Ossip Runitch (1889-1947) was a Russian-Jewish theatre actor, producer and stage director.
Thanks to his star roles in Russian films of the 1910s, he was, at the time, the best-known Jewish actor in Russia.
Born Ossip Ilyich Fradkin (Russian: Осип Ильич Фрадкин) in 1889 in Saint Petersburg, Russia, of an assimilated family from Vitebsk. At an early age, he was adopted by a Serbian engineer and eventually took his stepfather's surname.
Ossip Runitch died on 6 April 1947 in Johannesburg.
Runich had no formal education in acting, but according to his Member's card for the Russian Theatre Society, he began his acting career in the Mogilev Governorate in 1910. From 1913 to 1917, he played leading parts with the Kharkov and Kiev companies run by one of Russia's best-regarded producers, and by the 1917-8 season he was a star of the Moscow Drama Theatre.
He was first invited to act in cinema by a former colleague, Vladimir Gardin, of his who had become a film director. In 1915, he made his debut on the big screen as "Nicolay Rostov" in an adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, and after several supporting parts in features by Yevgeny Bauer and Pyotr Chardynin at the Khanzhonkov Studio, he followed Chardynin to the newly established Kharitonov Studio as its main star in 1916.
By the end of 1917, Kharitonov had contracted all other major Russian film stars, except Ivan Mozzhukhin and Vera Karalli. Runich's best-known screen part is one in the biggest blockbuster of the Russian screen of the first decade of the 20th century, Molchi, Grust... Molchi ("Be Silent, My Sorrow, Be Silent", 1918).
In 1917, after the February Revolution, Runitch was elected as chairman of the first trade union of Russian film professionals.
In 1918, during the Russian Civil War, the Kharitonov Studio moved from Moscow to Odessa, then occupied by German troops. Apart from Vera Kholodnaya, the country's Cinema Queen, Runitch was the only other star remaining in the Kharitonov line-up. It was rumoured that Runitch and Kholodnaya were lovers.
Kholodnaya died in early 1919, and Runitch emigrated to Italy with Tatyana Pavlova, a future mentor of Vittorio de Sica and leading proponent of the Stanislavski school of acting in Italy. [V Martinelli, Cineasti russi in Italia. Cinegrafie (Bologna). 1997. No 10, p 119.]
After several leading parts in dramas by the Ambrosio Studios in Turin, Runitch joined his former employer, Dmitri Kharitonov, in Germany. In the early 1920s, Runitch starred in several big-budget productions by Russian studios in Germany. These projects were partly financed by his wife, Emma (whom he divorced in the early 1930s and who married Sol Hurok, a legendary American impresario). [V Alexandrov, Journey through Chaos. Foreword by Upton Sinclair. New York: Literary Press, 1945, p 97; H Robinson, The Last Impresario: The Life, Times, and Legacy of Sol Hurok. New York: Viking Penguin, 1994, pp 125-126.]
From 1920 to 1924, Runitch also played leading and supporting parts in films by German studios, alongside Emil Jannings and Werner Krauss (Danton, 1921); Diana Karenn (Das Spiel mit dem Feuer, 1921; Marie Antoinette, 1922); Dary Holm (Ihr Fehltritt, 1922; Frühlingsfluten, 1924); Henny Porten (Prater, 1924; Das goldene Kalb, 1925). In 1922-3, Runich ran a production company, Lionardo-Film, with Robert Wiene, who directed The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. Under Wiene, he played in Der Puppenmacher von Kiang-Ning and Die höllische Macht. [U Jung; W Schatzberg, Beyond Caligari: The Films of Robert Wiene. Oxford: Berghahn Books, 1999, pp 211—212.]
In the mid 1920s, his film career stalled. Runich joined the largest Russian company outside the Soviet Union, the Russian Drama Theatre in Riga, as a leading actor.
After a brief return to cinema in the late 1920s, Runich realised that there was no future for in Germany, with the rise of Nazism and their impending coming to power. He turned to his Jewish roots, learnt Yiddish and went back to Riga, to become the chief dirtector of the government-subsidised Jewish Theatre.
In the mid 1930s, Runich directed plays with the leading Yiddish companies in Kishinev and Kaunas. This work made him one of the major figures of the Jewish stage in Eastern Europe.
His return to the Russian Drama Theatre in Riga in 1938 was brief. By May 1939, he was on his way to South Africa, having been invited to perform for Jewish audiences in Johannesburg and Cape Town. [G Roos, Ossip Runitsch. Die Brandwag (Johannesburg), 18 April 1947, bl. 7.]
