Part IV: The Lithuania Community of Cleveland Since World War II

Cultural and Educational Activities

In regard to the fine arts, Cleveland was particularly fortunate with the group of talented Lithuanians who arrived after World War II. Perhaps no other Lithuanian colony in the country had such a high percentage of artistic individuals, and they immediately became active in order to help cultural activities, patrons of the arts founded the Fund for Lithuanian Culture in 1949. It sponsored lectures, concerts, and other cultural activities, and has awarded several $1,000,00 prizes to writers. The fund was headed by Dr. Stasys Tamošaitis and Mrs. Aldona Augustinavičius, and later united with the Cultural Fund of the Lithuanian Community of the United States upon its founding.[1] One of the first organizations was the Braziulis Drama Studio in 1949. Vladas Braziulis (Braziulevičius) studied literature at the University of St. Petersburg from 1913 to 1915, and during this time became interested in acting. In 1920, after returning to Lithuania, he founded the Soldiers’ Theater and directed it until 1939. The many plays he produced during this period helped to instill a feeling for drama among many Lithuanian soldiers.[2] Upon coming to Cleveland he organized the Drama Studio. Despite its high quality and the production of well received plays, the Studio was forced to close within a few years due to the cultural adjustment of the new arrivals and the need to sustain themselves in a new country.[3]

In 1949 a second drama group was organized (the Rūta Theater, which was aimed at the youth,) by Petras Maželis, who had studied music, drama, and dance in Kaunas and later sang with the Kaunas State Theater. Maželis produced two plays with this group and then in 1951 reorganized it into the Vaidila (Player) Theater. This troup performed a number of plays and in 1968 won first prize in the Chicago drama festival.[4]

In 1949 Cleveland’s cultural life was substantially enhanced by the arrival of the Čiurlionis Lithuanian National Art Ensemble.[5] It was established in Vilnius, Lithuania, by Alfonsas Mikulskis in 1940, and even under the difficult period of 1940-1941 Soviet and 1941-1944 Nazi Occupations, Mikulskis developed a very nationalistic program of Lithuanian dance, music, and song. The second Soviet invasion of Lithuania witnessed the escape of the majority of the Ensemble, which reestablished itself in Vienna, Austria, where it once again began to perfonm. Later the group toured throughout Austria and Germany, and was well received by German, French, Swiss, and American critics. Finally, the group arrived in the United States in 1949 and settled in Cleveland where it has since remained. The Ensemble has toured throughout the United States, Canada and South America, and has appeared at both Carnegie Hall and the Lincoln Center. Mikulskis, the founder, studied at the Klaipėda and Kaunas Conservatories and the Stuttgart Academy of Music, and became a member of the Lithuanian State Opera in 1930. Other positions held by him include the directorship of the Klaipėda Singing Society, lecturer and chorus director at the Vilnius Institute of Education, director of the Lithuanian Philharmonic Chorus and a symphony orchestra. Mikulskis’ work has been significantly aided by his wife, Ona, who studied at the Music Conservatory of Klaipėda and is conductor of the Lithuanian Kanklės National Ensemble, which has given numerous concerts. Vladas Plečkaitis joined the Čiurlionis Ensemble in 1959 and in the capacity of president has also worked diligently to foster the group’s work.[6]

A second performing group, the Grandinėlė (Little Chain) Lithuanian Folk Dancers, was formed by Liudas Sagys in 1953 and was also to enhance the cultural life of Cleveland and perform throughout the United States, South America, Europe and Australia. The main concert section is composed of high school and college students, who rehearse twice weekly. In 1973 the second or prep-school group was organized to teach younger dancers the basics and prepare them for entrance into the concert group. The prep-school students are divided into two sections: the beginners, who are from nine to thirteen years old and do not perform before the public, and an intermediate group, whose members are from thirteen to fifteen years of age.

The director Liudas Sagys, has spent most of life studying Lithuanian folk dancing and began his career as a professional folk dancer with the National Folk Dance Ensemble in Lithuania. His expertise is witnessed by the invitation he received to direct the Second United States and Canadian Lithuanian Folk Dance Festival in 1963. As chairman, Sagys choreographed and directed 34 dance groups.[7] Additionally, Sagys has been director of the annual Cleveland Folk Dance Festival, which in 1976 was labeled “the best ever,”[8] and at present he is vice-president of the Cleveland Folk Art Association. Behind him from the beginning has been his wife Alexandra, who besides being business manager, also makes and takes care of the costumes and watches over the dancers with great care.

