Meeting Mendes

Posted on August 27th, 2014 by

Our "real life" Mendes Cohen!

Our “real life” Mendes Cohen!

Thursday was the dress rehearsal.  I thought I would be immune to the effects of the performance.  After all, I already knew the Mendes Cohen story.  And I also knew that underneath Maggie Mason’s handsome costumes there was a fine actor, Grant Cloyd.  Yet from the moment Mendes came into the room brandishing his cane I was transfixed.  In the next thirty minutes “our” Mendes captured the spirit of the extraordinary soldier, businessman and adventurer who lies at the heart of our new maze exhibit.

Grant-as-Mendes leads the crowd in a rousing rendition of the Star Spangled Banner!

Grant-as-Mendes leads the crowd in a rousing rendition of the Star Spangled Banner!

There is an old joke in a Herb Gardner play about someone “getting the voices just right” for Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson.  It is truly impossible to capture the true sound of even the most famous speakers who lived in the era before sound recording.  For someone like Mendes Cohen, who was not a public speaker, there is no record of any kind of his style, accent or intonation.  But our script writer, Scott Fuqua, drawing on Mendes’ letters and journals, produced a 19th century patter that truly mirrors our character’s own vocabulary and diction.  The fact that Mendes comes across as so plausible is a credit to the talents of Scott, Grant and Baltimore’s premier living history director, Harriet Lynn.

Flat Mendes poses with actor Grant Cloyd, director Harriet Lynn, and writer Scott Fuqua after Thursday's performance.

Flat Mendes poses with actor Grant Cloyd, director Harriet Lynn, and writer Scott Fuqua after Thursday’s performance.

Thursday was just the warm up.  This last weekend I accompanied Mendes on a trip to Bladensburg.  They marked (I think “celebrate” would be the wrong word) the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Bladensburg, the ignominious defeat and rout that led to the burning of Washington.  In 1814, Mendes had seriously considered joining a unit that came to the defense of Bladensburg, but wisely decided that his talents would be better used at Fort McHenry.  So our journey to the re-enactment was actually Mendes’ first trip to this Prince Georges County town.  We were warmly received despite the rainy weather.

Mendes meets Facebook friend Ranger Abbi Wicklein-Bayne at the Battle of Bladensburg Commemoration.

Mendes meets Facebook friend Ranger Abbi Wicklein-Bayne at the Battle of Bladensburg Commemoration.

This is, of course, just the beginning of travels for our newly revived “ghost” of Mendes – for our younger readers I think I need to point out that ghosts were what people believed in before zombies (a lot cleaner).  Next Sunday, Mendes travels to North Point for the bicentennial ceremonies there.  This will also be the first full performance of Scott and Harriet’s play.  On the 14th we have Mendes hopping – opening the morning with a stop at The Associated’s Super Sunday (after all Mendes was a leading Baltimore Jewish philanthropist in his time) followed by walk-arounds at bicentennial events at Patterson Park and the Inner Harbor.  He will finish his day with a mini-performance at our exclusive members’ opening event on Sunday night.  If you are in the top three categories of membership (the Living History Circle, the Lloyd Street League and the 1845 Society) you will be invited back for the full play at its JMM premiere on October 5th – so wouldn’t this be a great time to upgrade your membership.

Mendes sports a caftan and shares his journey down the Nile.

Mendes sports a caftan and shares his journey down the Nile.

Finally, I want to offer special thanks to those who are enabling this success.  These include the Maryland Heritage Authority and Maryland Humanities Council for their specific grants for the Mendes Cohen character.  And the exceptional work of education director, Ilene Dackman-Alon in shepherding the living history project from the beginning.

The Mendes road tour will continue throughout the year.  To schedule a Mendes Cohen performance for your school or organization please contact Abby Krolik, akrolik@jewishmuseummd.org or 410-732-6400 x234.

Marvin PinkertA blog post by Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. To read more posts related to Mendes Cohen click HERE. To read more posts by Marvin click HERE.

