish. And so they couldn't read the regular newspapers. A lot of the English language theater would not have literal meaning to them, because they wouldn't understand the language. So the Yiddish stage, I mean that was a really important - particularly in New York - a really important place for gathering and for doing anything cultural.

THOMAS: Well, absolutely. But, of course, there were very many Yiddish newspapers in New York and Philadelphia and Chicago and all these major cities at that time. But for the audience to go to the theater to experience a show, especially a show which was very often in my grandfather's case a kind of spectacle, gave them a sense of the importance, the sheer scale of what was achievable by an immigrant in the United States. It inspired them. Old ladies have come up to me on the street and said we were kids, we had nothing but once a week or once a month we went to the theater and we saw the red velvet curtains with the name Thomashefsky in large gold letters. And we thought if that's possible for him to do then it's possible for us to do.

GROSS: The name Thomashefsky is such a famous name in the world of theater and in the world of Yiddish theater. I grew up knowing that name. I knew that there were Thomashefskys were famous performers on the Yiddish stage but that's about all I knew. Your last name is Thomas, which is an abbreviated version of Thomashefsky. How did Thomashefsky become Thomas?

THOMAS: It really started with my father, who was trying to make his own way in life in the theater, and he simply was unable to do that. Everywhere that he went, he would mention his last name and right away, it was, oh, you're Boris Thomashefsky's son. And therefore, he didn't want that. He just wanted to be able to find his own way in life and in the theater. So he was the one who changed his name initially to Ted Thomas. And, quite frankly, he also wanted to escape from that whole crazed celebrity situation which my grandparents inspired, and I think he also wanted to protect me from that. Because there were crazed fans, is the only way of describing, there were stalker kinds of people who were pursuing my grandparents and their children and with the same kind of ardor that we're accustomed to thinking of crazy paparazzi or fans pursuing stars today.

GROSS: Were you aware of that when you were growing up? Your grandfather was dead but your grandmother lived until you were 16 or 17, and she lived nearby and I think you were pretty close to her. Did you get a sense of people stalking her? Or was it like way too late for that because she was already in her 70s?


THOMAS: Well, she had also moved out to LA. And one of the reasons for doing that outside of getting some character parts in movies she hoped for, was that she wanted to get away from the whole scene in New York - a town, as she said, with too many ghosts.

But when I really became aware of the shadow of Boris for the first time was when I went back East when I was perhaps 11 or 12 and I was going to a lot of shows, stage manager cousins of mine, because so many members of the family were still in the business in show business, not necessarily as actors on stage, but in everything having to do with the behind the scenes life. And we used to go to just one scene in every play so theater people they say oh, kid, the good scene to see, the Luntz act two finale is good. Eddie Foy's joke in the second scene of the first act is good, you know, so that kind of stuff.

But there was this one show, "My Fair Lady," and everybody was talking about it and I thought I'd like to see it. My mother said don't ask cousin Georgie to get you into that show. It's the hardest ticket to get and just don't be a monster. So, of course, when I saw him I immediately said, could we see "My Fair Lady?" We went to the theater. People were lined up around the block to hopefully get some returns and he went over to the stage door, knocked and said hey, is Izzie around? And Izzie, the company manager, came out and my cousin indicated me and said hey, Izzie, see this kid, Boris Thomashefsky's grandson. Two minutes later we were in row five right in the center of that theater.

GROSS: My guest is conductor Michael Tilson Thomas. His tribute to his grandparents, Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky, will be shown tomorrow night on the PBS series "Great Performances." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, music director of the San Francisco Symphony. He conducts the New World Symphony in his tribute to his grandparents Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky, who were stars of the Yiddish theater, it will be shown tomorrow night on the PBS series "Great Performances."

Although your grandfather died before you were born, you got to know your grandmother, Bessie Thomashefsky, pretty well. And tell us about the kind of parts that she played in the Yiddish theater.

THOMAS: Bessie started out as a young girl, she was about five when she arrived to the United States from the Ukraine and she met Boris, kind of eloped with him when she was a young teenager and 14, 15 years old and she began finding her way in the theater, first playing kind of innocent young girl roles. But as time went on, she also discovered her enormous abilities as a comedian and she very often played trouser parts or parts involving women being disguised as men for particular political or educational, social purposes. A little bit like what the story of "Yentl" is, right?

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

THOMAS: So Bessie did a lot of plays like that, where a woman disguises herself as a man in order to gain the advantages of education or whatever that a man can have.

GROSS: What did she tell you about women's rights and the disparities facing women when she was young?

THOMAS: Well, she went from being a little girl in a village that was asked to bring in the goats and do other domestic chores to working in a tobacco factory in Baltimore and then suddenly finding herself on stage as a star pretty quickly. But she went beyond that. She wanted to know everything about the structure of the theater and she became a very effective producer and manager and someone who paid far more attention to the whole business and organization aspect of the theater than my grandfather did, who was the kind of big dreamer and partier. And that was so unusual for a woman of those days.

