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Dorothy Rueben SilverMythbusters: Dorothy & Reuben Silver

Date of interview: November, 2009

For more than half a century, actor-directors Reuben and Dorothy Silver have been, Northeast Ohio 's "most cherished and beatific joint acting institution," says Free Times drama critic Keith Joseph. Separately and together, they have directed or performed in just about every "house" in Northeast Ohio. They are responsible — through their work at Karamu House, the Jewish Community Center, Cleveland State University, Ensemble Theatre (which they helped found) and countless other venues — for fostering the careers of a legion of actors. And they have won just about every theatre award or prize given out in Northeast Ohio .

On a nippy fall afternoon, in the living room of their Cleveland Heights home — overflowing with theatre memorabilia — Reuben and Dorothy shared their views on Cleveland theatre; what it took — and still takes — to make their 60-year marriage "work;" and what they are doing — now, and in the future — to age successfully.

When and where were you born and raised and what were your "growing up" years like?

Reuben: I was born in September of 1925 in New York City. My [only] sister was born later in Cincinnati. My father was a social worker and we moved a lot due to his job, eventually moving to Detroit [in 1933] when I was eight. My mother didn't work, but she was interested in social issues. We were secular Jews ours was a Socialist family and politically my parents were Zionists, supporting some of the movements in this county that favored the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine.

I liked school and did well. I don't think of myself as a tortured adolescent ever.

The Yiddish theatre movement was a pretty flourishing movement in America in those days and I'm a product of it. I took Yiddish language and dramatic lessons at Yiddish School, which I attended regularly every day after public school, and had enough talent that I was frequently cast in shows. I played children my age, but I also played very old men, with long beards.

Dorothy: I was born in Detroit in 1929 on the kitchen table at home. I had three older siblings, a sister born in Poland and two brothers. My family were Orthodox Jews and my father had a small business. He really struggled during the Depression. I've realized that what I've learned about living and lifestyle how to live, how to save, how to plan for the future came from watching my parents. My mother's mantra was: Live every day as if you were going to live forever and as if you were going to die tomorrow. That's a very interesting philosophy, and I think it has everything to do with being Jewish.

We lived in working-class neighborhoods so I didn't grow up expecting to go to college, but I did. I worked full time as a secretary at Wayne University [now Wayne State University ] and took classes there, too. One reason I could do that was that, due to the GIs coming back to school, the school made it very easy for them to work and go to school. I took classes in the early morning, at lunchtime, and in the evening so I could carry a full schedule and work full time, too.

When I decided that I was going to pursue my theatre interest, I cut my work to half-time.

Reuben:...including her secretarial work in the Mortuary Science Department... I could concentrate on my major.

What about you, Reuben, what was your major?

Reuben: I was always interested in theatre, but my B.A. and my master's degree are in English with a heavy focus on dramatic literature. Only my PhD [from the Ohio State University] is in Theatre.

You both grew up during the Depression and WWII. What impact do you think those events had on the people you are today?

Dorothy: For me, the Depression had and enormous impact. When I think of how my mother managed to feed a family of four, I'm amazed. But in the neighborhood I grew up in, everyone was poor. [P]eople were losing their homes because they couldn't make a $30 mortgage payment, so there was nothing special about how we were, how we grew up.

The war's impact? One brother went into the army. My family came from Poland and we lost so many relatives. The Holocaust was a very real presence in our house. [It] influenced the way I felt about being Jewish and the way I felt about faith and belief in God.

Reuben: Unlike Dorothy's, our family seemed far less impacted by the Depression. My father was director of the Jewish Family and Children's Services in Detroit: he had a steady salary. I'm sure there were problems we did move a couple of times but my parents didn't set us down and talk to us about things.

I went into the navy when I was 18, and that's when I started college, too, in the navy training program [V-12] at Williams College [in Williamstown , Massachusetts]. First I was an enlisted man and later a gunnery officer, first on a small submarine chaser in the Atlantic and later in the Pacific on a small aircraft carrier. I was supervising men who, in some cases, were older than I was. That was a real growing-up experience.

When did the "theatre bug" bite for each of you? And what do you think led to your decisions to choose theatre not just acting as a career?

Reuben: For me, it started at Yiddish school when I was eight. One of the teachers was also a director and I did local plays with him. When touring groups with big name actors Paul Muni, Maurice Schwartz, and others would come from New York, I was one of the local people they'd use to fill out the play casts.

Dorothy: I remember sitting in my mother's lap when she went to the Yiddish theatre. And when I was in high school I did some acting and I ushered weekly at the Cass Theatre in Detroit, where I saw people like Katherine Cornell and Kathryn Hepburn and the Lunts and José Ferrer. But it wasn't until I got to Wayne that I began to think about getting a degree in theatre. That was maybe a year and a half after I started college.

I'm sure that was an 'economic' delay. If I'd come from a middle-class family I'd probably have made the decision before that.

When and where did you meet? And, when did you marry?

