by Hershl Hartman
THE NEW YORK TIMES’ obituary for “Professor” Irwin Corey, “the world’s greatest authority” (February 7) recalled his “unrepentant leftist view,” his “admiration for Fidel Castro,” his being an “enthusiastic member of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union” and describing himself as a “short Jewish atheist.” It also noted that “some network executives were leery of his
The Times went on to cover his amazing range of performances on stage, screen, radio and
My personal experience with Corey would add to that leftist résumé and include his unbelievably phenomenal memory for faces and names.
Irwin Corey’s leftism in the 1930s and ’40s included performances with his pal Zero Mostel at
home parties to raise funds for the Communist Daily Worker. It was after such gigs that I met
them both around January, 1946.
I was then in my mid-teens, a member of the training studio of the Yiddish Theater Ensemble and a walk-on extra in its production of Sholem Aleichem’s “The Bloody Joke, or It’s Hard to Be a
Jew.” The tragi-comedy played on Fridays and Saturdays in the theater of the Barbizon Plaza
Hotel on Central Park South (now, sadly, part of Trump Parc). The heavy sets for the play had to
be kept in the hotel’s storage rooms during the intervening days. It fell to to the young male
studio members to do the heavy lifting, carrying the sets through the auditorium and adjoining
lobby on West 58th St.
As friends of the stage designer Heinz Condel, the comics Corey and Mostel, having concluded
their appearances at those home parties, showed up several times as we teenagers struggled not to drop our burdens. So, naturally, the two did their best to crack us up — and succeeded.
Flash forward more than four decades. Mostel and Corey have become renowned stars of stage
and screen. I’ve left theatrical ambitions (and New York) far behind and, in my day job, am
promoting the new whirlpool bathtubs being introduced by my employer at the huge trade show of the National Association of Home Builders in Dallas, TX. Our modest booth can’t compare with the vast exhibit of Johns-Manville Corp. showing off its asbestos and fiberglass roofing materials in the very center of the huge hall.
The main attraction drawing visitors to the J-M display was the appearance, every two hours, of
the famed Professor Irwin Corey. So, remembering our meeting over forty years earlier and being proud of his politics as well as his fame, I left my duties and went over to catch his act.
As I approached, Corey was sitting on the side steps of the stage, taking a cigarette break. He
looked up, saw me and burst out in a perfect South-Central Yiddish accent: “Heyrshl, vus tisti
du?” (Hershl, what are you doing here?)
Farewell, Irwin tayerer (dear), your light will shine on in our current dark hour.
Hershl Hartman is education director of the Sholem Community and School and a Secular Jewish vegvayzer (leader) in Los Angeles.