W. Zolley Lerner

Radio essay: 

W. Zolley Lerner’s Hollywood Cinderella story has a particularly Jewish twist. In 1942, after a childhood in Poland and an adolescence and early adulthood in the Midwest, Lerner was plucked from his job directing a Kansas City community theater and whisked to the land of motion pictures “without ever having seen a movie sound stage,” as one newspaper put it. Lerner became part of an archetypal plot: country bumpkin comes to Hollywood and makes it big. Newspapers from Oakland to Albany fixated on the pace of Lerner’s ascent: within a year of arriving in Hollywood, he was directing his own feature film. An article from the newspaper at his alma mater, the University of Nebraska, boasted that “Hollywood columnists are already predicting that he will be a success.”

Unlike Cinderella, however, Zolley Lerner couldn’t keep his old name in his new life. Though Jewish film actors and directors had been Anglicizing their names since the days of vaudeville, the 1940s was a period of special intolerance for surnames that advertised Jewish descent; Lauren Bacall, Tony Curtis and Jerry Lewis were just a few of the prominent actors who Anglicized their names during this time. [1] Lerner would have been foolish to protest 20th Century Fox executives’ suggestion that he change his name to Thomas Z. Loring, and indeed, he appears to have accepted the identity shift as requisite to any chance at Hollywood success. However, in changing his name Lerner symbolically renounced the Jewishness that formed the foundation for his early intellectual interests.

1948 program for Resident Theatre in Kansas City with Lerner directing "All My Sons."

Lerner’s improbable path to the big screen started in his Kansas City youth, when he was bitten by the theater bug despite his shoe salesman father’s wish that he pursue a more practical trade. Lerner enrolled at the University of Nebraska as the first of his nine siblings to go to college. He immersed himself in college theater, managing the University Players and performing multiple roles in their shows each year. Lerner’s wavy hair, dark complexion and expressive eyes suited him to play both leading men and villains. Over the summer Lerner toured as an actor with the Chautauqua Festival Circuit, a traveling show comprising lectures, dramatic performances and circus entertainments.[2] Chautauqua toured relentlessly, apparently covering over 14,000 miles in one summer and playing to audiences that Lerner recalled “ranged from cowboys who rode up on the big tent on their horses to Tennessee farmers who came to the shows with their rifles on their shoulders.”[3]

After graduating in 1929, Lerner taught drama at the University while pursuing his master’s degree. His thesis, completed in 1933, focused on the little-studied field of Yiddish theater. Lerner’s scholarship provides an early example of one of his lifelong values: making theater accessible. Yiddish is itself a vernacular language, Lerner points out, spoken by the working classes and read by those (often women) who couldn’t read Hebrew. Yiddish literature emerged late, in the 19th century, and was primarily designed to entertain. It featured comically grotesque characters as well as those much like its readers, members of the proletariat struggling to make ends meet. Lerner calls early Yiddish plays “histrionic” but admires their successors, plays by writers like David Pinski and Sholom Asch, which embody a more subtle art while remaining committed to meaningful entertainment for the everyday worker.

During this period Lerner wrote a play, Kaddish, which was published in the Spring 1932 issue of Prairie Schooner. Ably encapsulating centuries of cultural tension in a short domestic drama, the play deals with the problem of assimilation and intermarriage. In a “middle class New York apartment” a Jewish family awaits the arrival of their son, Maurice, for a holiday meal. Maurice is a lawyer and the family pride; his mother observes that it is a “comfort to know Avrum and I raised two Jewish children with Jewish hearts.” The play’s set-up lets the reader know that it is precisely the Jewishness of Maurice’s heart that will be called into question. Sure enough, Maurice brings home a lovely shiksa (non-Jewish) girl, Kathryn, and during a tense dinner announces their marriage. The play ends as Maurice’s father Avrum recites the Kaddish for his son, now dead to him.

In this grand family melodrama as well as in small battles such as over using electric lights on the Sabbath, Lerner dramatizes the tension between traditional Judaism and the pressures of urban American modernity. When Avrum invokes the laws of the Torah, Maurice tells him “your Torah is obsolete.” Kaddish is one of many archetypal stories of the power of love to overcome cultural divides. Lauren Cardon writes that intermarriage stories “often challenge and subvert existing laws and ideologies;” in this regard, Lerner’s social message is plain. [4] Maurice’s plea for a form of religion that is not “bound by bigotry and petty rules” is clearly the author’s own.

