Maurice “Tito” Braunstein, Pittsburgh’s patron of Jewish theater, passed away on Sunday, April 26. He was 86.
For most of his adult life, Braunstein straddled two acts — law and performing arts.
After graduating from the University of Pittsburgh Law School in 1953, he moved to Massachusetts. He had been drafted by the military near the end of law school, said his wife, Barbara Wolf Chotiner Braunstein. After negotiating a deferral and completing the bar exam, he relocated to a Judge Advocate General office in the Bay State.
Around 1956, he returned to Pittsburgh and established a successful law practice. Operating as a solo practitioner in various downtown Pittsburgh locales, Braunstein handled a multitude of cases. Despite the diversity of work, he claimed that one area yielded particular satisfaction.
“One of the things that he did was a lot of private adoptions,” said Chotiner Braunstein. “[He] told me one of the best things was to pick up a baby at the hospital and to carry it and place it in the waiting parents’ arms, and that gave him such joy to do that.”
Braunstein had a constant passion for the arts.
“He practiced law all his life, but I think in his heart he would have liked to have been an actor or singer, he just enjoyed it so much,” said Harriet Kruman, Braunstein’s friend for 60 years.
In the 1970s, he performed with the Center Stage Players, an amateur theatrical group of the Jewish Community Center. A decade later, he collaborated with judges and lawyers from the Allegheny Bar Association on several musical parodies. Their acts satirized contemporary jurisprudential and popular topics. In a 1988 performance of “Ham-Alot” — a spoof of “Camelot” — a trio of Braunstein and two others adapted Oscar Hammerstein’s lyrical classic “Ol’ Man River” into a locally focused “Oil’d Mon River.”
“I think he always needed an outlet for his talent,” said Kruman.
Through music and theater, Braunstein discovered two venues for expression.
He began singing while a child on the East End. As a teenager, he formed his own band as well as played for Peabody High School’s band.
Years later, he joined the choir of Congregation Beth Shalom. He spent four decades with the group. On Cantor Moshe Taube’s 1968 record, “Synagogue Masterpieces,” produced by RCA, Braunstein is listed as a choir member.
He sang tenor under the direction of Max Tarshis, explained Taube. Eventually, Braunstein became choir director.
“He worked with me to bring about the excellence of service at Beth Shalom,” said Taube, “and he contributed a lot. He loved the music, loved cantorial music, and he loved my music; and he loved to conduct.”
“He was a wonderful conductor, wonderful singer,” said Leon Zionts, who was introduced to Braunstein in the 1970s.
“I met Tito when I was very young, sang with him in the Beth Shalom choir, and sang under him when he took over the baton,” said Zionts. “Beth Shalom gained because of Tito.”
Until its disbanding more than a decade ago, the choir performed weekly at Shabbat services and on holidays. Bunny Morris, a longtime member of the
congregation, called the performances “fabulous.”
“The services at Beth Shalom were renowned all over the world, and he helped me reach this great achievement,” said Taube.
In 2000, Braunstein pursued his other artistic passion by establishing the Jewish Theatre of Pittsburgh. The company put on its first production a year later. Eighteen shows followed during the next five years.
“All of the plays that he did — musical, drama or comedy — all were written by Jewish playwrights or had a Jewish theme,” said Chotiner Braunstein. “[He] felt that there was a lot of theater in Pittsburgh but not a Jewish theater.”
Taube attended the Theatre’s performance of “The Fiddler on the Roof,” and fervently recalled the experience.
“He had so much feeling for it,” Taube said of Braunstein. “He had great Jewish feeling; he was not a religious man but an extremely dedicated Jew. He loved Jewish history, he loved Israel, he loved so many things Jewish. It was very moving.”
Zionts acted in several of Braunstein’s productions as well as served on the Theatre’s advisory board.
“Tito was a constant, he was always there, he didn’t miss shows, he was in the box office, in the wings, in the dressing rooms. He was loved and respected by his actors. He was a very supportive
producer,” said Zionts.
Playing to his strengths as a soloist, Braunstein regularly called his own number.
“He always wanted to be in the shows that he produced. He always wanted one song that he could go out and do; [he] never lost that passion to perform,” noted Zionts.
In 2006, the Theatre closed. Braunstein had fallen ill and support waned. Yet in 2012, he revitalized the venture, moved productions from the JCC to Rodef Shalom Congregation, and staged performances of “That’s Life,” and “Driving Miss Daisy.”
“I think theater is a vital and essential part of the cultural life of our Jewish people,” he told The Chronicle in 2012. “I believe there is nothing that can compare with live theater. To portray a Jewish character, the Jewish experience, Jewish values, and our life in America is a significant and important message to convey to the general community, as well as to our Jewish people who aren’t terribly familiar with our cultural life.”
“He wasn’t a religious man, he didn’t go to shul every time,” said Chotiner Braunstein. “[But] being Jewish was all part of who he was inside, being Jewish was just part of his core.”
In addition to his wife, Braunstein is survived by three sons, Ronald (Carolyn) Braunstein of Burlington, Vt., Richard (Ana) Braunstein of New York City and David (Elizabeth) Braunstein of Pittsburgh and stepsons Richard (Karen) Chotiner of Houston and Brad Chotiner of St. Louis. Braunstein is the brother of Eugene Braunstein of California and the late Ronald Braunstein. He is preceded in death by his former spouse, Geraldine Braunstein.
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.