Freda Alber performed on Pittsburgh stage for half a century
In an acting career that spanned 60 years, Freda Alber played roles as diverse as Queen Gertrude in “Hamlet” and Yenta the Matchmaker in “Fiddler on the Roof.”
And she performed most of them in Pittsburgh, the only city she ever wanted to call home.
Alber died Thursday, Jan. 20, at the Charles Morris Center in Squirrel Hill, where she lived for the last two years of her life. She was 99.
Born Freda Cazen on May 18, 1911, at Magee Hospital in Oakland, Alber, who grew up in the lower Hill District, never quite explained why she wanted to act. Her son, Stephen Alber, asked her once, but said she didn’t really answer.
“I think she was born that way,” Stephen said. “Some people are born with blue eyes, some are born with brown hair. I think she was born with an actor’s gene.”
If so, she used it well.
Alber majored in drama at Carnegie Tech,. After she graduated, she moved to New York, at the urging of her future husband, Elliot.
“He said ‘Go take your shot.’” Stephen said.
And she did, finding work in several radio soap operas of the day.
But she missed Pittsburgh and returned home. “She didn’t like being alone,” her son said. “She was a Pittsburgh kid. She liked Pittsburgh.”
Here, Alber made a name for herself as a talented local actress in community theaters as well as Jewish organizations, for whom she did several dramatic readings at social functions.
She made another foray into radio in the 1950s when she assumed the role of Eve in the series “Adam and Eve,” the story of contemporary Jewish family. The show was part of the larger radio program, “Hadassah Speaks.”
Alber also appeared in several stage performances over the years, including the 1960 Pittsburgh Playhouse production of “Tevye and His Daughters,” based on the stories of Shalom Aleichem, which inspired the Broadway musical, “Fiddler on the Roof.” In it, she played Tevye’s wife, Golda.
The play was a hit.
“At the time, it was the longest running play in Pittsburgh Playhouse history,” Stephen said. “It ran in the community theater for seven or eight months, which was unheard of.”
She also performed at the “Y” Playhouse, did dramatic readings for celebrations of Israel’s independence, and made dramatic performances for Hadassah, Jewish Family & Children’s Service and B’nai B’rith functions, to name just a few.
After “Fiddler on the Roof” became a hit, Alber joined the cast of a local production of the musical, this time playing the role of Yenta.
But her favorite role, according to her son, was that of Queen Gertrude in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” “She liked that [role] very much because of its complexity.”
Generally speaking, Alber’s career spanned from 1930 to 1990. During that time she also left her mark on the Jewish community, volunteering her time for Hadassah, Friends of Technion, Pittsburgh Conference of Jewish Women’s Organizations and other entities.
In her spare time, she read.
“She was an avid reader — books, magazines, you name it,” Alber said. “By her nightstand was her copy of Shakespeare.”
In fact, Alber amassed an impressive collection of plays over her lifetime that held value beyond her own bookshelves.
“After she moved out of her apartment I donated the whole collection to the CMU Drama Department,” Stephen said.
In addition to her son, Alber is survived by a daughter-in-law, Joanne Tyzenhouse; and by nieces and nephews.
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)