This egalitarian spirit of Kaddish as well as Lerner’s thesis on Yiddish theater followed him into the next phase of his life: directing a community theater at the heart of Kansas City civic life. Situated in a community center that also housed a public library, the theater’s shows encouraged the community to come together, browse the library and discuss the show afterward. The theater school, also attached to the center, educated aspiring young actors. From his community theater Lerner wanted both quality entertainment—he was “bringing Broadway to Kansas City,” as one report put it—and to provide a model for popular, non-elitist arts. The journal Recreation reported a speech Lerner gave to a library association in which he “urged the members of the audience to take back with them to their own counties and towns a real desire to promote the growth of a little theater movement in their own communities.”

After eight years invested in community arts, Lerner turned to the truly popular art of the day, film. Lerner used his Cornhusker connections as an in with Darryl Zanuck, a Nebraska native and Hollywood screenwriter who founded the enormously successful 20th Century Pictures studio. Zanuck knew that Lerner had a good sense for dramatic coherence, but he took a significant risk by paying the young director a salary to spend a year getting to know the ins and outs of a movie studio. Lerner (now Loring) did this by shadowing director Irving Pichel on the set of the 1941 historical drama Hudson’s Bay; “all” Lerner had to do, according to one report, was to “be on the set during every minute of production.”[5]

Lerner’s work ethic combined with his instinct for stagecraft led to two opportunities that began the career ascent the newspapers thought remarkable for its speed. First, the 32-year old was given the task of directing a short film, which so impressed the studio that they gave him his first feature-length film to direct. This was Who Is Hope Schuyler?, a courtroom drama that the New York Times said didn’t leave enough mystery to the imagination.[6] Whatever the critics thought, Lerner had more than proved himself as a director. More directorial assignments followed, including Thru Different Eyes (1942), a murder mystery starring a curious attorney and He Hired the Boss (1943), a comedic rags-to-riches story of a hapless bookkeeper. After a stint in the Signal Corp during the second World War, Lerner returned to serve as dialogue director in several other films, including My Dream is Yours, which starred Doris Day. In 1946 Lerner gave another young upstart the screen tests that would put her on Hollywood’s radar: a young actress still going by her own given name, Norma Jean Baker. Not long after, she would become Marilyn Monroe.[7]

Lerner's gravestone.

Lerner left Hollywood in the fifties, eventually settling in Shreveport, Louisiana. He worked in his wife’s family’s oil business and raised two children. Lerner returned to his passion for community theater, directing plays at the Shreveport Little Theater. He died in 1986 and is buried outside Kansas City.


The man who had made his film career under the name Thomas Loring eventually changed his name back to the original Lerner, but his early academic and social investment in Jewish life and theater never returned. Fortunately, Lerner’s play still testifies to that investment. In its portrayal of the conflict between antimodern values and the individual freedom promised by secular urban life, Kaddish is an important early example of the dramatic template artists would continue to use to depict social change in America.

References


[1] Michael Rogin, Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

[2] For more on the Chautauqua Circuit, see Charlotte Canning, "Traveling Culture: Circuit Chatauqua in the Twentieth Century," University of Iowa Libraries, Special Collections, 2000.

[3] Roseline Pizer, “Lerner tells Experiences of Trip As Trooper on Chautauqua Circuit; Cats, Dogs, Even Cows in Audiences,” Daily Nebraskan, 24 September 1930: 1.

[4] Lauren Cardon, The “White Other” in American Intermarriage Stories, 1945-2008  (New York: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2012). Lerner’s play predates famous intermarriage texts like Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint or the film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, but he wasn’t the first to explore the conflicts inherent in Jewish/gentile unions. Anzia Yezierska, for example, mined this theme in her first novel, Salome of the Tenements (1923).

[5] Dorothea Frances Hyle, “A Library Moves into a Community Center,” Recreation, 34 (1940-41) 415-416; 457. “Irving Pichel Succeeds,” Winnipeg Free Press, 28 October 1940: 6.

[6] Who is Hope Schuyler? (1942) at the Palace," New York Times, May 22, 1942.

[7] Eric Brock, Shreveport Chronicles: Profiles From Louisiana's Port City, (Charleston: The History Press, 2009).