As a young man, Isaiah worked at the Theatre Studio of New York and acted in summer stock. Fellow actor Lou Antonio remembers, “In our first play together, Isaiah had the role of a hillbilly. A bad guy points at him and Isaiah says with an Okie twang, 'Fold in that fanger, fold in that fanger!' From Yiddish theatre to Okie hillbilly — a master craftsman.” In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Isaiah had a variety of acting experiences that included playing an elaborately costumed officer arresting Tartuffe in a production of Molière’s classic play at the New York Shakespeare Festival Public Theatre and several comic roles in Phil Silvers’ Sgt. Bilko television series.
Isaiah began acting as a child in the Yiddish Theatre and as a teenager in shows at the Henry Street Playhouse on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. As Mr. Diddlebeam, host of the Playhouse children’s show Saturdays at 3, Isaiah introduced the young performers with stories and jokes, foreshadowing his role decades later as host on the Symphony Space and other stages.
Playing a World War II orphan in a war relief fundraising pageant at the Waldorf Astoria.
Playing an Okie Hillbilly in summer stock, Fishkill, NY.
Isaiah as the Toymaker, with actor Joey Elrose. Photo: Craig Shemin.
Isaiah as the Storyteller in the National Dance Institute production, 2010
As Isaiah’s focus turned more to writing and directing in the late 1960s and right up to his final years, he took the stage more often as host and reader than as actor. But there were still opportunities to put on a costume and become another character. The decade of involvement in the Thalia Follies provided many opportunities to get into character as Newt Gingrich, Henry Kissinger, Rick Perry, and many others from the contemporary political scene.
In 2008 Isaiah was asked to play The Toymaker in the Little Orchestra Society’s production of Babes in Toyland at Lincoln Center, and he loved this moonlighting opportunity. “When I raise the bugle to my lips to summon help in the battle, and 140 actual real life toy soldiers march down the aisles of Avery Fisher Hall to Herbert’s classic ‘March of the Toy Soldiers,’ it’s a moment of high theatre,” he wrote.
Two years later, Isaiah got to play the Storyteller in a piece by that name created by Jacques d’Amboise and Ellen Weinstein at the National Dance Institute. He loved rehearsing with kids of all ages from schools across the city, especially when those kids would high-five him and tell him what a cool guy he was. You can catch a glimpse of Isaiah as the Storyteller here.
Isaiah as the Toymaker in Babes in Toyland. Photo: Craig Shernin.