Contribution to SA theatre, film, media and performance
While in Johannesburg in 1939, Runich and his wife, ballerina Nina Pavlishcheva (formerly, a soloist at the Grand Theatre in Warsaw), were asked to establish a professional Yiddish theatre company]] in that city. On the board of the new Jewish Art Theatre sat Wulf Sachs, Leon Feldberg, Gustav Simon Kuper and Olga Ryss. The performances were held at the South African Zionist Federation headquarters. ['Jewish Art Theatre Society formed in Johannesburg', The Zionist Record (Johannesburg), 4 August 1939, p 21.]
The company included a Jewish-Austrian singer Hedi Haas, a character actor from Riga, Max Angorin and members of the Jewish Workers' Club and the Jewish Cultural Society. [Belling V. Yiddish Theatre in South Africa: A History from the Late Nineteenth Century to 1960. Cape Town: Jewish Publications — South Africa, Isaac and Jessie Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies and Research, 2008, p 83.]
Despite the initial interest, the venture failed. The last performance took place at the end of 1939.
In 1942, The Afrikaner Yiddishe Tsaytung newspaper organised the Jewish Forum, a cultural organisation with its own Yiddish theatre. Runich organised the theatre company and produced the plays. Performances took place intermittently until 1943. [Belling V, Yiddish Theatre in South Africa: A History from the Late Nineteenth Century to 1960. Cape Town: Jewish Publications — South Africa, Isaac and Jessie Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies and Research, 2008, p 86.]
Meanwhile, Runitch started producing operas for the annual opera seasons in Johannesburg, initiated by John Connell. Jewish produced full-length versions of La Boheme, La Traviata, Faust and Tosca. The leading part in his Rigoletto was played by Redvers Llewellyn, later a Fellow of the Royal College of Music. [South African Music Encyclopaedia. Vol. IV. Cape Town: Oxford University Press, 1986, p 301; The South African Jewish Chronicle (Johannesburg), 13 April 1945, p 183, and 10 May 1946, p 315.]
From 1941, Runitch mentored Afrikaans actors. Under his direction, an Afrikaans company called the Die Kunsteater ("The Art Theatre", an allusion to Stanislavski's Moscow Art Theatre) performed in some of the largest venues in Johannesburg, including the Standard Theatre. Among the members of the company were Henrietta de Waal, who had worked under Paul de Groot in the 1930s; Gideon Roos and his wife, singer Esther Mentz, who sang the part of "Carmen" in Afrikaans in the Runich production for the opera seasons. [G Roos, "Ossip Runitsch". Die Brandwag (Johannesburg), 18 April 1947, bl. 7; H Viljoen, "Esther Mentz", Scenaria (Johannesburg). May 1987.]
While working in theatre under Runitch, Roos and Mentz starred in Donker Spore, one of the first Afrikaans feature films. After the Second World War, they appeared in the first Afrikaans production of Hamlet, with Roos playing "Claudius".
Personal correspondence from Boris Gorelik. (2019-2020).
Encyclopaedia Judaica. Second Edition. Vol 17. Farmington Hills, MI: Macmillan Reference USA; Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House Ltd, 2007. P. 529.
'Arest O I Runicha - po donosu byvshego kontrrazvedchika. Segodnya (Riga), 19 May 1928.
Obituary, The Rand Daily Mail, 7 April 1947.
"The Final Curtain", The Billboard, 3 May 1947, p 46.
Runich, Ossip Ilyich. Member's card. Member database of the Russian Theatre Society. Central Academic Library of the Russian Theatre Union, Moscow.
V Martinelli, Cineasti russi in Italia. Cinegrafie (Bologna). 1997. No 10, p 119.
V Alexandrov, Journey through Chaos. Foreword by Upton Sinclair. New York: Literary Press, 1945, p 97.
H Robinson, The Last Impresario: The Life, Times, and Legacy of Sol Hurok. New York: Viking Penguin, 1994, pp 125-126.
U Jung; W Schatzberg, Beyond Caligari: The Films of Robert Wiene. Oxford: Berghahn Books, 1999, pp 211—212.
G Roos, Ossip Runitsch. Die Brandwag (Johannesburg), 18 April 1947, bl. 7.
'Jewish Art Theatre Society formed in Johannesburg', The Zionist Record (Johannesburg), 4 August 1939, p 21.
Belling V. Yiddish Theatre in South Africa: A History from the Late Nineteenth Century to 1960. Cape Town: Jewish Publications — South Africa, Isaac and Jessie Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies and Research, 2008.
South African Music Encyclopaedia. Vol. IV. Cape Town: Oxford University Press, 1986, p 301.
The South African Jewish Chronicle (Johannesburg), 13 April 1945, p 183, and 10 May 1946, p 315.
H Viljoen, Esther Mentz, Scenaria (Johannesburg). May 1987.
Percy Baneshik, 1998.
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