Reuben Silver was a man of joy and appetite who nourished the culture of theater as a director, actor and teacher for more than half a century. He and his wife, Dorothy, showed how good a marriage an artistic couple could have, many of his friends suggest. It's a viewpoint Dorothy Silver, a thespian of equal note, shares. The Silvers are mentors and icons. Reuben’s death after years of failing health tears a hole in Cleveland’s cultural fabric.
Silver died May 8 at Hospice of the Western Reserve in Cleveland. He was 88 years old. News of his passing hit social media long before an obituary was printed, noting that besides his wife of nearly 65 years, he left three sons and four grandchildren.
What the obits didn't detail are all the admirers the New York native left behind – not to mention a legacy that cuts a swath as wide as it was deep across Cleveland’s theatrical institutions, including but not confined to Karamu House, Cleveland State University, Dobama Theatre, Ensemble Theatre, Actors’ Summit, the Beck Center for the Performing Arts, the Mandel Jewish Community Center’s old Halle Theatre and the Great Lakes Theater Festival.
A memorial service for Reuben Silver will be held June 9 at Ensemble Theatre in Cleveland Heights.
“The delay of the month really was based on the schedules of our very, very busy grandchildren and sons,” Dorothy Silver said May 14. “I’m now beginning to appreciate the delay because we can get our heads screwed on a little tighter.”
Dorothy, the Silvers’ sons, Paul, Daniel and Joshua, and their families expect many relatives and friends to attend the service, and a reception may follow, she said. There also will be private time for family, she said.
It has been a tough week for her, with “a lot of crying and a lot of laughing, because he was a wonderful guy and his kids remember the things about him like I do, and in the midst of this hole – the word ‘hole’ is right – you fall apart,” she said.
The loss of her husband has left her feeling raw and profoundly sorrowful, she said, noting a tearful morning.
“People are writing to us and dropping by, which I’m really not ready for at this point, and telling us stories about how Reuben affected their lives,” she added. “These are joyous stories and they make you miss him much more.”
Diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease some five years ago – Dorothy suggests it might have started earlier – Reuben “was gradually losing his capacity to be mobile, though I, of course, kept working because we had a wonderful caretaker who was with him,” she said. “He could no longer be left alone when I was working.”
The Silvers lived for 55 years in a home on Berkshire Road at Cottage Grove Drive in Cleveland Heights, moving to a Shaker Heights apartment in 2010 before “immobility and general decline” settled on Reuben, she said.
They would have celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary in August.
Silver’s thespian legacy
Veterans of Cleveland’s theatrical community regard the Silvers as inspirations and role models.
In a 1984 article she wrote for the Cleveland Arts Prize when the couple won a special citation for distinguished service to the arts, playwright and Beachwood resident Faye Sholiton called the Silvers “Cleveland’s own Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy.” The article cited Reuben’s theatrical baptism in Detroit’s Yiddish theatre, his marriage to Dorothy in 1949, his earning a Ph.D. in theater from The Ohio State University in Columbus, and the beginning of his theatrical career in Cleveland as artistic director of Karamu House, where he worked with Cleveland native Langston Hughes.
In the mid-1960s, freelance theater director Sarah May heard Hughes recite his poetry at Karamu, and then stuck around to catch Silver’s direction of Martin Duberman’s “In White America,” discovering this was the “kind of theater I believed in.”
May considered the Silvers “sort of surrogate parents,” noting Reuben launched her career as a director and directed her in “The Dutchman,” a play by Leroi Jones (aka Amiri Baraka) that ran for eight weeks in 1969 and continued to be revived.
“The last few years, as he became more frail, it’s hard to remember he was a force,” May said of Silver. “He was a natural teacher; when he went to Cleveland State, that was a perfect place to end his career. Back in the ’60s we were doing plays about things we really cared about, about social justice, antiwar plays, plays that dealt with racial issues. We were all activists. The theater was our medium.”
It was a medium Silver commanded. He seemed born to it.