 

The Mendes Cohen Living History project was made possible in part by a grant from the Maryland Humanities Council, through support from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this program do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities or the Maryland Humanities Council. This project has been financed in part with State Funds from the Maryland Heritage Areas Authority, an instrumentality of the State of Maryland. However, the contents and opinions do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Maryland Heritage Areas Authority.

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Living History – United Two Families

Posted on April 9th, 2014 by

I think museums are such fascinating places. They are wonderful spaces that promote learning and engagement.   Over the years at the JMM, I have enjoyed creating both public programs and educational programming that encourage both discovery and discourse with our visitors.  I love how history museums can enable individuals to make meaningful connections to the past.  Last spring was no exception, with the creation of our latest living history character from the Leo V. Berger Immigrant’s Trunk – Bessie Bluefeld.  I wanted to share with you an extraordinary circumstance that has united two families, showing just how important a role museums play in our lives.

Bessie & Charles, CP 69.2012.001

Bessie & Charles, CP 69.2012.001

Bessie and her husband, Charles Bluefeld immigrated to Baltimore by way of Locust Point in 1906.  Concerned about her husband working in construction, Bessie persuaded Charles to open a grocery store in Fell’s Point, and by the 1920s the Bluefelds were operating a stall in Lexington Market.  Bessie opened a food stand on a beach near Baltimore, and it became the seed for the Bluefeld Catering business. Traveling to Atlantic City and Florida, Bessie developed her refined taste that would later be known as the “Orchid touch” that gave Bluefeld Catering its edge as one of the premier kosher catering businesses in Baltimore – a business that would include her entire family. From 1937 to 1941, Bluefeld Catering blossomed, and Bessie was at the center of everything.    Although Bessie died suddenly in 1941, her husband and children maintained the kosher catering business she had worked so hard to build.  For decades, Bluefeld Catering was synonymous with elegance and quality in Baltimore’s Jewish community and beyond.

The JMM hired the actress, Terry Nicholetti to play the role of Bessie.  Terry wanted to learn more about Bessie, so we went to Bethesda to meet one of Bessie’s children, Mrs. Freda Bluefeld Cohen.  We had a lovely afternoon with Freda and she shared some of her memories of her parents and of her early years growing up in Baltimore along with 8 other siblings.  As I witnessed Terry and Freda chatting- I knew that these two women were destined to become special friends.

Terry brings Bessie to life.

Terry brings Bessie to life.

On April 30, 2013, Terry premiered the role of Bessie Bluefeld at the JMM to a crowd of 100 people.  Many of our visitors that evening were the grandchildren and great grandchildren of Bessie.  Following the performance, one of Bessie’s grandsons stood and was visibly moved by the performance.  He expressed his gratitude to the JMM for helping him to meet his grandmother that he never had the opportunity to meet as she had died prior to his birth.

Last week, I received a call at the JMM from one of Bessie Bluefeld’s granddaughters.  She had just learned that her Aunt Freda Bluefeld Cohen had passed, and she wanted to reach out to Terry Nicholetti to let her know, as she knew of the special relationship that Terry and Freda shared. I spoke to Terry the following day.  She told me that she was so touched to be notified by the family, and so sad because of the sweet connection that she shared with Freda.  Terry went to visit the family during the Shiva and Freda’s family welcomed Terry as if she were a member of their own family.  Terry shared with me, “When I took on this role, I had no idea how deeply I would be connected to so many dear people in Bessie’s life. I feel blessed.”

Terry and Freda

Terry and Freda

The Jewish Museum of Maryland plays such an important role in our community in helping people find connections and meaning to history. The Leo V. Berger Immigrant’s Trunk: Bessie Bluefeld Living History Performance is just another example of how our institution creates those meaningful connections.   This incredible performance has enabled one family to connect to its own history; but it has also given meaning to Terry Nicholetti, the actress who portrays Bessie- who has found personal meaning and contentment in her role.

ileneA blog post by Education Director Ilene Dackman-Alon. To read more posts by Ilene click here.

