Shir Ami remembers Theodore Bikel

Susan Fadem

As a teenager, Carol Kaplan-Lyss received Theodore Bikel’s first album, “An Actor’s Holiday,” from a boyfriend. She cherished the music.

As president of the Hillel House at Washington University, she was given a paid trip to New York for a leadership camp. Since Bikel was then headlining with Mary Martin in the original “Sound of Music” on Broadway, Kaplan-Lyss wrote to ask if she might meet him after a show.

He agreed. And so was born a friendship with Bikel that would deeply touch the Shir Ami singing group. 

When Bikel starred at the Muny Opera in 1987 as Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof,” a role he would reprise on stage and screen some 2,000-plus times, Shir Ami was invited to sing beforehand and also afterward at an American Jewish Congress reception. “He liked us,” Kaplan-Lyss notes. “He said, ‘You know all my music. Can I play with you?’”

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Like the Pips, the back-up singers for Gladys Knight, the group accompanied him ‘til nearly midnight

“Then he looks up and says:  Kinderlach (Yiddish for “children”), don’t you have homes to go to?” Shir Ami singer Elaine Unell recalls.

At which point Kaplan-Lyss piped up: “Would you like a brisket sandwich?” 

Who could refuse? So Bikel and the group returned to her Olivette home for food, more stories, songs and photos. “We were there till 4 in the morning,” Unell says.

Over the years, whether Bikel was being honored here or performing, the Shir Ami group would meet him for lunch, dinner or just to talk.

During his last appearance here, as keynote speaker talking about his book, “Theo: An Autobiography,” at the 2014 St. Louis Jewish Book Festival, Bikel asked to visit with Shir Ami. 

Though more frail than group members had ever seen him, he reinvigorated at the end of his speech that evening, especially when he sang. Later, he phoned Lyss-Kaplan, requesting that she invite the others and all meet him at Brio restaurant. Of course, they did. 

Eight months later, Bikel passed away at age 91.