Reuben: When I got out of the service in 1946 I returned to Detroit and Wayne and took a temporary job driving a cab. When I didn't have fares I'd hang out at Wayne 's theatre building. That's when I first saw Dorothy work in 1948. Our first date was a football game. She didn't know anything about football.

Dorothy: I still don't.

Reuben: We got into several shows together.

Dorothy: That's really when we started our pattern of working together in shows. Today, we are often asked how we have done it for so long.

When did you marry?

Reuben: I'd graduated...

Dorothy: ...and gotten a fellowship to get his Masters in English at the University of Connecticut. He called me from Mexico...

Reuben: ...where I was on vacation with my family...

Dorothy:...and asked me if I thought we could live on $1200 a year, and the GI Bill, and I said sure.

Reuben: We got married August 28, 1949.

Dorothy: ...and drove to Connecticut and started our married life there. That's when I started working on my PHT degree, my putting-hubby-through degree. While he was getting his MA we did a lot of theatre together during the school year and the summers. Then he started working on his PhD in theatre at Florida State and finished it at Ohio State University.

Reuben: During that time, we were always acting together, but we thought of ourselves as two individuals. Now, we tend to think of ourselves as a team, because that's how things worked out.

And that is a lot rarer than you might suppose. You have to get lucky to get parts in the same play. We got lucky. I think we were envied by a lot of our friends [from Wayne days] who were in New York because we were working, and we were working in good plays.

What brought you to Cleveland in 1955? And why did you stay?

Reuben: Karamu House. The founders, [social workers] Rowena and Russell Jelliffe, were in New York City looking for an artistic director. I called the Jelliffes in New York and asked what I needed to do to apply. They told me to have my credentials on their desk when they got back to Cleveland.

It was obvious when we interviewed with them and they interviewed both of us that they felt that good theatre was aesthetics and social work.

Dorothy: We'd been married seven years before we came to Cleveland. When we settled here we started a family.We have three sons: two are musicians and they are married to musicians.

What was it like working at Karamu House?

Reuben: Dorothy had always helped out at the theatre and by 1957 my load had increased to the point where I could use an assistant, so Dorothy became resident guest director.

By the early 1960s, America was a ferment of race due to the Civil Rights Movement, and that made Karamu House where Black and White actors were working and performing an exciting place to be. You felt you were at the center of something important and that's part of what made it so exciting to work there.

At Karamu, we taught, but it was an informal kind of teaching, by doing. And schedules were built around productions. We did seven or eight a year, and the plays and the process taught arts appreciation and cooperation. And, with the plays we did, we were reflecting the theatre's philosophy and society.

Dorothy: And we were running [plays] six nights a week, often for six weeks, and at the same time getting ready for the next one.

Reuben: While I was there, I became a leader in the Black theatre movement, not because I loomed as a world class director but because my position there put me in touch with playwrights and actors of the movement.

To have had the ability to work with so many good people, to teach and educate and influence and learn from them, was a wonderful thing, a blessing.

But that was also the reason, after 21 years, I was asked to leave in 1976. The person who came in to be Karamu's executive director thought that it should have a Black theatre director. And this was long after the revolutionary aspect of the Black Power Movement had swept past.

Being asked to leave was a shock. But ironically, at the same time I was asked to leave, there was a notice on the Karamu bulletin board where it really had no business being about a position with the Theatre Department at Cleveland State University . It required a Ph.D., so I went in for an interview, got the job, and stayed for 17 years, becoming Professor of Theatre Arts and ultimately head of the theatre area.

I retired from CSU in 1993 and I feel like I was blessed twice. First with the position at Karamu and then with the position there.

You've both been active in Cleveland 's theatre "scene" for over 55 years. How has it changed over the last five-plus decades?

Dorothy: When we came here, with the exception of the Cleveland Play House, theatres in the area were amateur theatres, community theatres. Then they began to pay directors. Then they began to professionalize. Now they pay the actors not much and they try to hire one or two Equity [union] actors. And there has been the development of the frequent touring shows almost always Broadway musicals in Playhouse Square downtown.

Right now, the recession has forced many actors and theatres into a panic mode. I was scheduled to do a serious drama at one of our small professional theatres, but the show was dropped in favor of shorter season that stressed musicals.

The plays you are doing today seem focused on aging and older people. Why is that?

Dorothy: Because we are aging. We have the look and we have the experience for them. One of our most recent plays Reuben directed, I acted was Talking Heads. I played a 94-year-old women in a nursing home. For that role, all I had to do was learn my lines and wash my face and go out on stage!

You have a successful marriage and, in a highly competitive field, successful careers. How have you made that work for over 60 years? In other words, what's "the secret" to your successful marriage and successful careers?

Reuben: A good question. We have established trust in each other and in ourselves, too, so that we know there is no hidden motive or agenda when we offer suggestions or criticisms. We want each other to get better, and if we can help each other we'll both be glad. Dorothy has always said that I'm her best critic.