To encourage the young dancers to remain in the group, since 1974 director Sagys has awarded special recognition to outstanding performers. This award is presented at the annual Grandinėlė Banquet and in 1976 a silver and golden award was initiated. The first golden honor went to Gintautas Neimanas, who has been with the group since 1956 and has been assistant director for the last 10 years. The first recipients of the silver award were Dalė Motiejūnas and Alvydas Narbutaitis.[9]

MlKALOJUS KONSTANTINAS ČIURLIONIS (1875-1911). A composer and painter, whose realistic symbolism and later kind of mystical symbolism is said to have influenced the Russian painter Kandinsky.
MlKALOJUS KONSTANTINAS ČIURLIONIS (1875-1911). A composer and painter, whose realistic symbolism and later kind of mystical symbolism is said to have influenced the Russian painter Kandinsky.

Andrius Kuprevičius, another Clevelander is a talented pianist who 163 has given numerous concerts. A graduate of the Conservatory of Music in Kaunas in 1939, he continued his studies in Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Austria. Upon the opening of Cleveland State University’s 1971-1972 concert series, which featured Kuprevičius, the following comment was made: “Kuprevičius has a flair for contemporary music and he has no difficulty making sense out of material which is both capricious and technically challenging.”[10]

Along the purely vocal lines, two groups were formed: The Men’s Octet and The Ramovė Chorus. The former was established in 1959 under the leadership of Rytas Babickas and has given concerts in both the United States and Canada. Its repertoire consists not only of traditional Lithuanian folk songs but also modern tunes translated into Lithuanian. The group has been well received, especially by the younger audiences and to date has made three recordings. (The Ramovė Chorus, formed in 1975 by Julius Kazėnas, performs the more traditional Lithuanian folk songs.)[11]

The top Cleveland Soloist remains Aldona Stempužis, who studied voice in Germany and with Carmela Cafarelli in Cleveland. A mezzo-soprano, she was named “Best Woman Singer of Ohio” in 1955 at the Cleveland Music Festival, won first place in the annual music festival sponsored by the Chicago Tribune, and in 1958 was a finalist in the Metropolitan Opera Auditions for the Great Lakes Region. She has performed throughout the United States and Canada, as well as in South America and Europe. Among her many recordings are Dainos (Folk Songs) and Les Sept Solitudes (The Seven Solitudes) both produced with the Stuttgart Symphony Orchestra.[12]

In the field of painting, the Gallery International has been outstanding. It was opened on September 12, 1964, by Stephanie and Vytautas Gedgaudas, whose motivation was revealed in a Plain Dealer article: “There are no new art manifestos attached to the Gedgaudas’ interest, but an openminded intent to show contemporary art in its varied aspects.”[13]A later article attests to the artistic capabilities of the entrepreneurs. It declared “Gallery International begins its ninth and final exhibition of the season today with a display of paintings and gravure prints by Gil H. Cowley. If there was any doubt last fall that the then-new gallery could faithfully pursue its stated policy of showing exciting new work, could manage each time to show something ‘different’ and maintain a high level of quality, it has come through with honors repeated in current showing.”[14] Despite this and a number of additional notes of praise by various art critics, Gallery International was to survive but a few years. Cleveland was not yet ready for such a high quality undertaking, and the Gedgaudases had to close their doors due to financial stress.

In education there has been one central institution throughout the years, the Saturday school, of which Cleveland has two, the Bishop M. Valančius Lituanistic School and the St. Casimir Lituanistic School. These, along with the scouting groups, have been the most important organizations in the preservation of Lithuanianism among the youth, and also like the scouting segment have involved a great deal of energy input and self-sacrifice.

The first, the Bishop Valančius School, was started in September 1949 by the Cleveland chapter of the Ateitis Club. At first the school met at the Norwood Public Library, but later began to use the facilities of St. George’s school. Although the term “Saturday school” has evolved due to the present holding of classes on Saturday, in the beginning classes were held after regular school: one group on Monday and Wednesday and another on Tuesday and Thursday. During the year sessions met during the lunch period for students of St. George’s school, and Saturday classes were held for those attending other schools. The basis of the school has been similar to a regular eight year school, except that the language of instruction is Lithuanian and the classes deal with topics of Lithuanian culture such as language, history, literature, and folk art. Under Antanas Tamulionis, a quality four year high school was added. Indicative of the standards maintained is the comparative literature class taught by Aurelia (Balašaitis) Balas, which reflects on the works of Byron, Frost, Whitman, Hawthorne and others, in relationship to past and current Lithuanian authors. There have been many who have given of themselves for the school, with Stasys Barzdukas, who was one of the founders, being the oldest faculty member and principal for a period.[15]

