A brief salute to impresario Morris Gest (Moishe Gershnowitz, 1875-1942). Born in Lithuania, Gest came to the U.S. at the age of 12, initially living in Boston, where he worked at local carnivals, Yiddish theatres and vaudeville houses as an usher, bill poster, outside talker (barker), and ad man. He then worked at the 1901 Pan American Exposition in Buffalo as a promoter before moving to NYC, where he found employment with Oscar Hammerstein booking vaudeville talent for his Paradise Roof Garden, eventually working his way up to a position as his foreign representative. In 1909 he married David Belasco’s daughter Reina. By the middle 1910s Gest was producing on Broadway, usually in partnership with Ray Comstock. Dozens of shows would bear his imprimatur, including Morris Gest’s Midnight Whirl (1919-20), The Century Revue (1920-21), Mecca (1920-21), Afgar (1920-21), and several editions of Nikita Balieff’s Chauve-Souris starting in 1922. Other European artists he imported included Eleanor Duse, the Moscow Art Theatre, and Max Reinhardt.
The stock market crash of 1929 hit Gest hard. He managed to hang on until 1931, then hung fire for five years, during which time was said to have to have suffered a nervous breakdown. His last Broadway production was Lady Precious Steam (1936) starring Helen Chandler and Bramwell Fletcher.
In 1939, Gest returned to his roots by producing and presenting the “Little Miracle Town”, the midget village at the New York World’s Fair. This was his last production, and ironically the one he remains best remembered for today.
For related reading, please check out Rose’s Royal Midgets and Other Little People in Vaudeville.