Bertha Kalich was born Beylke Kalakh in what was then Austria-Hungary, the only child of Solomon Kalakh, a poor brush manufacturer and amateur violinist. Her mother was Babette Halber Kalakh, a seamstress who often made costumes for local theaters. Babette was an active opera fan and her devotion inspired a love for the stage in her daughter. They often attended performances together and when young Bertha came of age, her parents scraped together their meager funds to send her to private music and drama schools. At age thirteen, she joined the chorus of the local Polish theater and later attended the prestigious Lemberg Conservatory. While still barely a teen, Kalich sang in the chorus for La Traviata in the Lviv Polish Theatre Opera. A fellow actor, Max Gimpel then offered her a job at his pioneering Yiddish-language theater group, Yankev Ber Gimpel. During this period of her life, Kalich had been performing in Polish, Russian, and German, but when Gimpel’s leading lady left for America, Kalich became his prima donna, winning the title role in Avrom Goldfaden’s operetta Shulamis. After a series of performances in Budapest, Goldfaden offered her a permanent position with his company, and Kalich left later that year for Romania. She was able to pick up Romanian in a matter of months, and was subsequently able to appear in major roles there with the state theater. According to historian Daniel Soyer, “she was such a success that anti-Semitic theatergoers, who had come with the intention of pelting her with onions, threw flowers instead.” Bertha Kalich married Leopold Spachner in 1890 at the age of 16. They had two children, a son Arthur (who died young) and a daughter Lilian.
Even at that age, Bertha Kalich already had a major career in at least three countries and four languages. Her success prompted jealousies, however and in 1894 there was rumored to be an assassination plot in the works by some of her rivals. Joseph Rumshinsky, whom she had met during her the Shulamis tour, introduced her to Joseph Edelstein of the People’s Theatre who offered to sponsor her to New York. His newly founded Thalia Theater was looking for fresh talent, and there Kalich appeared in Di Vilde Kenigin (The wild queen) and a Yiddish production of La Belle Hélène (Beautiful Helen). She also took reprised former roles of Shulamis, Juliette, and Desdemona in a number of Yiddish-language productions. In her new home, Bertha Kalich set out to emphasize her dramatic skills over her musical talents, working hard as a proponent of the Yiddish theater movement, hoping to help the theatres gain credibility in addition to notoriety. Anti-semitism in America had initially led audiences to believe that Jewish immigrants were incapable of producing anything more than low-brow, minstrel entertainment, but Thalia had made a name for itself with its revolutionary Yiddish-language translations of Shakespeare. Kalich played a number of roles in these landmark works, even beating out the other male stars for a chance to play the coveted role of Hamlet. According to Yiddish theatre scholar Joel Berkowitz, Shakespeare’s plays served “as both sources and symbols” in helping Jewish immigrants “cross the bridge from Yiddish to American culture.”
It also didn’t hurt that fans compared Bertha Kalich to another famous female Hamlet of the era, Sarah Bernhardt, and in fact many newspapers would go on to call her the “Jewish Berhardt” in the years to come. In addition to her work with Shakespeare, Kalich’s performance in Leon Kobrin’s The East Side Ghetto won enormous critical praise and increased Kalich’s fanbase outside of the Jewish community. This production in combination with her performances in playwright Jacob Gordin’s, didactic plays brought unprecedented attention to the Yiddish stage. In 1900, she starred as Freydenyu in the premiere of Gordin’s God, Man and the Devil, and that prompted Gordin to write the role of Etty in The Kreutzer Sonata and the title role in his Sappho and Phaon especially for Kalich. These productions made it out of the Yiddish playhouses, going all the way to Broadway, and establishing Kalich as a household name. Her roles tended to be “women of the world,” such as the title characters she played in Pierre Berton and Charles Simon’s play Zaza, Victorien Sardou’s Fédora (1905), Sappho and Phaon, and Magda in Hermann Sudermann’s Heimat. Under the tutelage of Harrison Grey Fiske, she gained in reputation, eventually going on to star in plays such as Maeterlinck’s Monna Vanna. She picked up English easily, however, her accent was slow to fade. She worked with Minnie Maddern Fiske for months to correct her speech, but was never completely successful. Kalich acted in a number of plays for Fiske, both original works and adaptations of roles that she had created in Yiddish. By 1910, though, “she was having trouble finding suitable roles in the light American theater for her more emotional and tragic style. Though she would go on to work with heavy-hitters like producers, Lee Shubert and Arthur Hopkins, her Broadway career had already begun to fade.
Bertha Kalich left New York for Hollywood in 1914, where she appeared in a few notable films, including a reprise of her hit Broadway role in Marta of the Lowlands. Success was short-lived, however, and by 1915, Kalich was frequently returning to Yiddish roles to supplement her income. Her mainstream success in the American theatrical world enhanced her prestige there, and she began to receive top billing at the Second Avenue Theatre alongside stars like David Kessler. By the late 1920s, Kalich’s eyesight was failing, and she gradually became blind. Though she officially retired in 1931, she continued to appear onstage occasionally, especially at evenings mounted in her honor that served to elevate her legacy in the Yiddish theatre community. Late in her life, she recorded scenes from Goldfaden’s historical plays for “The Forward Hour” on radio station WEVD, but her poor health meant that she needed to rehearse long, grueling hours even for short parts. Her last public appearance came on February 23, 1939, at a benefit for her at the Jolson Theater, where she recited the final scene of Louis Untermeyer’s poem “Heine’s Death.”
Bertha Kalich died on April 18, 1939 at the age of 64 from undisclosed causes, and her remains were interred at Mount Hebron Cemetery in Flushing, Queens, New York. Fifteen hundred people attended her funeral, considered a disappointing turnout, considering her status in the Jewish community. She had come to be seen as “a relic of the theatrical past, with a manner too romantic and grand even for the Yiddish stage” Soyer notes. “But, nevertheless, in the prime of her career at the beginning of the twentieth century, Kalich played an important role in efforts to improve the artistic standards of the Yiddish theater, whose status she also helped to raise with her success with English-speaking audiences.”
- May, 17, 1874
- Lemberg, Galicia
- April, 04, 1939
- Queens, New York
- Mount Hebron Cemetery
- Flushing, New York