The elder Nimoys, Dora and Max, were living in a first floor apartment in a red-bricked building in a middle-class section of Boston when I met them. It wasn’t the house where they raised their two sons, Melvin and Leonard, in. This was their retirement home they moved into after Max left his barbering trade.
It was during the second leg of Leonard’s one-man show ,VINCENT, tour. During the first leg, which ended months before, our little troupe consisted of Leonard, his wife Sandy, his dresser Erik, Dennis Babcock, who was the Special Events Coordinator for the Guthrie and the person responsible for converting the bare-bones VINCENT that Leonard brought to the Guthrie and turning it into a full-blown show and for booking the first tour in which he also served as Tour Director. I was the show lighting director, show set-up carpenter, and show electrician.
On the first leg of the tour, a Guthrie production, we jumped from city to city. We spent a lot of our time together, stayed in the same hotel, often on the same floor, and ate many of our meals together. We even spent three days living in Leonard’s home in L.A..
The second leg was completely different, a week of brush-up and four weeks of shows, all in the Wilbur Theater in Boston, Leonard’s home town. It was no longer a Guthrie show, but was promoted by a New York producer. Leonard and his wife, Sandy, stayed in a hotel downtown and were kept busy with friends and relatives. I stayed in a theatrical hotel in the theater district. The first tour had been something special. This time it was like theatrical tours usually are.
I had left the Guthrie shortly after we got back from the first tour and was free-lancing off the Union Hiring Hall. Dennis Babcock had taken a short leave of absence from the Guthrie and helped us get the show back on it’s feet, and then he went back home. Like I said, things had changed.
Leonard said no matter how busy he would be in Boston he wanted Denny and I to met his folks. ‘They want to meet you two. Dora will cook us one of her great dinners and Max will entertain us.’ Leonard set it up for the third evening the set-up week.
The faint aroma of the food cooking welcomed us as we stood outside the Nimoys’ door, and when Mr. Nimoy, (Call me Max), welcomed us in, the aroma hit us full force, and I knew that, if offered seconds, I would take them.
Mrs. Nimoy, Dora, followed her husband in the hallway to greet us. She was wearing a kitchen apron over her dress and used it to wipe off her hands before she shook hands with Denny and me, and kissed Leonard.
One of the things I was surprised by was the fact that both of Leonard’s parents barely came up to his shoulders. One thing I was not surprised by was the immaculate condition of the apartment. Sandy, Leonard’s wife had not come with us, but she had warned us not to feel guilty about making our visit extra work for Leonard’s mother.
‘Her house is always dust free and polished like a mirror. You could walk in at two o’clock in the morning or six o’clock at night, anytime, and the place would look the same, like she worked hours to clean. And as far as cooking a big meal… Max might have left for work with only a cup of coffee and a bagel and lox for breakfast, but no matter what, there was always a big meal waiting when he got home. Of course,’ she added, ‘Homemaker and mother was the only job Dora ever had.’
We walked into the hard wood floored dining room and sat down. Denny and I both had made an attempt to take our shoes off in the hallway, but Max wouldn’t let us. We sat down and Max poured us a glass of wine. ‘Nothing fancy. Kosher. Gets the taste buds alive for Momma’s cooking. L’chaim,’ he said raising his glass. ‘To life.’
Mrs. Nimoy set a bowl of soup in front of each of us. ‘We heard Leonard introduced you to bagels and lox when you stayed at his house. Now Momma’s going to introduce you to matzah ball soup’, Max explained..
The soup was so delicious. I didn’t have the heart to tell him it tasted a lot like my mom’s chicken soup and dumplings. I refused a second bowl because I didn’t want to fill up before the main course. But I sure wanted more soup.
The main course was pot roast with potatoes and carrots cooked with the meat. It made me lonesome for my wife’s cooking, and I had only left home less than a week before.
‘Now,’ Mrs. Nimoy said, ‘I know maybe you boys would rather have a steak or something,’…Oh no, Dennis and I quickly argued. ‘But this is the kind of meal Leonard wants when he comes home. He and Sandy are always so busy they don’t get enough good old fashioned home cooking.’
‘Know what a Jewish Princess makes for dinner?’ Max interjected. ‘Reservations!’
