Sylvia Kauders kept on acting right up until her death at the age of 94.
Editor’s note: This profile of Sylvia Kauders will appear May 12 in the “Good Life” supplement to the Jewish Exponent. The supplement was printed prior to her May 4 death. A separate obituary about Ms. Kauders also will appear in the May 12 Exponent, which you can read here.
It’s a clear, cool day in Chelsea. Outside of Murray’s Bagels, a young man and woman with a stroller sit to rest on a bench next to an elderly woman.
The pair attempts a private conversation, but the old lady intrudes: “How old is the baby?” she asks. And: “How long have you two been married? Did you meet in the city?”
The young man starts making things up — saying the child’s name is Hampus, and that the pair — who are actually just friends—met at a Star Trek convention. “We were both dressed as Klingons … I knew right away she was the one.” The old lady is slightly confused but remains polite. “Well, enjoy,” she says. “You’re perfect together, it’s very clear.”
And … cut.
The above is a scene from Orange Is the New Black, the phenomenally popular Netflix drama about women in prison. The young couple play recurring characters on the show, but the Jewish buttinski on the bench — billed in the script as “Old Lady” — is just in that scene, in which she serves as the clueless elderly foil for the savvy youngsters.
It’s a role that Sylvia Kauders, the actor who plays “Old Lady,” knows something about.
Over the course of her prolific acting career, she has been billed variously as “elderly woman” (Rescue Me), “Old Jewish lady” (Smash; American Splendor), “Seder guest” (Crimes and Misdemeanors), “Old Woman” (30 Rock), “Lady at Deli Counter” (The Wrestler), “Tiny Old Lady” (Lipstick Jungle), “Grandma” and “Elderly Wife” (The Big Wedding). At least three times she’s been credited as a lady on a bench — and, in the case of Orange Is the New Black, filmed outside of the real Murray’s Bagels, she was clearly intended to be the Old Jewish Lady on the Bench.
Kauders, who lives in Center City and now blends volunteerism with acting, isn’t offended by being pigeonholed.
For one thing, much of her acting career — from Broadway to the big screen — has involved major roles. For another, she has had recurring parts on TV shows like The Sopranos, Spin City, Dream On and Law & Order. And her characters in her two most recent films — the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis and Love the Coopers, with Steve Martin, Diane Keaton and John Goodman — were people with names, not just stand-in ciphers.
And then there’s this: “I am, indeed, an old Jewish lady,” Kauders said.
Kauders grew up in South Philadelphia at Sixth and Mifflin streets and went to Upper Darby High School — “Tina Fey and me!” she said. She knew from a young age that she wanted to be an actor.
“I was in second grade the time I did my first play,” Kauders said. “I was an understudy, and the kid who had the part got sick and I went on — you know, one of these great stories.”
After this All About Eve-style debut, Kauders was hooked, although her mother wasn’t enthused by Sylvia’s plans to be an actor.
“My mother wanted me to be a schoolteacher. My aunt and uncle were both schoolteachers — my aunt was one of the founders of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers — and we admired her so, we wanted to emulate her. But I really didn’t want to be a teacher. I wanted to be an actor.”
Still, Kauders went to the University of Pennsylvania to study “all the good subjects,” —“history, social studies, English, not mathematics.” She had a fantastic time at the school, and understood her mother’s insistence on a good education.
“Penn taught me how to think, bless them for it,” Kauders said.
She has remained an active and appreciated alum; there’s an endowed lecture series in her name at the Kelly Writers House.
But when she first graduated and went to look for a job, she got a wakeup call.
“A woman at an employment agency said to me, ‘My dear, you have a wonderful education, but you don’t know how to do anything.’”
So she went to secretarial school, took a typing and shorthand course, and learned how to do something. Those skills, she says, were the key to getting hired.
“In my day, it was very rare that women moved into professional jobs [from the beginning],” she said. “You always started as somebody’s secretary.”
Aside from dealing with chauvinism, she often wondered if her Judaism held her back.
“I would ask myself, ‘Did I not get this job because I’m Jewish?’”
