Obituary: Phil Bernstein

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The Independent Online
For over 60 years Phil Bernstein provided the tragedies, comedies and romances of the Yiddish Theatre in Britain with their common and essential element: the distinctive music.

His association began in the 1920s as a violinist at the Pavilion Theatre in Whitechapel, east London, under the musical director Ferdinand Staub. In 1936 he became first violinist at the Jewish National Theatre in Adler Street under the musical directorship of Isidore Berman (the founder of the Jewish Male Choir).

My father, the actor Yidel Goldberg, was the unwitting instrument of his next appointment: while waiting to make his entrance on stage he realised that he had absent-mindedly forgotten to bring with him the overcoat needed for the next act. He looked around and saw a good Crombie hanging up. He tried it on, found it fitted and made his elegant entrance. In the pit an astonished Berman saw Goldberg come on in a very familiar coat - his own. At the end of the act he stormed out of the theatre in a fury and Phil Bernstein had to assume the baton for the rest of the performance.

Berman never returned and Bernstein took over the post of musical director permanently. This accidental promotion lasted some five years until 1941, when he was appointed musical director at the most famous Yiddish theatre in London, the Grand Palais in the Commerical Road, where he remained for the next 30 years.

During the course of his extended career he collaborated with all the great actor- managers of Yiddish Theatre including Madame Fanny Waxman, Meier Tzelniker and the American Maurice Schwartz, for whom in 1935 he had been musical director for a season at the Phoenix Theatre in the West End of London.

Phil Bernstein's parents were immigrant Jews from Russia, and he was born in Mile End in 1910. Reluctant to see his son follow him into the tailoring trade, his father insisted on his taking music lessons from a very early age with the well-known local teacher Victor Vorzanger. Phil's talent was immediately apparent and his father's bar mitzvah present to him was the violin he played and cherished for the rest of his life. In 1941 he married Anna, the actress daughter of Meier Tzelniker. Their life together was mirrored by their professional partnership which lasted until Bernstein's death.

During the 1930s his ventures widened in scope. He had played for the silent cinema in the 1920s, and when sound was introduced recorded the musical soundtracks for many films including Land Without Dreams (1936), starring Richard Tauber, in which he is clearly visible as first violinist in the orchestra. Together with three friends he formed his own musical comedy band, the Four Chassidim, which performed music and sketches all over London. During a week at the Mile End Empire they shared the bill with the comedian Ted Ray, who was so enchanted with their antics he pleaded to be allowed to join them with a contribution of his own. The Four Chassidim were delighted to oblige, teaching a joke with a Yiddish punchline.

In the early years of the Second World War Bernstein joined up with Leon Cortez and his band. They toured the nation in a variety talent show called Bryan Michie and his Discoveries. Among the "Discoveries" were a young Eric Bartholomew (Eric Morecambe) and Ernie Wise.

Meanwhile, Yiddish theatre in London continued to flourish during the war. Throughout most of 1944 audiences at the Grand Palais were thrilled by The King of Lampedusa by S.J. Harendorf, which was unprecedentedly popular with both Jews and non-Jews and which received extraordinary notices in the national press. It starred both Tzelnikers, but it was Bernstein's music which set everybody's feet tapping.

The 1930s and 1940s saw the arrival in Britain of many new Yiddish actors, refugees from Nazi persecution on the Continent. Their heads were full of the music and songs from home but having barely escaped with the clothes they stood up in they usually had nothing written down. They would sing what they knew to Bernstein, who would transcribe and orchestrate it for performance, thus saving for posterity much material which might otherwise have been lost.

As a violinist Phil Bernstein was exceptional. His bow could convey all the traditional merriment as well as the sweet poignancy of Jewish music without ever descending into the vulgarity of schmaltz. During his decades as musical director he gently encouraged young talent. But he also quietly watched the occasional prima donna-like absurdities of more experienced artistes with amused and affectionate tolerance. It was this cool observation which turned him into a charming raconteur with a wicked line in back- stage anecdotes.

After the Grand Palais finally closed its doors as a Yiddish Theatre in 1970, the company took to the road, travelling to venues all over the country to bring Yiddish plays and concerts to ever-loyal audiences. Bernstein continued to support his adored wife, Anna, and her dwindling band of colleagues with his unique music well into the 1990s. In later years he was joined by their daughter Ricky, an accomplished pianist.

This rotund, smiling, kindly man was fortunate in that throughout his life he was able to combine his two great loves, his music and his family, of whom he was immensely proud. Until he became ill last November he still practised his violin every day.

Rosalind Gold

Philip Bernstein, musician and musical director: born London 23 December 1910; married 1941 Anna Tzelniker (one daughter); died London 31 May 1996.