It would be hard to say that Joseph Rumshinsky was destined for greatness. The son of an amateur voice teacher and a hatter in Russian-controlled Vilna, his story is in many ways the true American dream—a theme that appeared in his shows repeatedly throughout his career. And while he never quite achieved the mainstream fame of his successors, like Secunda and Ellstein, his work laid the foundation for their accomplishments.
Rumshinsky’s collaborations with Boris Thomashefsky and Molly Picon, his adaptations of Yiddish literary masters like Shalom Aleichem and Isaac Leyb Peretz, and his grand aspirations for the artform that he devoted himself to for most of his life could perhaps justify the appellation First Master of Second Avenue. His ambition and experimentation, however, earned him a different nickname—Crazy Wagner.
First Master of Second Avenue or Crazy Wagner? Trace Rumshinsky's journey—with music, photos, videos and more—from Pale of Settlement to the peak of success in our new virtual exhibit, and decide for yourself:
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