She could tell when it was having an impact on someone’s perception of her. Her first job after secretarial school was as a secretary at a patent office.
“The guy there tried every which way and Saturday to ask me whether I was Jewish or not without coming out and saying it,” she remembered. “I think it was against the law to ask me at that time. So he said to me, ‘What’s your nationality?’ I said, ‘I’m American!’ He asked what’s this, what’s that, and finally I said to him, ‘You know something? I think patent law would be very boring. I don’t think I’m interested.’”
He was incensed, but the bright, strong-willed Kauders probably wasn’t cut out to be a secretary anyway; instead, she began a long, successful career in Philadelphia city government — worked for five different mayors — and in public relations. She still loved acting, and did it every chance she got, but she had to be practical, too.
“You don’t really kid yourself if you think as an actor you’re going to be busy all the time,” she said. “You can’t count on steady work. You’ve gotta have a steady job.”
She would, however, take advantage of a slow season in public relations by doing plays. Things could get a little confusing, though. After acting in the stage play Crossing Delancey, she went up to New York to audition for the movie version.
A natural blonde, Kauders temporarily dyed her hair brown to make a more persuasive case as the character. When she came back into town, she headed straight to a special event connected to her PR work — with an unfamiliar mass of dark hair. She had to tell people, “Hello, I’m Sylvia Kauders — the same Sylvia.”
Though she juggled the two careers rather successfully, her proudest moment is actually connected to municipal promotions.
“I created a program called Wednesday Is for Women,” she said. “The city representative felt that the tours of City Hall were neglected, so I created this program on a Wednesday that the women would come, the municipal guides would take them on a tour of City Hall, they’d come back to the Mayor’s Reception Room and we would do a party on a particular subject. It was a great, great success.”
Wednesday Is for Women ultimately won a Silver Anvil Award from the Public Relations Society of America.
“We went to Chicago to get the Silver Anvil, and I’m going to tell you, that was the high point in my life — winning the Oscar of the public relations field. It makes you feel very good; it validates you in your career choice.”
She has experienced similar satisfactions from acting, but then, it’s a trickier field with plenty of rejection, some of which can hurt for a long time.
“We actors get used to the rejections, but you don’t ever like it,” Kauders said. “And I always examine it: I always try to figure [it] out.”
Fortunately, she’s learned how to size up a particular opportunity and assess her chances.
“I went up to New York not long ago for an audition, and I looked at my competition, and I wanted to say to them, ‘Go on home, girls. This is mine.’ And it was, too. I got it. They liked the attitude that I struck. These were like sweet little old ladies, and this was not a sweet-little-old-lady part.”
One of her favorite recent roles was as Ginny in Inside Llewyn Davis. Kauders is an avid supporter of the Free Library, and has great respect for language and words. Good scripts make all the difference, she says, which is why working with the Coen Brothers was so much fun.
“Two brilliant guys like that, and to hear them laugh at your delivery of their lines … The only thing that I mind is that they haven’t starred me in a movie with George Clooney so that I can go visit his house in Tuscany.”
As exciting as that was, Kauders is even more proud of a much more local acting gig she just had — a public reading of Lost in Yonkers for the residents of her apartment building.
“A friend of mine who’s an actress asked me to work with her on a role,” Kauders explained. “She said that age-wise, she was now too old to be cast in it, but she always wanted to do the role of Bella in Lost in Yonkers. So she came over and we did some work on it and she said, ‘You know, it’s really a shame we can’t do this anywhere.’”
Kauders, who doesn’t generally see obstacles, said, “‘Sure we can.’ I booked our community room and on Saturday, April 9, we had a free reading — not a performance — but a reading of this play.”
Kauders cast friends and neighbors in the other parts, and the building’s residents came out in force.
“We filled the house and they loved it. They loved it. We had such a wonderful time.”
Kauders said there’s one guy who still tells her how wonderful it was every time she sees him in the elevator. She seems as pleased by that as if he was Joel Coen, Ethan Coen and George Clooney all wrapped into one.
“He said he’d even pay to see it!” she said with delight. “I’m still basking in the glow of the approbation of the audience. You can always practice your craft. There’s always a way.”
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