‘Max!’ Mrs. Nimoy said, shaking her finger at her husband, ‘You promised, none of your silly barber shop jokes!’
‘Sorry, Momma,’ Max said.
‘Dad,’ Leonard said, ‘After we eat, tell the story of the first time you gave somebody a haircut. The guys will get a kick out of it.’
Leonard has promised that his mother would feed us and his dad would entertain us. And he did. But not until we had second helpings of the main course.
In the last of the 19th Century and the first of the 20th a large immigration of East European Jews settled in America. These immigrants and their children became leaders in the Arts, Music, Science, Entertainment Industry, vaudeville, movies, radio and TV. Leonard is a good example of a child of Jewish immigrant parents from East Europe, an actor, entertainer, poet, playwright, an artist with a camera, etc.. And if Mr. Nimoy had not stuck with barbering, he could have been a stand-up comic.
‘I was still three years from Bar Mitzvah when the village barber came to my father with the offer to teach me the trade of barbering. ‘Crops depend on the weather. Hair grows in the sun or the snow.’ he told my parents.
‘My father thought it was a good opportunity for me. My pay was a meal brought to the shop by the barber’s wife at noon. Usually beet soup with bread. And a promise of getting my own pair of scissors when I was ready for them. Here we call it apprenticeship. The more I worked for him the more I thought of it more as a form of slavery. He thought of it as him being the Tsar and me being a serf.
‘The barber had came with his offer just before the fall ended. The time of the year when you needed a fire to fight off the chill. I was given a key to the barber shop and instructions that I should get there an hour before the shop opened and get the fire going so it was toasty when the barber came to work. And naturally during the day, I had to chop kindling for the fire. During the nice weather we still had to have a fire to heat the water for shaving a customer. Since most every man in the shtetl, (shtetl is the name for a Jewish village in the Ukraine), had a full beard, shaves were not something he did very often; but he still wanted his hot water just in case. And it was something for me to do when I wasn’t sweeping the floor.
‘Sweeping the floor! Sweep up the hair was quick as it fell. Sweep up the floor when he took the cloth off the customer and shook it on the floor. I offered to take it outside and shake it, save having to sweep the floor after the shake; but he did it his way. It was something for me to do in order to learn his profession.
‘Chop wood. Sweep the floor. Two years before I was allowed to hold his scissors, and then I all he did was let me hold them when I brought them to be sharpened. When I complained to my father that I wasn’t learning the barber trade, just how chop and sweep, and I knew that before I ever went to the barber shop. My father just said that I had to learn the trade from the ground up. That is how the world goes. Sometimes I thought he got together with the barber to get their excuses straight.
‘Finally in the third year of my apprenticeship, I was sixteen by then, the barber began to actually teach me how to cut hair. When he presented me with my own pair of scissors you would have thought he was giving me the greatest gift in the world. He thought so. And every time after the giving ritual, Mrs. Barber would make me show her the scissors before she gave me the soup. She had to inspect them to be sure I was keeping them clean.
‘Keep them clean! It was another three months before I actually got to use them to cut hair. First I had to learn how to hold them correctly. How to properly operate them. I actually got to watch as the barber gave haircuts. But naturally I still had to sweep the floor as the operation was being performed…
‘We could smell Gregor the Goat before he opened the shop door and came inside to get his hair cut. He was known as Goat, not just because he owned a large herd of them, or because he was as stubborn and as crabby as a Billy Goat; but because he gave off a horrible odor like a goat. No, like a herd of goats.
‘The barber, standing as close to the open door without actually going outside, motioned Gregor to sit in the chair. Then with a smile, he mouthed to me that I was going to perform my first haircut.
‘Now The Goat had a twice-a-year cleansing ritual. Early spring and early fall he built a bonfire by the river. Then he peeled off his unwashed clothes that had worn continuously for the past six months and threw them on the fire, and went naked into the river and washed six months of dirt, sweat, and stink off his body.
‘Lastly, he put on his newly purchased shirt, pants, and socks, more befitting the upcoming season than the ones he was wearing. And those clothes would be his only attire for the next six months. And for few hours, twice a year, Gregor was fit to be around people.
‘The bad thing for the barber was Gregor always got his hair cut before, not after his cleansing.
