Puppet plays showed Arnold the full power of the theatre

By Adam Cailler

ARNOLD Mittelman’s battle with antisemitism during his early years have had a profound affect on his career.

If it wasn’t for those dark days as a youngster growing up in Jersey City, he might never have found the theatre world.

The 72-year-old — who will be in London in January for the UK premiere of his production of Rothschild and Sons — explained: “My sister and I were the only Jews in our primary school.

“During that time I found myself being the victim of a great deal of antisemitism and isolationism.

“I found that one way of handling the loneliness and persecution was to be creative.

“I started doing puppet plays, acting and theatre and saw that I could create these plays and get these kids to watch.

“But when I peeked out from behind the curtain, the same children who had chased me the day before were now sitting there with wide-eyes, taking in whatever I was saying or doing.

“At that moment I realised the power theatre had to take a disparate audience and bring it together and unite them into one open-minded and available individual.”

New York-born Arnold had a “pretty traditional” Jewish upbringing. His family was rooted in the notion of Jewish religion and culture.

He recalled: “My parents spoke Yiddish in the house as a way of stopping the kinder from knowing what was going on.”

The type of antisemitism Arnold dealt with was, he explained, “the usual”.

He recalled: “I suppose nothing is usual when you’re that age, but it was the early 1950s.

“I was living in an Irish Catholic neighbourhood with a lot of Polish people and these children had been taught that the Jews were the source of all of their problems and that Hitler’s work wasn’t done.

“They were rather vehement about the way they expressed themselves to me.

“They would chase me, lock me in a sewer and steal my money.

“I started to make good friends with myself. I realised that to get through it I would have to find ways to become comfortable in my own company and work hard to be the best person I could be.

“So, I proceeded to do so by orienting myself around academics and theatre.”

Arnold also became friends with the African-American community living in his area. This gave him a greater understanding with those in a minority.

“I’ve always been able to identify with those who are ‘the other’, be it gay friends in theatre etc,” he said. “That’s why theatre has always been so interesting to me.

“It’s a meritocracy — you are as good as you can be and you are not judged by anything other than your talent.”

Arnold moved back to New York City to attend the High School of Performing Arts, aged 13. This was a defining moment in Arnold’s life.

Arnold, who has two children —17-year-old Tyler and Justine, 45 — said: “Everything changed for me. I thought I had gone to heaven as I was now in this world of arts and culture, surrounded by students who were so actively engaged in this.

“One of the musicals I helped produce later in life — Fame — was something I felt comfortable with because I had literally lived through that.

“When I finished that, I was part of the first class of a new university called the School Of The Arts.”

Arnold’s journey to this new school was one of incredible fortune.

He was working as part of the crew on an old London bus tour around New York and became friendly with Vincent Sardi, the owner of Sardi’s restaurant.

He explained: “I had worked for him for three years as an English bus conductor with a very cockney accent.

“He came to me one day and said that he had heard I had got into this school, but I told him I couldn’t go because I didn’t have the money for it.

“He replied ‘You do now because I’m going to create a scholarship for you so that you can go free-of-charge’.

“That was the first time in my life that I had seen how somebody cared about me and put their money where their feelings were.”

From this, Arnold has gone on to produce countless plays and shows.

For more than two decades (1985-2006) he was the producing artistic director of the renowned Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami and was was responsible for more than 200 ethnically-diverse plays, musicals, educational and special events performed during his tenure.

He was also involved in the last episode of the Late Show with David Letterman to take place outside New York on November 22, 1996.

“David wanted the theatre to be really cold!” Arnold recalled. “But then it became too cold and he was moaning about it.

“It was a really special experience with all the television trucks outside the venue.”

In more recent times, Arnold founded the National Jewish Theatre Foundation. Since 2007, with Arnold’s guidance, the NJTF has presented theatrical works that celebrate the richness of Jewish heritage and culture.

This led to his work with the Holocaust Theatre Catalogue — something that he calls his “proudest” achievement.

The goal of the HTC is to collate all theatre work from 1933 onwards, regardless of production history, publishing status, language or judgement as to artistic merit, relating to the Holocaust.

The catalogue currently holds more than 800 plays.

Arnold said: “Knowing that this will be available long after we’ve gone is the proudest moment of my life.

“This is what gets me up in the morning. My hope is that we can create a legacy of something that will certainly outlast me — and it needs to.

“My son went to school and the only take away he got from his Holocaust education was meeting a survivor.

“It occurred to me then that he will be the last generation to meet these people.”

Coming full circle, Arnold reminisced once again about his issues with antisemitism growing up.

He recalled: “Seeing what theatre could do to those people makes me think that this has never changed.

“I have a desire and determination to use theatre to not just entertain, but to somehow get inside people’s minds at a vulnerable moment when they are without their phones, iPads and televisions.

“Moving so strongly into theatre with a Jewish message means I am honoured and privileged to present and preserve material that speaks to the legacy and impact of the Jewish people and the history we have had on audiences.

Rothschild & Sons: A Family Willing to Risk Everything will be staged from January 24–February 17 at the Park Theatre, Finsbury Park, London.


© 2017 Jewish Telegraph