By Jon Marks
David Leopold has a simple explanation for the unexpected way his life has played out.
“I’m the luckiest person you’ll ever speak with,” said Leopold, who’ll bring his one-man show “Hirschfeld’s Broadway” to the Bucks County Playhouse on Sept. 28 — a site the late iconic caricaturist Al Hirschfeld often visited during his remarkable decades-long career. “As a kid who grew up with Hirschfeld and then studied theater through Hirschfeld’s drawings, post-college I ended up being a curator of Hirschfeld’s museum and getting to know him, Dayenu! I have to wake up every day to make sure I’m not dreaming.”
It’s somehow fitting Leopold should provide his modern-day take on Lou Gehrig’s “Luckiest Man on the Face of the Earth” speech. That’s because before the “Iron Horse” became a Yankee he played on the same semi-pro baseball team as Al Hirschfeld.
Hirschfeld came to New York from St. Louis after his family recognized his extraordinary artistic talent. After starting out as a sculptor, it wasn’t long before he began drawing for a living, quickly establishing his unique skills in putting pen to paper.
That’s just part of the story Leopold, who’s written several books and spent 13 years witnessing Hirschfeld’s genius, will incorporate into the show, which focuses on his mentor’s love of Broadway.
Naturally, that will include plenty of Jewish content, with discussions ranging from Irving Berlin to Leonard Bernstein to Rodgers & Hammerstein and to Barbra Streisand, among others. While Hirschfeld was more culturally Jewish than religious, he was an avid supporter of Israel and even sailed on the 1953 maiden voyage of the S.S. Jerusalem with Adlai Stevenson.
Following a short stint as a political cartoonist, Hirschfeld began to make his mark in the theater in 1926.
“His theater work was as much part of the Broadway experience as opening night,” explained Leopold, who grew up in Harrisburg, where he went to the yeshiva until ninth grade. He now lives in Bedminster, Bucks County.
Hirschfeld was synonymous with the theater for good reason.
“His drawings appeared almost always the Sunday before the show opened. So when he drew ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ he didn’t know if it would be a hit or a flop. That wasn’t the point of his drawings,” Leopold said. “He was a visual journalist. He was able to capture the essence of the show and show you all the activity, but he never revealed any plot.”
According to Leopold, Hirschfeld was so skilled and popular that, at one point, he was the ultimate freelancer, working for three of New York’s 14 dailies then, as well as six film studios.
“He would draw the same show sometimes and give them totally different treatments,” said Leopold, creative director of the nonprofit Hirschfeld Foundation. “Sometimes, those drawings would appear on the same Sunday, so you would see two different drawings of the same show by the same artist.”
However, there was one thing they all had in common: the Ninas. Beginning in 1945, hidden within each Hirschfeld drawing in a couple of places was the name of his daughter, Nina. Finding them became a favorite sport of Hirschfeld devotees, including Leopold.
”I grew up looking for Ninas in his drawings,” said the 57-year Leopold, who first met Hirschfeld in 1989 and became his archivist and confidant, “and I lived long enough to look for Ninas in his drawings with Al Hirschfeld. I came to realize they came out organically in his drawings. They weren’t planned.”
For Louise Kerz Hirschfeld, Al Hirschfeld’s wife from 1996 until he died in 2003 at 99½, seeing her late husband celebrated is gratifying.
“He didn’t just doodle and make little cartoons on a page,” said Louise Hirschfeld, a historian who served as president of the Hirschfeld Foundation from 2004-‘15. “He actually reinvented caricature for himself and for the American theater, and that’s what’s so important about his work.
“What David is doing is kind of an interesting adjunct to try and bring some of the stories and relationships he had with theatrical figures into another form. It’s a very creative stroke, and I’m anxious to see it.”
Having the premiere in New Hope of a show Leopold hopes will eventually tour throughout the country factors into the story. In July 1939, Hirschfeld was on hand to chronicle the opening of Bucks County Playhouse.
His event drawing evoked the ire of a powerful woman who demanded his job because she perceived she was portrayed in an unflattering way. But her efforts failed and, as a theater lover, Hirschfeld returned to New Hope periodically.
Now, 19 years since his death, in a way he’s back.
“Al Hirschfeld had a long history with Bucks County Playhouse,” said Alexander Fraser, the playhouse’s producing director. “We appreciate that David Leopold, the curator of our archives, asked us to present the premiere here.”
“This is someone who truly loved the theater,” said Leopold, who’ll promote his new book: “The Hirschfeld Century: A Portrait of the Artist and His Age.” “Part of our mission is to support the performing arts.”
Jon Marks is a freelance writer.