Jerome Robbins at 100
Jerome Robbins, 1918 - 2018
Jerome Robbins, born Jerome Wilson Robinowitz, is born on October 11, 1918 at the Jewish Hospital in New York City to Herschel and Lena Rabinowitz. His father is an émigré from Rozhanka, Russia (now Belarus) and a baker. His mother is American-born and a college graduate from the Midwest. Her parents were Russian émigrés from Minsk.
The Rabinowitz family sells the family delicatessen and moves to Weehawken, NJ. Herschel, known as Harry, opens the Comfort Corset Company. The Weehawken ferry is the family’s lifeline to New York City where Jerry and his older sister Sonia take music lessons at Miss Effa Ellis Perfield’s Studio. Lena introduces her children to the cornucopia of cultural abounding in New York City.
At age six, Robbins performs his own music compositions in public. The local newspaper refers to him as “little Jerry.” Lena takes Jerry and Sonia to visit their paternal grandparents in Russia.
In September, Robbins enters first grade at Hamilton School in Weehawken, New Jersey.
Two weeks after Jerry’s 11th birthday, the stock market crashes ending the prosperous business and family life the Rabinowitzes have enjoyed.
At age 13 Robbins has his bar mitzvah and graduates from Hamilton School. The family business is struggling badly now as the depression deeps and Lena has to go to work as the company’s Running Boss. foreman Summers are now spent with the extended family at Camp Kittatinny, an Uncle’s enterprise in the Poconos, where Jerry gets involved in all the camp shows.
Robbins enters Woodrow Wilson High School where he is a member of the Drama Club. School plays, movies, and frequent trips to New York theater continue to nurture him. Through Sonia’s connections with the Gluck-Sandor Dance Center Jerry finds himself on stage in NYC in “El Amor Brujo.”
Robbins enters New York University; but does not find the coursework agreeable to his deepening vision of a creative life in the theater.
Financial difficulties end Robbins’s college enrollment. The family provides financial assistance while Robbins seeks a job in the theater. If he does not succeed, he will begin work in the family corset factory.
Robbins joins Gluck Sandor’s Dance Center Company on an unpaid basis. Sandor, choreographer for the famed Group Theater, gets Robbins work doing odd jobs for the Group.
Through 1941, Jerry spends summers at Camp Tamiment learning show business from Max Liebman. Robbins works his way up to choreographing full variety shows. He continues to take classes in acting, dancing and ballet.
The Shuberts produce a Broadway show of Liebman’s Tamiment revues. It is called The Straw Hat Revue and Jerry is the choreographer. It is his first Broadway show, though he receives no billing. Jerry moves out of the family home and into his first apartment, a furnished room at 873 Seventh Avenue in Manhattan.
Jerry works with Balanchine a second time as a dancer in Keep Off the Grass. In June, he signs a two-month dancer contract with Ballet Theatre for the summer season. Robbins makes Ballet Theatre his professional home for the next four years.
Robbins promoted to soloist by Ballet Theatre were he creates the roles of “The Youth” in Three Virgins and a Devil and “Alfonso” in Bluebeard. That summer, he studies with Antony Tudor and Anton Dolin at Jacob’s Pillow. He pays $10 a week for class which includes room and board. Robbins is listed as Production Choreographer in his last summer at Camp Tamiment.
Ballet Theatre promotes Robbins to principal dancer. He first performs the role of “Petrouchka” in Petrouchka and creates the role of “Hermes” in Helen of Troy. While on tour with the company in Mexico City, he choreographs dances for the film I Danced for Don Porfirio.
Robbins sees Apollo, his first Balanchine ballet, and is deeply impressed.
Ballet Theatre suggests to Robbins that he come up with an idea for a small ballet. He decides on an American-inspired piece. The idea involves six dancers. Searching for an American score, he meets the then-unknown Leonard Bernstein.
On April 18 at the Metropolitan Opera House, with Leonard Bernstein on the podium, Robbins’ Fancy Free debuts and ballet history is forever changed. Robbins performs one of the three lead roles of sailors on shore leave in Manhattan.
Robbins and Bernstein turn to friends Betty Comden and Adolph Green to write the book and lyrics for On the Town, based Fancy Free, which opens to rave reviews on December 28. George Abbott directs.
Robbins moves to 24 West 10th Street on the same block as Bernstein, Oliver Smith (co-founder of Ballet Theatre and designer of Fancy Free and On the Town), and authors Jane & Paul Bowles. His apartment becomes a cultural hub for these frequent collaborators. He choreographs the ballet Interplay for Concert Varieties on Broadway, which also enters the rep of Ballet Theatre, and the musical Billion Dollar Baby.
Robbins choreographs High Button Shoes for which he will win his first Tony Award. He choreographs Summer Day for the American-Soviet Music Society and Pas de Trois for the original Ballet Russe. He also becomes a founding member of the Actors Studio.
Robbins turns 30 and sees Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco, Orpheus, and Symphony in C at New York City Ballet at City Center. Returning home, he writes to Balanchine, “I’d like to work with you.” Balanchine replies, “Come on.” Robbins joins NYCB.
With George Abbott, he co-directs Look, Ma, I’m Dancin’! on Broadway and also choreographs. He directs That’s the Ticket! which closes in Philadelphia.