Theater: A children’s entertainer

He may be 80 years old, but Albert Cohen has no intention to stop performing for his favorite type of audience.

Children's production 521 (photo credit: Kfir Bolotin)
Children's production 521
(photo credit: Kfir Bolotin)
There is no stopping Albert Cohen. Now 80 – going on 18 – the Bulgarian-born actor-musician shows absolutely no signs of slowing down as he prepares to star in the forthcoming production of Lost Red Socks at the Kesem Shel Agada (Legend Magic) Festival, which will take place August 13 to 15 at the Suzanne Dellal Centre in Jaffa.
Cohen has kept up a furious work rate for over 60 years, often performing several times a day. I caught up with him as he was driving home from Ben- Gurion Airport, after dropping off several of his progeny who were heading for a vacation in Italy.
“I am jealous of them but I have work,” says the evergreen octogenarian, “what can you do?” That may sound like a gripe, but it was said with Cohen’s tongue firmly embedded in his cheek. In fact, the veteran thespian is constantly in demand and is kept gainfully engaged with all manner of creative enterprises – and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
The vast majority of his work is devoted to the entertainment of small children, which, says Cohen, is a constant source of joy for him.
“You know,” he says, “when you perform for small children, say three to five, the satisfaction you get from them, with their eyes wide with amazement and wonderment at what they are watching on the stage, that is such rich reward. Children don’t mess you around. They react honestly to what you give them, and the love they give you is so heartwarming.”
Truth be told, Cohen earns that cockle- warmer by the sweat of his brow and by his unstinting and highly energized efforts to give value for money and to put his credo on the line unreservedly.
This is not a matter of a senior citizen looking down on his far younger audience with the weight of his time-worn wisdom to show them what life is all about. This is someone who relates to his tiny patrons as customers who fully deserve an honest deal.
“I wish I could perform exclusively for little children. If I perform for adults, someone from the audience can tell me how great I was but, in fact, can be a hypocrite.
Small children simply aren’t capable of doing that. There are lots of charlatans out there who give cheap sensationalist performances. That’s not my way.”
Even so, Cohen is aware that his audiences’ age bracket has shifted over the years, and that matters in the junior market are not quite as unfettered as they once were.
“In the old days, when I used to do Pinocchio – I performed in that for 50 years – I used to get children in the audience up to, say, the age of eight, and I’d get children up to 10 or 11 for performances of Dr. Dolittle. But, these days, you don’t get kids aged over 10 at children’s theater shows. They have already discovered Superman and Batman and all kinds of other things,” he says. “You know, it may very well be that at the age of 13 or 14, kids will start watching blue movies on the Internet, and that’s a great shame.” But, if nothing else, Cohen is an eternal optimist and he maintains a relentlessly positive outlook on his work and on his life.
COHEN BEGAN acting in children’s productions back in Bulgaria over six decades ago, and says it was the theater that brought him here.
“I did some things in theater in Bulgaria, but no major parts,” he recalls. “I was young but I was trained with the Stanislavski technique, at the Stanislavski Academy of Music and Drama in Sofia and, of course, Habimah Theater, Israel’s national theater, used it too.”
Habimah was founded in Moscow during the 1917 revolution by a small group of fervently Zionist Hebrew teachers and was affiliated with the Moscow Art Theater, which was directed by actor and theater director Constantin Stanislavski. Stanislavski greatly influenced Habimah’s actors and productions, and continued to do so even after the company relocated to Palestine in 1928.
“I wanted to join Habimah when I came to Israel in 1949,” says Cohen. “The only thing I knew about Habimah back in Bulgaria was that it was a theater company which performed in the language of the Bible. All the Jewish theaters in eastern Europe performed in Yiddish, and I liked the idea of working in the language of the Bible.”
It took him a while to further his professional continuum after his aliya, as there was the small matter of his military service to be dealt with first.
“I joined the IDF the day after I got here, and I was a tank driver,” Cohen explains. But he eventually got back to business, with impeccable timing. “After a year in the army I told my commanding officer that I was bored with being a tank driver, and he told me the Southern Command entertainment troupe was just starting up, and I got into that.”
Mind you, there was a serious obstacle to be circumvented first. “I still didn’t know Hebrew very well so I couldn’t do any acting with them, but I played the accordion, and that worked well with the troupe.”
Cohen received a solid grounding in musicianship thanks, in part, to some paternal encouragement.
“My father was not like the typical European Jewish parents,” he says. “My mother wanted me to get a good profession, like being a lawyer or a doctor, but my father was delighted when I wanted to become an actor and play music. I studied the piano and accordion and guitar. I appeared in Budapest and Prague and all other places. I was a professional musician and that helped me find work when I got to Israel.”
It still took a while for him to start landing big roles, and he had to keep his father at bay until that happened.
“He kept on wanting to come to see me on the stage but I was embarrassed because I didn’t want him to see me just do a bit part,” he says. Nonetheless, his father began to attend shows and always managed to catch his son’s best parts.
“My father had this habit of falling asleep on my mother’s shoulder when the show started. He’d wake up whenever I was on stage and then fall back to sleep. Once I asked him what he thought of my part, even though I wasn’t on stage that much, and he said ‘Nonsense, you were on stage the whole time!’” By the time Cohen completed his army service, which included an extension of six months beyond the regulation three years, as he was involved in a long-running production with the Southern Command band, his Hebrew was up to snuff.
With some local theatrical experience under his belt, he set out to make his way in the world of commercial theater and soon realized his pre-aliya dream when he was taken on by Habimah. He worked there for four years and participated in 13 plays, including the theater’s flagship production of The Dybbuk, and acted alongside the company’s legendary leading lady, Hanna Rovina, who had moved to Palestine along with the other original members of Habimah.
Cohen was able to give full vent to his wide ranging instrumental and powerful vocal skills when he starred in numerous musicals put on by the Giora Godik Theater, before he joined the Cameri Theater, where he has been for almost half a century now. He also worked with acclaimed playwright Hanoch Levin on several major productions, and struck up a close friendship with him.
Cohen has appeared in countless productions over the years, including almost all the major musicals, such as Utz Li Gutz Li (Rumpelstiltskin), My Fair Lady and Les Miserables, and there has been some operatic endeavor over the years too. With the memory of a dedicated statistician, he probably remembers every performance he has ever been in, across his six-plus decades of work, and all the entertainment genres he has put his formidable skills into.
“Habimah put on The Dybbuk 1,000 times and I was in it 500 times. I have performed in every single musical that has ever been produced in Israel,” he says. “I have done Utz Li Gutz Li for 28 years, and there is another show, for older children, of junior high school age, which we do in English, called Miracles and Tragedies. It’s about bar mitzva and the Shoah. We have done it abroad and at Yad Vashem. I have been in that 2,808 times since 1994.”
If anyone else were to cite these numbers it would seem like showing off, but with Cohen one gets the impression that it is purely because every time he treads the boards, he sees it is a precious experience.