In a 2009 interview for “Mythbusters,” a program of the Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging, Silver said he was born in 1925 in New York City, moving to Detroit in 1933. His father was a social worker, his family was Socialist and his parents were Zionists, he told Benjamin Rose. Dorothy was born in Detroit in 1929 into an Orthodox family. Both grew up during the Depression and World War II.
Silver said he caught the theater bug when he was 8, studying in Yiddish school. One teacher also was a director and Silver did local plays with him.
A mentor, a true star
In 1976, Silver left Karamu for Cleveland State University, where he and Joe Garry developed what was then called the dramatic arts program. Among the more memorable CSU productions was a “Death of a Salesman” starring Reuben as Willy Loman and Dorothy as his wife, Linda. That rendition of the Arthur Miller classic, along with one of Friedrich Duerrenmatt’s “The Visit,” are still being talked about, said Michael Mauldin, chair of the department of theater and dance at CSU. Silver retired from CSU in 1993.
Mauldin said one of his favorite memories was a night at the old Cleveland Play House on Carnegie Avenue when CSU announced establishment of a scholarship in honor of the Silvers.
“People came in from all over the place, there were performances, there were speeches,” Mauldin said. “Reuben and Dorothy got up at the end; he was fairly sick back then, but the trouper that he was, you would never guess. He was funny and charming and had that audience hanging in the palm of his hand.”
Silver also was instrumental in professionalizing Cleveland theater.
According to Joyce Casey, who was artistic director of Dobama Theatre for 17 years until she retired in 2008, Silver helped Dobama incorporate Equity actors into its productions. It was difficult to go from an all-volunteer organization to starting to pay people, she said, and Silver eased the maturation process when Dobama opened its doors to new directors and actors in the ’70s.
“The spirit of Dobama was really maintained, that everyone work together in a community of love and respect,” Casey recalled. “People like Reuben came into our theater and they fit right in. … There was a profound respect for the work for all of the artists, not just the actors but the designers, the set people; we didn’t have to teach Reuben that because he was a professional, and that’s how he worked.”
All kinds of stages
Elaine Rembrandt, a Beachwood resident who worked with the Silvers at the Halle Theatre in the old JCC building on Mayfield Road in Cleveland Heights after she succeeded Dorothy Silver as the JCC’s cultural arts director, described the couple as intellectually voracious and politically engaged.
In 1987, Rembrandt led a group including the Silvers on a groundbreaking trip. Jewish Federation of Cleveland officials suggested she might want to lead a group to the Soviet Union to perform theater. “They’re starved for Jewish culture,” she was told. “This is during the whole Refusenik movement.
“My husband had done something similar the year before, so I was more than eager to do it. The first people I contacted were the Silvers. … We had a most fascinating time – and a bonding of all of us.”
As an actor, Rembrandt said, Silver “became the role. He became the character, and it seemed so natural. And he was a joy to work with: the lines were down, he was a total professional, and his characters were always just beautifully thought through.”
Joel Hammer, who directed the Silvers in Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons” at the JCC’s Halle Theatre in 1997, also attested to Silver’s power:
“Late in the rehearsal process, we decided to have his character break an apple in two with his bare hands,” Hammer wrote in an email. “It seemed like a perfect signature for the character but even more so for Reuben. Reuben may not have been tall but he was a big man with much power. He lived life fully and a man who lives that way can break an apple with his hands without it seeming foolish. He didn't need a utensil, he didn't pussyfoot around, he knew what he wanted and went after it.”
Silver was a man of appetite, whether for the stage or at the dining table.
“Reuben loved food,” said freelance director May. “He was not shy about taking a piece off your plate to taste it.” The Silvers “shared their life with the artists of Cleveland,” she added. “A lot of young artists who were trying to figure out how to live their lives, how to juggle your relationships and career, they were the model for that.”
“He was very talented, very clever, very flexible, very loving,” Dorothy Silver said. “I think he enjoyed his life and I’m sorry it wasn’t longer. I would be an ingrate if I complained after almost 65 years of marriage. It’s a very long time of being together and I was very lucky. We consider ourselves very lucky with our children, with our lives, with our careers, with each other. All I can think of right now is how grateful I had him this long.”
There was no favorite production starring the Silvers, she said.
“Life was our production, and it was wonderful.”