Theodore Bikel Celebrates His 90th Birthday With Concert, Tribute

Theodore Bikel Headshot - P 2014
AP Images

Theodore Bikel Headshot - P 2014

Singers, politicians, family and friends turned out for a celebration of the life of the singer, Broadway star and activist.

Theodore Bikel was celebrated Monday evening on his 90th birthday at a concert billed as "To Theo, L’Chaim, to Life."

It was filled with music, tributes and praise for his decades as an artist, performer, humanitarian, civil rights activist,  author,  Hollywood labor leader and as the friend of many.

Among those on hand to perform for and with Bikel were Arlo Guthrie, Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul and Mary), folk singer Tom Paxton, songwriter Artie Butler and many others.

Ed Asner, who acted as master of ceremonies for the evening, looked out at the SRO audience in the Saban Theater in Beverly Hills and said Bikel in a way “leads a nation.”

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“Did you know that,” asked Asner, ticking off some of those who made up that nation, they include “students, workers, hazzans (Jewish cantors), atheists, followers of many faiths, socialists, billionaires, peaceniks, hardliners, former skeletal (Jewish ghetto) dwellers, movie stars, survivors.”

“Everyone in this room has a story about how Theo has touched their lives,” continued Asner, “their mother’s life, how they started playing guitar because of him – don’t blame me. He went to Israel, he joined civil rights marches…And all of us are here to say happy birthday to a man we claim as our own.”

Asner added that the real miracle is that at age 90, Bikel, “still performs around the world, a new edition of his autobiography was just published, he has a new film which he co-wrote, produced and stars in is premiering this summer…Theo is even a newly newly wed.”

Bikel last fall was wed for the fourth time to journalist AimeeGinsburg.

His new film is Theodore Bikel: In the Shoes of Sholom Aleichem, which is based on the one-man show he has performed all over the world, Sholom Aleichem: Laughter Through Tears. The documentary is set to premiere at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival in July.

“I’m thankful for the fact that despite set backs and sad says, which I’ve experienced especially in the last decade” Bikel told the audience, “I was able to rally to find meaning once again and find love once again.”

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Bikel was clearly touched by the turnout, the rich musical performances and tributes from the Screen Actors Guild, Actor’s Equity (which he headed for years), the group that unites all the talent guilds, the Actors Fund, political leaders and show business friends.

“I am so filled with gratitude and joy and happiness, not only about his evening which is quite spectacular but also about decades of wondrous and important years that enabled us to see the world not only as it was but as it should be,” said Bikel, “and to work toward better days, to work toward a better country than the one we live in,  to work toward the time that we all have been promised, a promise that so often is neglected in the observance.

“I love life. I love music. I love culture. I love literature. I love you and I’m not saying this in a milquetoast namby pamby way - I really do love people.”

There were numerous tributes to Bikel for everything from his performances on Broadway in shows including Sound Of Music (he created the role of Captain Van Trapp) and Fiddler On The Roof (which he has performed a record 2,000 times) to his influence in organizing the Hollywood unions and marching in Selma (and elsewhere) to pave the way for today’s civil rights.

He was born in Vienna, Austria, but on the eve of World War II emigrated to what became Israel. He lived on a kibbutz but left when he realized he wanted to sing, not farm. He went on to graduate from the Royal Academy of the Dramatic Arts in London, before moving to America where he appeared in numerous memorable film and TV roles. He has more than 40 records, founded the Newport Folk Festival with Pete Seeger, and through it all fought for workers, peace and freedom.

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“Theodore Bikel is not only a citizen of this community,” said L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, “he’s not only a proud Jew, he’s not only a citizen of the  United States but in every sense of the word, he is a citizen of the world.”

Yaroslavsky recalled seeing Bikel when he was still in college and later enlisting him in the fight to help Soviet era Jews. He recalled that after some songs were snuck out of the Soviet Union, Bikel recorded them and they were sent back where, said the Supervisor, “thousands of people wee given hope and encouragement.”

In a message read by Asner, President Obama lauded Bikel who he said over the years has “captivated audiences and your advocacy has brought people together in common purpose…I am deeply grateful for your support of our shared values.”

Bikel closed his remarks by reciting a poem by a Yiddish poet which he translated. In English, he said it went:

“Could be I will not see the fruit of my yearning. Could be that I will never be rid of my load. What matters is not the end of the journey, it’s the journey itself on a bright sunlit road.”

And then the music went on into the night.

Other performers included Cathy Fink, Marcy Marxer, Frank London, Lorin Sklamberg, Craig Taubman, Alex Hassilev, John Bilezikjian, Alberto Mizarahi, Merima Kljuco and the H.B. Barnum’s LIFE Choir.

The evening was a fundraiser that in part supported The Actors Fund, which helps those who cannot help themselves. It was produced by Aimee Ginsburg Bikel and Mike Stein, who also performed with his family group The Rolling Steins, and acted as M.C. along with Asner.