‘I thought I was going to throw up when the barber got through to me to breath through my mouth instead of my nose. It helped – a little. I tried clip-clipping with my scissors, but I ended up chop-chopping trying to cut through that greasy was of hair that hadn’t been washed in six months and probably never been combed in all that time. And I was sure it would break my scissors.
‘It was my first. I wanted to do a good job even if it was for Gregor. I was shaking. The barber was trying not to laugh. And Gregor… Gregor was sound asleep the minute he sat in the chair..
‘Boy, though, did I ever wake hand he moved his head.The scissors slipped. And I cut out a chunk of his ear!
‘He jumped out of the chair, roaring more like a bear than bleating like a goat.im when I was trying to hack through a solid wad of hair
‘I don’t think I waited until his feet touched the floor when I threw down my scissors and ran out the door pushing the laughing barber out of my escape route. The barber swears that I was screaming like a little girl; but if I was, I never heard anything but the roaring and swearing coming from The Goat. I took off for home. ‘Figuring the first place anybody would look for me would be under my bed, so I crawled under my parents’ bed. I stayed there even when I knew my parents were about to eat. I was hungry, but I was scared more than hungry. And when I heard the voice of the barber I knew I was going to have to face the music.
‘He told what happened to Gregor’s ear.. My mother yelled; but my father laughed, and he was joined by the barber. ‘Took a chunk right out of his ear!’ They both thought it was funny. I crawled out from under the bed and went to the dinner table. The two men saw me and laughed louder. My mother gave me a hug and told me to sit down and eat.
‘The barber stopped laughing long enough to say he had to go home to eat, but made sure that I knew that I had to be in the shop at the usual time in the morning.
‘The next day the first customer the next day was The Goat. He had a large make-shift bandage over his ear.
‘Barber,’ he said in a softer voice than normal, ‘I was thinking about what you told me. It is better to have the haircut after I clean up. It was not the boy’s fault. I want him to cut my hair now.’
‘I did and it was a good job. And from then on, Gregor The Goat had his haircut done after his river bath. And I was a barber.’
I had accepted the offer for seconds, but politeness made me turn down the offer for thirds. Mrs. Nimoy told us that they were going to see VINCENT the night after the opening. She said that they had seen it when we were in Washington D.C. I remembered many of Leonard’s family attended a wedding there. That is where I met Adam, Leonard’s son, but did not meet Leonard’s folks.
She said that she really enjoyed VINCENT, but it made her sad. ‘Such an artist. And such a life. But,’ she added, ‘It is a great show. You all should be very proud.’
‘Momma’s favorite though is when Leonard plays Tevye in FIDDLER, Max told us.
‘Tradition! Tradition!’ Max sang out. Mrs. Nimoy frowned at him.
‘It reminds me of our life in the Ukraine’, Mrs. Nimoy said smiling. ‘Even when Leonard is not in it. I like the story.’
Max laughed. ‘And she really like it when Leonard’s friend, Zero Mostel was in it. They were rehearsing it here before they reopened it on Broadway. Leonard brought him over here for supper one night’, Max told us. ‘Now there was a man wasn’t afraid to accept thirds.’
‘Charming man,’ Mrs. Nimoy said. ‘I cried when he died last year. Way too young to die. Such a shame. Such a good actor, too,’ she added.
‘And a brave man who wasn’t afraid to stand up for his principals,’ Leonard said, his voice drifting off as he spoke.
Max jumped in breaking the sad mood that had settled in. ‘You know, Leonard, I think maybe my story about cutting The Goat’s ear had something to do with you liking Van Gogh so much. What do you think?’
‘If you say so, Poppa,’ Leonard smiled. ‘And maybe your talking about your scissors subliming gave me the idea for Spock’s Vulcan salute.’
‘Leonard,’ Mrs. Nimoy said as she stood up, ‘Don’t humor him! Now who wants dessert? Apple pie and ice cream.’
She didn’t have to wait for our answer, but stood up and went into the kitchen.
Max watched her go. ‘Ah,’ he sighed. ‘The love of my life. I was so lucky to have found her. Can you guess where I first met her?’
‘The village where you grew up?’
‘No, you’ll never guess. We first met in South America.’
‘South America!’ Dennis and I spoke in unison.
This is a wrap for today.
I will continue the story in the next post, Dessert At Nimoys.