Volume 79, Number 31 | January 6 - 12, 2010
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Photo courtesy the Eisen family

Max Eisen at work.

Max Eisen, a press agent to remember, and a mensch

By Jerry Tallmer

In the days when there was still some modicum of Yiddish theater at various venues south of 14th Street, there was also a culture of little old press agents who specialized in Yiddish shows. What I remember about them is they all wore hats — gray fedoras. But one who did not wear a hat, and was at the time not so very old, was Max Eisen, graced then and always with a thriving head of platinum-gold hair.

The New York Post, where I was new at the time, chose to send me, as a reviewer, to any Yiddish plays or musicals that came along. But, as I one day awkwardly revealed to Max Eisen when one such assignment loomed before me, I didn’t know one word of Yiddish except “schlep” — and that only because of a famous incident in my family when one of my mother’s Budapest-bred aunts had, upon entering her limousine here in New York, said to the chauffeur: “Schlep me to the Ritz, James.”

“Don’t worry,” said Max — for the production I had to cover was one of his accounts — “I’ll be there, I’ll help you.”

Indeed, as I settled into my seat at a venerable playhouse on the Lower East Side, Max settled into the seat immediately next to me, on the right, and into my right ear he proceeded throughout the performance to whisper, in English, whatever from the stage had, in Yiddish, sent the whole house into laughter or silence or tears.

My baptism, you could call it. Or my somewhat-delayed bar mitzvah.

Though it was Max who finally forced The New York Times to include Yiddish works in its entertainment listings, and though he once brought smiles by what was more than just a stunt, picketing The New Yorker magazine for not reviewing Yiddish theater, Max Eisen was far, far more than a press agent for Yiddish stuff.

If you bring him up on Google you cannot count the number of on-Broadway and Off-Broadway efforts for which he gave his all, for something more than half a century. It must be in the hundreds, including a hitch of some years as David Merrick’s press agent, which is like being a press agent for Jed Harris, not to mention Satan. But Max stayed the course.

In later years, the Broadway contracts tapered off, and eventually (for Max) died off almost completely, leaving him to throw all his efforts into Off- and Off-Off Broadway events. This he did against great odds, including the mounting dis-attention, I regretfully and guiltily say, of persons like myself. He also had to fight a lifelong stammer which got worse and worse.

But he kept at it, at the well-worn electric typewriter up there in his office in the Sardi’s building on West 44th Street. His most loyal client may have been the nearby Milford Plaza Hotel, for which he turned out weekly release after release after release for as long as I can remember.

His parents ran a candy story in the Bronx, the borough in which Max was born in 1918. It is only last week that I learned Max had died — at home, in his sleep, on November 23 — at age 91. Who would have thought he was 91?

He leaves a son, a daughter, five grandchildren and his lovely wife, Barbara.

I am bitterly sorry that, as time passed, he had to try so hard, and so repeatedly, to get me to write about one or another of his shows. Occasionally, I gave in. He was, you see — he still is — whispering into my right ear.

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