Celia Adler has a connection to the New York theater world that is fundamental to the Jewish artistic movement at the start of the 20th century.
Born in 1889, Adler was just six months old when she made her stage debut as a “prop” child in the arms of her very own actress mother, Dina Shtettin Adler. By the age of 4, Adler had an actual written role in “Der Yidisher Kenig Lear,” a Yiddish production of “King Lear.”
That link to Yiddish theater would blossom into a full-blown career. At 10 years old, Adler began touring and made it to the London circuit by 1910, still performing with her mother. As she grew as a young actress, Adler played some of the most popular Yiddish markets, including in Russia and Poland. But she quickly returned to New York and was a veritable stage star by her teen years.
The number of Yiddish theater productions Adler participated in is immense. At the start of the 1910’s, there were five Yiddish cabarets operating in Manhattan and Adler would appear time and again at each of them. She was originally offered a contract at the iconic New York People’s Theater, though she would find herself re-signing contracts with the various other Jewish houses, forced into nomadic wandering thanks to a tough, male-dominated industry.
But Adler persevered, and became one of the most beloved actresses on the circuit. She was known not only for her ingénue qualities, but also a physical comedy style not usual for women of the day.
In 1918, Adler would officially become part of history, when she was asked by theater mogul Maurice Schwartz to join his Yiddish Art Theater. His Lower East Side venue on Second Avenue became a hub of Jewish art, exemplifying a period of entertainment dominated with Jewish professionals thanks to glass ceiling protocols that meant Jews had little career options elsewhere in the city.
That building still stands today as the Village East Cinema and is a designated landmark site in Manhattan.
In 1919, Adler joined noted performers of the time like Jacob Ben-Ami to form the Jewish Art Theater. The troupe brought an added level of professionalism to the genre, using a standardized version of Yiddish, hiring toasted scenic and costume designers, and creating fully developed characters not typical of vaudeville.
Over the next two decades, Adler continued her stage work, appearing briefly in a number of mainstream productions and in a few feature films. After World War II, she helped bring other Yiddish entertainers to troops still stationed abroad as part of the Jewish Welfare Board.
By the 1950’s she retired from the business, saying she was ready to play her most important role yet—that of Jewish grandmother.
Celia Adler was married three times, lastly to her husband Nathan Forman who she remained with until her death in 1979. She was a contemporary of Fanny Brice, the Andrews Sisters, and scores of Jewish-American actresses who would come to grace the boards of Broadway in the generations that followed.