I have some correspondence of hers where she's writing to some people who put into an ad in some big paper that she was going to be a part of some season they were doing. And she writes to them saying that she absolutely has not agreed to do this and these are the conditions which they must immediately fulfill in order for this to happen. It's really very tough and straight talk. And there's a lot of stuff about her I didn't have room for in the show, remarkable things, like when she was arrested by Theodore Roosevelt.

This happened in this way, in New York there were blue laws at the time, meaning that performances were forbidden on Sunday. But, of course, in the Yiddish theater Sunday was a very big day because Saturday was the Sabbath. So they played on Sunday and at one point when TR was police commissioner of New York, he and some of his men raided one of the Thomashefsky's theaters. And he came in, he saw Bessie who was very young and who looked much younger than she was always, and he said look out, little girl. And she said, little girl, my ass. I'm the star here. If anybody's been taken in, it's me.


GROSS: That's so funny. So she got arrested?

THOMAS: She did. That's exactly the way she told me the story. Little...

GROSS: Like she insisted on getting arrested.


THOMAS: Yeah. She was going to be in the center of it. And I mean women's rights, feminism was a very big part of the Yiddish theater, but along with a lot of other social issues. I mean the Yiddish theater plays, even the so-called shunts, sort of low, every day plays were about issues like women's rights, like about labor, capital and labor, child labor, about degrees of religious observance, about the whole issue of assimilation, about reproductive rights of women, and also a lot about the language. Are we going to speak Yiddish? Are we going to speak English? What language at home? What language in the rest of the world? And what about the much larger issue, which is how can it be that somebody who was such a big shot in the old country became a nobody in America, and some little schlemiel from nowhere in a tiny village has suddenly in the United States become such a macher, such a big shot, and what does an immigrant pool of people do to understand where now is honor? Where is tradition?

GROSS: So I want to play now a record by your grandmother, the late Bessie Thomashefsky, singing a song. And I'm going to have you introduced it. This is actually from a DVD outtake from your show. So tell us about this song and when you think it was recorded.

THOMAS: This is a little introduction to a song called "Minka's Monologue," one of Bessie's most famous parts in which she's playing a girl from a little village who has come to United States and is on the eve of a huge adventure, a "Pygmalion"-like experiment in which she will be elevated from her lowly parlor maid status to be so lady of the house.

GROSS: OK. So this is Bessie Thomashefsky recorded approximately when?

THOMAS: 1920-something.

GROSS: Wow. OK. Here we go.


BESSIE THOMASHEFSKY: (Singing in foreign language)

GROSS: So that was the late Bessie Thomashefsky singing in Yiddish and she and Boris Thomashefsky are the late grandparents of my guest, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and he has a show about them, which is about to be shown on public television on March 29th and the show is called "The Thomashefskys: Music and Memories of a Life in the Yiddish Theater."

So what kind of music did your grandmother introduce you to?

THOMAS: I was lucky enough to hear her deliver a lot of her biggest numbers right there in our living room since she would arrive every weekend to our house and we would put on a little show together which I could accompany her in some of her songs and she would do recitations and we did little scenes together.

So, although it was my parents fondest hope that I would become some kind of scientist or mathematician, I realized that she was already getting me into the whole theater experience right there at home.

GROSS: That's really interesting. You know, one of the things she says – one of the things you describe her having said to you when you were young: You're more like me than your parents are. They're more conventional and you have more of a – what'd she say? Like a creative spirit or something.

THOMAS: Yeah, she said: Your parents are very lovely people but terribly conventional. You're like me; you're an adventurer. You'll have to prove something.

GROSS: Did you take that to heart?

THOMAS: I paid attention to it. I didn't know quite what it meant and as I listened to her tell all these stories from her life from her childhood through her stardom, and then even her reflections on the way fashion has changed and the way she was, in her late life, a quite lonely person, I took it all in.

And what I kind of understood from her was that it had been a very interesting ride; that she really was proud of what had been accomplished. And when she saw somebody, a very successful entertainer coming up, and she could see in them something that had come from the kind of the things that they had done in the theater, she was very proud of it. She recognized them and appreciated them.

GROSS: Now, you actually sing a song in your show about your grandparents and I was surprised.


GROSS: I didn't know you sang.

THOMAS: You and me both.

GROSS: You know, it was very enjoyable and it's a song about how famous they were. Why don't you describe the song? And then we'll hear you singing it.

THOMAS: My grandparents, especially my grandfather, was a real character. A man about town - that's what Boris was. And he was hobnobbing with great people in the theater like the Cohans and people in society like Diamond Jim Brady and Feodor Chaliapin. The great opera singer was a big pal of his.

And these guys were going out on the town. They were doing all the restaurants and all the after-hours spots and they all had diamond garters and, you know, fancy duds. Lots of top hats and tortoiseshell canes and Thomashefsky particularly developed this image for the Yiddish public of his being this grand impresario, rich bon vivant.

And his friends, Jack Norworth and Nora Bayes, the composers of "Shine On, Harvest Moon," wrote this comedic song in tribute to him.