Once you establish that kind of trust and honesty that respect for "the other" you want to hear from the other person. Every person should have at least one person in their life that they can get honest criticism from, otherwise there is no growth.

Dorothy: We insist on communication. In your work, you always want a boss who without arrogance and condescension can communicate with you and help you get better. It's the same in a marriage. It's an enormous benefit being married to an actor/director who is good at identifying and solving problems [at work] because he's also good at identifying them at home and finding ways to solve them.

You have three children. Did any of them choose the theatre as a career?

Dorothy: No. And I think that had to do with the fact that we did so much of our work play reading and analysis and criticism and rehearsing at home.

When the boys were young, they needed a lot of attention, and I wasn't giving it to them, so I made the decision for about five years not to act because when I acted I shut the world out and could not give the children the attention they needed.

They probably didn't want to go into theatre because we were there.

Reuben: But two of the boys went into music, and music and theatre aren't that far apart in some ways.

What are the most important life-lessons you've learned from working in the theatre and from working together.
Dorothy. One is that talent exists in many people and you have to know how to help them draw it out. There is something about acting that is innate: you have talent or you don't. But it has to be developed....[T]hat takes patience and insight.

And another thing I learned is that there is a tremendous and obvious blend of work and life.

Reuben: The ones who "make it" aren't always the ones you think will. Making it isn't just about hard work and talent. You have to be at the right place at the right time and you have to be a little lucky.

Dorothy: And you have to have the right attitude.

What are your non-theatre-related activities...and why those particular activities?

Dorothy: We are readers. I read everything, history, fiction, everything.

Reuben: [Chuckles] She can read lying in bed.

Dorothy: He reads the deep stuff, The New Republic , things like that. His latest book is The Stuff of Thought [by Steven Pinker].

Reuben: Don't pick it up unless you are prepared to wrestle with a book about language. [Chuckles] It's very dense.

Besides reading?

Dorothy: We love music and go to the [Cleveland ] orchestra and the Cleveland Chamber Music Society.

Reuben: We love to travel, but we have always traveled to theatres. And today the best theatre isn't in New York City , it's in England or Canada. [Pointing to a pile of neatly stacked papers ] What you see there is 55 years of theatre programs that we are donating to the CSU Theatre Department's library.

And we see a lot of good movies, but we are careful and picky so we are watching a lot of classics and old foreign films. We just watched The Bicycle Thief for our annual cry.

Dorothy: [Pointing at a neatly organized and labeled bookstand] Right now we have a student from CSU working with us to organize books and papers and theatre-related materials so they get where they need to go.

Are you thinking of retiring then?

Dorothy: No. If we can do a project individually or together we do.

Reuben: I was recently diagnosed with Parkinson's [Disease], so I'm slower than I was. It's slow-progressing, and with medications I'm doing more than I was a couple of months ago, but I've come to the realization that there are some things I'm going to 'retire' from. Theatre requires energy and sustained stamina. Right now, I have energy for short-time projects, like readings or commercials.

Dorothy: And we are doing those. We just did a commercial for the Jewish Film Festival and I'm getting calls for film auditions. [Indeed, she received one during our interview.]

I really do believe that if you don't use "it" you lose it and your horizon gets much smaller. So we are doing what we need to do to maintain our health.

Just this morning we were talking about this, and how very grateful we are to be alive and able to take care of each other.

Myth Busters is all about successful aging. What's your definition of, and criteria for, successful aging?

Dorothy: We actually been talking about this a lot.

Reuben: That's because I'm trying to understand, right now, the relationship of health to successful aging because I've suffered recent health reverses. Does one have to have health first, or can you age successfully without good health?

Some say aging successfully means you are free-er to do and say what you want, that there are fewer limitations on your behavior and candor, that you can flaunt things and [chuckles] wear purple. But I wonder how far you can carry that in terms of your relationships with others.

Dorothy: For me, the key to successful aging is not "preparing" for death, but living every moment fully, and with a good attitude.

It's very clear to me that it's a process up to the very end. That means overcoming or adapting to limitations when and where you can...I don't bicycle any more...and I walk slower, and that's OK because I'm doing what's needed to adapt to what are clearly the physical limitations and deterioration I'm encountering.

Reuben: And you have to be able to face uncertainties, look around you and see where you are, and where you belong and...

Dorothy: practical and realistic.

Reuben: That comes with experience and perspective. My favorite saying is a paraphrase on Lincoln 's Gettysburg address: The world will little note nor long remember what we do here. Yet through the people you touch, and mentor and teach there is a kind of immortality.

You are both sitting on over 60 years of great stories, and you are tellers of tales. Is there a book, or books, in your future?

Reuben: I think we may have missed the moment on that…Someone once asked us if we'd be interested in having her do our biography. But…

Dorothy: ...until recently we have been so busy. And doing something like that, well, it takes time, interviews, notes...

Reuben: ...details...

Reuben Silver passed away on May 8, 2014 at age 88.

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