How do you celebrate the 90th birthday of a man who has had a major impact on American film, television, theater, music and social activism?
By putting on a concert and inviting legends of folk music to perform, of course.
Theodore Bikel has turned 90, and as actor and the night’s master of ceremonies Ed Asner quipped, “Theo has done more in this past decade than most people do in a lifetime.”
Hundreds of fans poured into the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills on June 16 to pay tribute to the great performer.
The night began with a screening of clips from some of Bikel’s most memorable film and television roles: an officer in “The African Queen”; the Russian submarine captain in “The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming”; Zoltan Karpathy, the dialect expert, in “My Fair Lady”; and a hilarious scene from “All in the Family,” in which he plays a German butcher infatuated with Edith Bunker.
Of his many roles, Bikel said in an interview, he has many positive memories — and some less-than-positive ones, including one scene from 1958’s “The Defiant Ones,” in which he played a Southern sheriff in pursuit of two escaped prisoners, a role that earned him an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor.
“We were traipsing around in a swamp, up to our knees in mud and slime, waiting for two Dobermans to sniff right. I thought, ‘What am I doing here? I’m a classically trained actor.’ It took two days and some of the night. But by and large, it was a wonderful experience of filmmaking and creation.”
But the Saban Theatre show focused largely on his musical contributions. Bikel co-founded the Newport Folk Festival and recorded more than 20 albums, including one called “Theodore Bikel Sings More Jewish Folk Songs.” As he took to the stage, Bikel launched into one of those songs, but first joked, “A friend of mine said it was a misnomer. It should’ve been called ‘Theodore Bikel Sings More Jewish Folk Songs Than Anybody.’”
For many Jews, beginning in the 1950s and ’60s and through to today, the Vienna-born Bikel has been the definitive voice of Jewish song and of the rebirth of Yiddish culture. Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino remembers his parents playing Bikel’s Yiddish albums at night. “For my socialist Zionist parents, this was a bedtime prayer,” Feinstein said.
The folk duo Cathy Fink & Marcy Marxer strummed their banjos, covering a Woody Guthrie song as well as a Yiddish song about the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, which killed 146 garment workers — a nod to Bikel’s long history of labor activism.
During a break in the music, speakers from The Actors Fund, Actors’ Equity and SAG-AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) praised Bikel’s leadership over the years in bringing fair pay to actors and performers.
Musician Mike Stein remembered Bikel’s efforts to push the National Theater in Washington, D.C., to become racially integrated.
“If there’s something we love about Theo, it’s that no amount of fame and achievement ever changes his fundamental mensch-ness. He remains one of us, devoted to making the world better for all of us,” Asner said.
A parade of fellow folk luminaries also took turns on stage: The venerable Tom Paxton led the audience in a sing-along of “How Beautiful Upon the Mountain,” taken from Isaiah 52:7, and Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul & Mary delighted fans with “Puff the Magic Dragon” and “Light One Candle.” Arlo Guthrie brought Bikel and the rest of the musicians on stage for a rousing rendition of “This Land Is Your Land.”
“Everybody up here, many of you, we sing for a living, we act, we do things that are important,” Guthrie said. “The most important thing for me is what it’s like to have an act of kindness done to you by somebody who’s well-known. It doesn’t happen all that often. Theo was one of those people you could count on. He is a kind man, and to me that is more important than all the other stuff.”
Composer and arranger Artie Butler took a seat at the piano to perform a couple of romantic songs, gently singing, “Here’s to life, here’s to love, and here’s to you.” Craig Taubman, well-known to synagogue audiences in Los Angeles, sang “Take your shoes off, you’re on holy ground.”
But the greatest crowd response was to Bikel himself, who received a number of standing ovations. He wore all black, including suspenders and a peasant cap reminiscent of the clothing worn by Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof,” a role he played more than 2,000 times on stage from 1967 to 2010, more than any other actor.
Despite his age, Bikel belted out song after song, pumping his fist in the air to punctuate the lyrics. The night neared a close with Bikel and the Greek-born tenor Alberto Mizrahi dramatically swapping lines in a Hebrew song about the rebuilding of the Holy Temple. And then, Bikel picked up an acoustic guitar and softly sang the Phil Ochs song “When I’m Gone,” a nod to his own mortality:
“There’s no place in this world where I’ll belong when I’m gone
And I won’t know the right from the wrong when I’m gone
And you won’t find me singin’ on this song when I’m gone
So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here.”
Even after Bikel is gone, his music will reach new ears. At one point in the evening, Rhino Records executive Mark Pinkus announced that the label would be releasing 12 classic Bikel albums on iTunes. “Theodore’s music was loved throughout the 20th century. We’re going to make sure people love it throughout the 21st century,” Pinkus said.
In the meantime, Bikel has no plans to slow down. He’s just released a new edition of his autobiography, “Theo,” with a chapter in which he reflects on turning 90. “It’s a fairly voluminous chapter. There’s a lot to reflect on,” he said. “A friend asked me, ‘Now that you’re 90, what do you have to look forward to?’ I said, ‘91.’ ”
He’s also taken to translating Yiddish literature, in an effort to connect a younger generation to the ideas of great writers that inspired him. And a documentary he produced and stars in, “Theodore Bikel: In the Shoes of Sholom Aleichem,” based on his long-running one-man show, will premiere at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival in July.
“I’m not the retired type,” he joked. But, there may be a moment of relaxation awaiting him. He said he and his wife, journalist Aimee Ginsburg, are heading to Europe for a river cruise next month. “That’ll be fun and restful. I can sit on a boat and contemplate the world as it passes me by.”