GROSS: And this is Michael Tilson Thomas performing an excerpt from his new PBS special "The Thomashefskys: Music and Memories of a Life in the Yiddish Theater."


THOMAS: A one, two, three, four. (Singing) When Caruso's on a stage, he thinks he is mighty fine. Addie Mac (ph) he thinks he is the rage. Maybe so but not on mine. You know that Georgie Cohan makes me sing. (Unintelligible) Now, my sister met an actor, a real life Yiddish actor. She saw him act and said, oy, I'm for you. Well, who do you suppose went and married my sister?

(Singing) Don't you know? Give a guess. Thomashefsky. Thomashefsky. I know if I told you...

GROSS: That was Michael Tilson Thomas, the conductor of the San Francisco Symphony, singing and conducting his New World Symphony in an excerpt of his show about his grandparents, the stars of the Yiddish stage, Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky. Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with Michael Tilson Thomas, music director of the San Francisco Symphony. He conducts the New World Symphony in his tribute to his grandparents, Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky, who were stars of the Yiddish theater. The tribute will be shown tomorrow night on the PBS series "Great Performances."

So being exposed to so much Yiddish song and pop and theater music, how did you end up in classical music?


THOMAS: It was my family's greatest fear that I would go into show business. But, of course, in the Yiddish theater when some music was desired they would nod to the conductor and say: Professor, (foreign language spoken). Professor, play something. I sometimes think that because the maestro was always called professor, that in their minds that was more respectable in some kind of way.

So I was allowed to pursue that. And then my life just made the turn it did and once they saw it was really happening for me they were very happy about it. And I think that the involvement, though, I've had in Yiddish music, which really begins with village music – and that's a kind of theme that our show follows, that the first music my grandparents performed absolutely sounds like klezmer music.

And then it sort of turns into klezmer mixed with operetta. And then in the United States, especially in Bessie's repertoire, it become very, very much more Americanized until finally it's kind of indistinguishable from the early numbers of Irving Berlin and George Gershwin, which sound very much like numbers that could be in the Yiddish theater.

GROSS: So when your grandmother died and you were, I don't know, 16 or 17, was there music at her funeral?

THOMAS: There wasn't much music at my grandmother's funeral. There were a few prayers and there were very few people there. And her plaque just says Bessie Thomashefsky, Yiddish theater pioneer, star, which is exactly what she wanted it to say. But of course, there's a whole repertory of songs that we played at home all the time whenever we thought about her and that I still play.

It was a very big moment, a big rite of passage, in my life the first day that I took over playing her songs instead of my father playing them. And measuring the way I was playing them against the wonderful nuances that he and my grandmother had brought to the music. I was lucky to hear my family play that music for me.

I wanted to keep in my ears exactly the way they had sung the songs and played them with all the irony and mordancy and snappy little gestures and comebacks.

GROSS: So you mentioned some advice in your show that your grandmother gave you about when you're on stage you have to remember that the people in the uppermost balcony are the people who paid the least but are enjoying it the most. And you have to, even if you're whispering, you have to make sure that those people can hear you. How has that affected you as a conductor?

THOMAS: My way of expressing what she said to me is what is it like for people beyond the sixth row? We play in such big halls sometimes in classical music and they're halls designed to be very rich which is, on the one hand, very nice, the gorgeous sound that's there, but to get the sound to be distinct is difficult. And I sometimes tell my students that playing classical music is like making an announcement in an airport. That you hear someone say: Passengers on flight 391 (unintelligible)...


THOMAS: Immediately please.


THOMAS: So you're trying to make every single moment completely distinct. Another way Bessie had of saying that, she said: Listen, when you're doing an accent, you've got to watch out for the ninth word. It's the ninth word that's dangerous. Because you're saying: I was going to the park one day and I noticed the most beautiful...


THOMAS: And suddenly, you know, around that you'll suddenly drop the accent. You'll drop it. You've got to keep the contour of it all the way going through. Same thing in music.

GROSS: That's really great.


GROSS: We're going to close with the overture from "Hansha(ph) in America" which is one of the shows that your grandmother was in. Right?

THOMAS: "Hansha" was a show about a young girl who disguises herself as a man so she can go to driving school and become the chauffer of a big, classy New York family.

GROSS: Great. And your grandmother, no doubt, was that girl.

THOMAS: She was that girl and she started as a chauffer in the play and she wound up at the end being a big-time suffragette.

GROSS: So this is my guest, Michael Tilson Thomas, conducting the New World Symphony, which he founded. And this is an excerpt of his tribute to his grandparents Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky which will be shown on public television on March 29th. Michael Tilson Thomas, thank you. It's been great.

THOMAS: As always, thank you.


GROSS: Michael Tilson Thomas' tribute to his grandparents, "The Thomashefskys: Music and Memories of a Life in the Yiddish Theater," will be shown tomorrow night on the PBS series "Great Performances." DVDs will be available April 24th. Michael Tilson Thomas is the musical director of the San Francisco Symphony and the founder of the New World Symphony which he conducts in the tribute.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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