Marvin Silbersher: My Life in Poetry - banner
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ONCE upon a time on a Saturday morning deep in June — it was 4 A.M., June 28, 1924, actually — when my mother had been scrubbing the floor of the bedroom where I was anticipated to be born, Dr. Meeker, our family physician, appeared and said to her: “Rosie, I know women in Russia do that when they expect a baby. You just let me do the rest.” A short time later, he ushered my father into the room, where my mother was holding the newborn, exclaiming: “Louie, you have a nine-and-a-half-pound son!”

My hometown, Millburn, New Jersey, was thick with lovely things from the past, like the abandoned Sam Campbell paper mill built in the 1700s. It lay alongside the Rahway River at the edge of the South Mountain Reservation, a 2,000-acre county park with woods and trails and Washington Rock — where tradition had put George Washington observing the crucial battle of Springfield below on the plain, on June 30, 1780. When I was nine, I found a way into the paper mill, awed by its immensity, its great brick chimney with Sacandaiga Swifts rising up and down in the light. As I looked about, an epiphany seemed to take hold of me. The paper mill had become a theater, an audience was watching a play.

There was a lady who bought art supplies in my father’s store. On a winter’s day, she came in, sat in her usual chair, sipping tea and honey my mother brought her, and called out to my father: “Louie, I’m thinking of buying the old paper mill back by the brook…and making it into a theater. Do you think I’m crazy, Louie?” My father came to her and said: “If you do this, it will be success, it will endure…and it will honor your name, Antoinette Scudder!” It was the beginning of the 1930s, the depths of the Depression. But this unassuming-looking woman had the paper mill made into a magnificent theater.

I saw in the local paper: “Open casting for the part of ‘Morenito,’ an orphan, abused by the custodian of the Convent.” I read for the role and joined the cast of The Kingdom of God, the first play given by the Paper Mill Playhouse, in 1937. When I came on stage opening night, in front of the hushed audience, I understood the awesome privilege of the actor, that you are there to tell the truth about another human being, whom you are portraying, with everything in your being.

I was accepted at CBS on their famed national radio program of fairytales, Let’s Pretend, and continued on Mutual Broadcasting’s Rainbow House, where we did hour adaptations of Shakespeare, versions of the great classics, etc. In the studio next door, as Orson Welles, our hero of theater and radio, rehearsed The Shadow, each of us in our teenage radio ensemble took turns gazing at him through a small hole in the paint of the glass that adjoined our studio, shaking our heads in approbation.

The Second World War had come to Europe and in 1940 only Britain still survived the Blitzkrieg. I was asked to join the company of actors doing the radio series Sky Over Britain and War Letters From Britain. I had the honor of working with some of the most revered artists of the time, British and American. I was 16 and, in a word, living in radio heaven.

In 1942, with our country now in the war, I joined the Air Force, became a member of a bomber crew based in England, doing our missions over Germany. Our B-17 was called Blithe Spirit — for the play by Noel Coward — and at the naming of the plane, Peggy Wood, with whom I had worked in Sky Over Britain, paused when she shook my hand and said: “Don’t I know you?” “Yes, Miss Wood,” I replied. “My God,” she answered…“so you’re here!”

At the end of the war, on board the troopship Elizabeth I, 15,000 of us stood at the railing as we came up North River at seven in the morning at the end of September, 1945. We let out a cheer I will never forget. The mist was burning off Manhattan, revealing the magic city.

I got out of the army in October on a Friday. On Monday, I was at theater school on West 48th Street—the Dramatic Workshop of the New School for Social Research. Among my very gifted classmates were Elaine Stritch, Walter Matthau (with whom I was very close), Bea Arthur, Marlon Brando, Tony Curtis, and an assembly of very talented students. Our teachers included some of the finest European actors and directors who had survived the Nazi era. The “theater visions” we learned from them influenced the course of American film, theater and television. I was part of the first Off-Broadway theater ensemble in 1947 — The Interplayers, at the Cherry Lane Theater, on Commerce Street — where we did Lorca and Auden and Kaiser.

