Weak box office, failing health, reasons for company’s demise
The show won’t go on for the Jewish Theatre of Pittsburgh.
After the last production this past November, founder Maurice “Tito” Braunstein has decided to bring the curtain down on his beloved project for the last time.
It was a decision made with a heavy heart.
“I am not happy at all to be closing the theater, the 84-year-old Braunstein said. “I feel like I’m closing it because I must. I have to do it, but it doesn’t make me feel good.”
Despite a valiant marketing effort to generate support, ticket sales were too low last year to continue. That, and Braunstein’s failing eyesight were the main reasons for his decision.
Braunstein has been interested in theater since the age of 12. “I got the infection, and it’s incurable,” he quipped. “Nobody gets over the show biz disease.”
Though he’s performed in many
community theater productions over the years, his first love is music; he was a member of both B’nai Israel’s and Beth Shalom’s choir, serving as the latter’s director for 25 years. He also chaired the Jewish Community Center’s theater committee for many years, until it closed.
Sensing a need in the community, Braunstein established the Jewish Theatre of Pittsburgh in 2001, following retirement from his law practice.
The first performance was scheduled in the days following 9/11, and Braunstein thought that no one would come to see the opening performance of “That’s Life.” Indeed, only 65 people showed up the first night.
But some 500 theatergoers showed up for the second evening, though, all clamoring for seats.
JTOP lasted until Braunstein’s health problems forced the company to go dark in 2006.
But he had a hard time letting it go.
“Unfortunately, I couldn’t find anyone who wanted to take the responsibility to run the company; it’s a big job, a great work to be done in the simplest of productions. People would say, what does a producer do — he does it all in one word — everything.”
Nonetheless, Braunstein managed to find enough funding and supporters to resurrect the JTOP in late 2011, moving the venue from the JCC to Rodef Shalom.
Unfortunately, ticket sales for the two productions that year — “Driving Miss Daisy” and a revival of “That’s Life” — were disappointing.
“Theater has changed over the years,” Braunstein said. “You can’t find volunteers any longer; you need to pay people if you’ve got the money to do it.” He said he only hired professional actors and singers, all of whom were local.
Howard Elson was one of those local professionals who performed in some of Braunstein’s productions and was on the advisory board during JTOP’s first incarnation.
“I think the Jewish community in particular and all of Pittsburgh owes Tito a lot of credit for taking this on, almost singlehandedly,” he said. “He did it as a labor of love.
“It’s so disappointing,” Elson added. “A city like Pittsburgh that has such a vibrant Jewish community deserves to have a Jewish theater. I’m sorry it won’t continue and sorry Tito didn’t get the support that would allow him to go on.”
But it wasn’t for lack of trying.
Braunstein said fundraising and grant writing was complicated. He praised the Pittsburgh newspapers and especially The Jewish Chronicle for their support, but ultimately it was not enough to generate the necessary community and financial backing. His failing eyesight and inability to read scripts, was also a major factor in his decision to lay his dream to rest once and for all.
Over the years, the JTOP produced 21 shows, 19 of those between 2001-2006 and two when it was briefly resurrected last year. Braunstein attempted to produce shows that not only highlighted Jewish culture, but would also have universal appeal. “Fiddler on the Roof,” “I’m Not Rappaport,” “The Chosen” and “The Sisters Rosenzweig” were on the playbills.
As to whether there is still a place for Jewish theater in Pittsburgh’s future, Braunstein is hopeful, though not encouraged.
“Our population has changed a great deal,” he said. “There are a good many thousands of Jewish people who have left the city. The further we get away from old time Judaism, the more Americanized we become, that is a factor.”
But he’s not ruling out the possibility. In fact, he left the door open by maintaining the Jewish Theatre of Pittsburgh as a nonprofit entity, in the event that anyone wants to take over. “My heart and love are in it,” Braunstein said, “and I’d do it in a New York second if I could find someone to agree to be responsible for it, and I’d help in any way I could.”
(Hilary Daninhirsch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)