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Top Twelve Countdown

Posted on December 18th, 2013 by

An assignment this week to create a list of the most memorable  JMM activities of 2013 (see JMM Insights, December 19, 2013 – coming on Friday!) inspired quite a bit of discussion among our staff, and turned out to be a fun exercise. The pace here at the JMM is often so fast and it is rare that we have time to reflect on events that have taken place and to savor our successes as there is always something new that demands our immediate attention. Winnowing the list down to include twelve memorable events (we just couldn’t stop at 10) proved challenging, an indication of the many wonderful things that took place this past year across all departments.

As I reviewed the list that made the final cut, one activity really stood out from the pack, and that was the debut of our newest living history character based on the life of beloved Baltimore icon and caterer extraordinaire, Bessie Bluefeld.

Actor Terry Nicholetti performing as Bessie Bluefeld

Actor Terry Nicholetti performing as Bessie Bluefeld

When I first arrived at the JMM thirteen years ago, one of my first assignments was to begin work on an educational activity that would serve as a resource for Jewish day and congregational schools on the topic of immigration history. That kit became the Immigrant’s Trunk which explored the lives of two Jewish immigrants who settled in Baltimore in the early 20th century, Ida Rehr and Saul Bernstein, through reproductions of JMM collections items such as photos, immigration documents, and Jewish ritual items.

A photograph of immigrant Ida Rehr with her siblings before she left her home in Ukraine to settle in Baltimore

A photograph of immigrant Ida Rehr with her siblings before she left her home in Ukraine to settle in Baltimore

The concept of the trunk grew to encompass a living history component complete with professional actors who portrayed the lives of the immigrants whose experiences are explored through the trunk contents.

Actor Katherine Lyons who portrays Ida Rehr with the trunk

Actor Katherine Lyons who portrays Ida Rehr with the trunk

These performances proved popular, not just with Jewish students but also non-Jewish students attending public and Catholic school and adults too. Over the years it has been amazing to watch as this program that started with such humble ambitions has evolved in the Leo V. Berger Immigrant’s Trunk, one of the JMM signature programs for audiences of all backgrounds, including versions of the trunk designed for preschool audiences as well as for individuals with visual impairments.

Actor Tim King portraying Saul Bernstein at a performance for Cross Country Elementary students

Actor Tim King portraying Saul Bernstein at a performance for Cross Country Elementary students

And now we have added a brand new character, Bessie Bluefeld, who has already proved enormously popular with audiences. Bessie’s story encapsulates so many rich themes as the performance begins with her arriving fresh off the boat in Baltimore’s Locust Point where she marvels at just how different her new home is from what she has left behind and goes on to dramatize the extraordinary effort she places in creating a home for her husband and children and her determination to save the family from financial ruin after a bad business deal.

Bessie arriving in Locust Point

Bessie arriving in Locust Point

One of the joys of this particular living history character is that so many Baltimoreans have fond memories of Bluefeld Catering and loved sharing the stories of their special events during the Q&A session following performances.

Bessie answering questions following a performance

Bessie answering questions following a performance

We have also been privileged to talk to members of the Bluefeld family including Bessie’s son Louis and grandchildren who have shared treasured family stories and photographs. At the performance debut this past spring, we were delighted to welcome so many members of the Bluefeld family.

Members of the Bluefeld family at the spring performance debut

Members of the Bluefeld family at the spring performance debut

Bessie greeting a member of the Bluefeld family following her performance

Bessie greeting a member of the Bluefeld family following her performance

It was evident that the performance resonated with the members of the family in attendance and there was hardly a dry eye in sight when one of her grandsons stood up to thank the JMM. In his words, “You gave me back my grandmother.” This simple expression of gratitude sums up exactly what it is that the JMM strives to do. As I reflect back on a year of so many successes, this is my number one moment!

We are grateful to everyone whose hard work and dedication brought Bessie to life with a special thank you to script writer Jonathon Scott Fuqua, director and producer Harriet Lynn of Heritage Theatre Artists’ Consortium, and actor Terry Nicholetti. We are also most appreciative of the Leo V. Berger Fund for their continued support of our Immigrant’s Trunk program.

deborahA blog post by Assistant Director Deborah Cardin. To read more posts by Deborah, click here.

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