The second Saturday school, St. Casimir’s, was started in 1957 at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish, around which a number of the newer arrivals had moved. With Dr. Dabrovolskas as a cornerstone in its establishment, it has been meeting weekly and has a curriculum similar to that of the Bishop Valančius School. Again many have been responsible in keeping this school viable with Mirga Kižys, who has taught continuously since its founding, being one of the mainstays.[16]

Two other institutions which have been significant in maintaining the schools are the Parents Committee and the Lithuanian Teachers’ Training Institute. The former serves as a parent-teacher association and deals with the practical problems of the schools as well as serving in an advisory capacity. It was established in 1959 by Juozas Žilonis. The goal of the institute, which has been directed for a number of years by Vacys Kavaliūnas, is to give future Saturday school teachers a good foundation in the knowledge of subject matter and instructional methodology. Fulfilling this goal has enabled them to replace retiring faculty members. To date, two groups have completed the two year course, with six graduating in 1961 and eight in 1971.[17]

With the rise of ethnic awareness, a new development has occurred in the field of Cleveland Lithuanian education: Lithuanian classes for those who do not speak the language or who speak it poorly. Under the guidance of Dr. Danguolė Tamulionis, the first class for adults was started in 1972 with ten students, who were taught the language and culture of Lithuania one night a week. Since then the number of students has increased to forty, divided into four seperate classes, each meeting on a different night. Besides students of Lithuanian extraction, there are also a number who are not of Lithuanian background but are married to Lithuanians and desire a knowledge of their spouse’s cultural heritage.[18]

In the area of higher education Cleveland has the noted scholar, Dr. Juozas Jakštas, who studied at the Universities of Kaunas, Berlin, and Vienna, and in 1938 received a doctor of philosophy from the University of Kaunas. Jakštas taught history at both his alma mater and the University of Vilnius before being forced to flee as the Soviets took over in 1944. He is one of the outstanding specialist in the history of the middle ages in Lithuania and has written several monographs on the subject as well as numerous articles.[19]

  1. Interview with Dr. Viktoras Stankus on 18 March 1976.
  2. E.L., I, 404.
  3. Interview with one of Braziulis' students, Ona Jokubaitis on 21 February 1976.
  4. Information obtained through correspondence received from Petras Maželis on 12 April 1976.
  5. The Ensemble is named after Mikalojus K. Čiurlionis, the famous Lithuanian painter and composer, who preceeded Wassily Kandinsky by a decade with his abstract painting. At this point more research is needed, however it appears that there is a good chance that Čiurlionis' works were known by and effected Kandinsky.
  6. All information on the Lithuanian National Art Ensemble, Čiurlionis, was obtained from a commerative booklet, which was issued in 1975 when the group celebrated its 35th anniversary.
  7. E.L., II, 361, 362. Antroji JAV ir Kanados Lietuvių Tautinių Sokių Šventė (The Second U.S.A. and Canadian Lithuanian Folk Dance Festival), (Chicago, 1963).
  8. Cleveland Press, 1 March 1976.
  9. E.L., III, 233.
  10. Cleveland Press, 18 October 1971.
  11. Interview with Dr. Viktoras Stankus on 18 March 1976.
  12. Information obtained from the jacket of the latter recording.
  13. Plain Dealer, 6 September 1964, 7E.
  14. Plain Dealer, 6 June 1965, 6H.
  15. Information on the Saturday schools was obtained from the following interviews; Aurelija Balas on 24 March 1976, Antanas Tamulionis on 10 April 1976, Pranas Karalius on 22 May 1972, and Vacys Kavaliūnas on 21 May 1976.
  16. The Plain Dealer, 3 September 1975, 10G.
  17. E.L., II, 495, 496.
  18. Information on the Lithuanian Press in Cleveland was obtained from Jonas P. Palvukaitis, who has completed some of the most extensive research in this area to date.
  19. Algirdas L. Nasvytis, Leave Your Tears in Moscow (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co. 1961).


Lithuanian Americans and Their Communities of Cleveland Copyright © 2020 by Cleveland State University . All Rights Reserved.

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