Carving Out a West Side Anatevka profile

| 11 Dec 2015 | 12:00

It’s Friday night. The residents of Anatevka are getting ready for the Sabbath as audiences fill the Broadway Theatre, where the latest incarnation of “Fiddler on the Roof” has just started previews.

Sitting in Row G, Seat 16, Rosalind Harris looks familiar. Her dark hair is elegantly piled on her head; her blue top and matching long skirt contrast with a long, red tassled necklace.

As the orchestra begins playing “Tradition,” the opening song by Tevye the Milkman, tears start rolling down Harris’ face; her reddened lips tremble.

“Seeing this now, I suddenly became overwhelmed,” she says during intermission. “After so many years, it is still a huge part of me.” Harris played Tzeitel, Tevye’s eldest daughter, first on Broadway and then, a year later, in the hugely popular 1971 movie version.

Between then and now, Harris has switched from the performance side of the stage to the audience. But in a sense, she never quite gave up acting. These days, the actor known simply as Roz to her friends, uses her voice and performance skills to sell vintage and estate jewelry, a business she calls Rosalind’s -- As You Liked It.

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On a bright Sunday, the GreenFlea Market at the corner of W. 77th Street and Columbus Avenue is in full swing, selling everything from gourmet dill pickles to second-hand shoes and Buddha heads. Harris, wearing a crimson outfit with three strands of pearls, has set up her booth inside the main hall. Still working hard at 68, she talks without pauses. And sings.

She’s just treated a British couple to “Happy Birthday,” in her dramatic soprano. It’s Amber Brown’s 50th and she is buying a beautiful pair of marcasite earrings that once belonged to Joan Rivers. Her husband John selects a gold turtle ring with ruby eyes for his daughter back in London.

A father and his teenage daughter stop by and ask Karen Harris, Roz’s younger sister and helper, the price of a gift box-shaped pendant. “Two hundred fifty dollars,” Harris tells Karen. “It’s sterling Tiffany’s from the ‘80s. Tell them to feel the weight.”

Growing up in White Plains, Rosalind Harris had the talent for many things -- piano, ballet, singing -- but the inclination for only one: acting. She dropped out of Ithaca College to attend the Herbert Berghof Studio in New York City. She auditioned for roles and was rejected more times than she can remember. Legendary producer Harold Prince once told her she was “very talented but still raw.”

Sitting at Candle Café West on Broadway recently, eating pumpkin seed-crusted tempeh with mounds of vegetables, the health-conscious Harris confesses that she turned down the role of Tzeitel the first time around, for a national tour. But a few months later, the producers called her for the Broadway version and asked her to understudy Tzeitel, who happened to be played by Bette Midler. When the movie version of “Fiddler” was being cast, “Bette said, ‘Get your tush down there to the audition.’” Harris did and landed the role.

They filmed the movie in Yugoslavia and London. In an otherwise grueling period, and a personally difficult time due to a romantic break-up, she remembers one funny episode: “We, the three daughters, decided to stop shaving our armpits to show solidarity with Eastern European women. Norman [Jewison, the director] saw us leaning on a bed in one scene and shouted: ‘Stop! Take them to a hotel and shave their pits!’”

Numerous plays, television shows and movies followed, including 10 productions of “Funny Girl” (the first in 1966 but her favorite is at Chateau de Ville Dinner Theatre in Framingham, Mass.), Woody Allen’s “Zelig,” and “Hollywood Opera,” a cabaret show in New York directed by her dear friend, composer and lyricist Barry Keating.

Keating calls Harris an extraordinary comedian. “Her Fanny Brice was even funnier than Streisand’s,” he says.

But years went by and Harris felt she never got the roles in which she could shine. “Roz is theatrically so strong that she had to be the lead or nothing else,” Keating says. Rejections for being too Semitic-looking, possible because of a Streisand-like nose, broke her heart.

“Talent is like toilet paper. We use it and we throw it away,” she says. Currently single, she lives on the Upper West Side with her two chihuahuas, Hazel and Lou.

In the ‘90s, Harris decided to take time off from showbiz to recreate herself. Her close friend, model and actor Paul Craffey, remembers how interested they both had become in antiques. “She was out of work and between gigs,” he recalls. “She went to a flea market one day, and decided there and then she would go into antique business.”

Harris started with the jewelry she had accumulated personally during her career. As time went by, she began to acquire merchandise from other sources, accumulated a collection of costume jewelry and now sells exquisite period artifacts.

“I learned three things in acting school: educate, enlighten and entertain. I can do that at my table at the market, and get a paycheck,” she says, laughing.

“Pure joy, a phenomenal role, or a lot of money: two out of these three things had to be there,” she says of her approach to life. She also runs a coaching business on the side called Advice from the Shtetl and believes “we all have three acts in our lives.”

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After the curtain calls at the Broadway, Harris goes backstage to congratulate the current “Fiddler” cast and director Bartlett Sher. “It’s my brand,” she jokes. “I wanted to be here and see how you did it.”

Alexandra Silber (the current Tzeitel) and Samantha Massell (Hodel) are both thrilled to encounter a first-generation Anatevkan.

“I am so honored to meet you,“ says Silber.

“I watched the movie 345,000 times maybe,” adds Massell.

Sher asks her opinion of the choreography: she loved it.

Angela Lansbury, also backstage to praise the cast, remembers her co-star Harris from the movie “Mrs. Santa Claus” and gives her a hug.

“They treat me like an icon,” Harris says of the small uproar she has created backstage. She sounds delighted. “I didn’t know I would be a legend for 30 years. You do something and you don’t know it was to going to last and last.”