In 1950, at a performance of The Glass Menagerie at the Taconic Playhouse, a theater I had begun in upstate New York, a CBS vice-president who happened to be in the audience that night invited me to join CBS Television. I would be manager of a studio where the network was broadcasting its theatrical productions. I hesitated for a long moment. Television was about to take off into the national stratosphere. I would be dealing with broadcasts like Studio One and The Ford Theater--one play after the other, done on a high level. But…where would my vision of theater go? What about acting? What about directing? Theater school was over and many of my classmates were barely surviving.

I thus went to CBS and, in September of 1950, began managing Studio #57, with all the major productions as part of the broadcast schedule. God Himself — as we called Mr. William S. Paley, founder of CBS — often paid a visit to my studio, unannounced. I was making a living. But what about my commitment to theater…acting and directing? I decided I could only remain at CBS “if” I could move into directing. Such a move was like switching, where I was, from the Army to the Navy. Unheard of.

In the fall of 1952, in desperation, I wrote and directed a revue satirizing CBS and the peregrinations of television, cast it with CBS personnel at all levels, and presented it at the Lincoln Theater (just prior to its transformation into Lincoln Center). Among the guests that evening were Mr. William S. Paley and Dr. Frank Stanton, his second. The show was an immense hit. The next day I got a memo from “God”: “Loved your show last night. Is there something we can do for you?”

The following week I became a CBS Associate Director, doing The Ed Sullivan Show, Studio One, Danger, etc. In 1955, I became a director on a soap opera, and began moving on to do plays, original dance programs, poetry works, documentaries, etc. Over the next 30 years, I did more than 200 original television dramas. With the use of archival photographs, stills, music, narration and sound, I pioneered non-fiction and fiction narrative documentaries.

Roadsigns On A Merry-Go-Round (1967), an imaginary colloquy between Martin Buber, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Dietrich Bonhoeffer on the fate of contemporary man, received an Emmy nomination, praise in the New York Times…and a glowing review from “God,” and Dr. Stanton. (Available: CBS Films.)

Poetry, however, always lay deepest in my heart. It pre-dated theater in my grammar school years. Miss Milliken and Mrs. Lewis always addressed us through poems…fairytales…folktales. They asked me to tell the story of our Millburn, like The Odyssey. One morning, I quoted Homer, beginning: “Tell me, Muse, the story of that resourceful one, who was driven to wander far and wide”…“from Washington Rock to Hemlock Falls…where once giant reptiles walked…where the locomotive calls…across the valley, the Minnisink trail, the Lenape people, where the stream flows…between First and Second Mountain.”

I read every volume of poetry I could lay my hands on. I always had a notebook at my side to write down anything that came into my head. “Water, Fire and Ice,” a narrative poem about Millburn, was performed on the radio series Rainbow House.

Besides my dear Irish setter and my beloved family, my earliest companion was the piano. One day, an amazing teacher appeared: Gertrude H. Hale, a teaching descendant back to Beethoven via Letchititsky. Between her and my parents, there were phrases bandied about like: “The next Paderweski!” I was practicing seriously. I performed Chopin’s Revolutionary Etude on an NBC broadcast. (Heady stuff!) But as I would look out at the window to where my pals were playing touch football in the bright green grass in the park, I would notice that four hours had gone by…and wonder to myself if I really wished a life as a concert pianist with its solo existence.

The advent of the Paper Mill Playhouse caused the change in my life. From that event onward, it was working with other people to which I was devoted.

Poetry, these days, is the chief concern of my life. “Let a window be opened in the house.” Early and late, I’m working on a poem. It is the place that may gather all that has been scattered. The place to speak one’s heart. Beyond hunger and thirst…it is the place that cannot be destroyed.

The Wind Shadow, Seeing Things, Lying Awake, and All Things Whisper in the Blood are the most recent collections of Marvin Silbersher’s poetry.
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