Charles Brin went from roles on Broadway and in the movies to co-founding the first local community radio station
By ERIN ELLIOTT BRYAN / Community News Editor
Charles Brin was an actor, a radio storyteller, a musician and a scholar. And he leaves behind an incredible legacy in the Twin Cities community.
Speaking to KFAI’s Diane Richards last year, as part of the radio station’s “10,000 Fresh Voices” series, Brin said: “Stories have to do with outcomes. One way or another, they’re going to have to end.”
Brin’s story ended on Jan. 29, just five days before his 93rd birthday. Beryl Greenberg, Brin’s partner of 47 years, told the Star Tribune that he died peacefully at home.
“We got out of bed, he was doing his thing, I was doing mine,” she said. “I called out and said I wanted a glass of orange juice, and he didn’t answer. That was the end. It was so fast. That was a blessing.”
Brin was raised near Lake of the Isles in Minneapolis, with his brother, Howard, and his sister, Rachel. Early on, the children were “imbued with a sense of community,” according to his niece, choreographer and author Judith Brin Ingber. Brin’s father, Arthur, was the founder of what is now the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas (JCRC).
“Arthur functioned as a bridge in a difficult time in Minneapolis politics during World War II,” Brin Ingber said. “And Charles observed that community work that his father did.”
His mother, Fanny, was a noted suffragist, an international peace activist, and the first non-New Yorker president of the National Council of Jewish Women. In 1938, she was named one of the 10 Most Important Jewish Women in America and visited the White House at the invitation of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
When Fanny made a national radio address, “Chuckie,” as he was known as a child, was dismissed from Kenwood School to hear her speech.
“He understood the power of voice and inspiration to affect people,” Brin Ingber said.
Brin attended the University of Minnesota, majoring in psychology and theater, and also attended the medical school. He served in the U.S. Army, working in personnel at the War Production Board.
He soon made his way to New York City, where he was cast in the The Dybbuk in 1954, for which he won an off-Broadway best supporting actor award. During that time, he met Shlomo Carlebach, who would later be known as the “Singing Rabbi.”
Brin — whose great-grandfather had been a Hasidic rabbi in Romania — and Carlebach spent time visiting small synagogues for different communities of Jews in New York. Together, they listened to niggunim, religious tunes that are usually sung by groups.
“They were exploring these old melodies and the character of these little communities,” Brin Ingber said. “Carlebach was starting to sing in public and was starting to inspire people with his own music, but he only sang. Charles said, ‘This isn’t going to be effective enough, you have to accompany yourself on the guitar. Here are the chords that you need to know.’ And he taught Carlebach how to accompany his songs.”
Beginning in January 1955, Brin appeared for two years in the original Broadway production of Inherit the Wind, which fictionalized the 1925 Scopes “Monkey” Trial. He was cast alongside renowned Yiddish theater actor Paul Muni, as well as Ed Begley, Sr., and Tony Randall.
Playwrights Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee used the show as their response to postwar McCarthyism in which Wisconsin Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy led an effort to identify Communists, including those he felt were part of the entertainment industry.
“Everything he did is still relevant today,” Brin Ingber said of her uncle.
While in New York, Brin also pursued graduate work at the New School for Social Research. He was introduced to Viennese psychologist Dr. Jacob Moreno, who developed psychodrama, a form of psychotherapy that uses elements of theater to role play emotional situations. Brin studied under Moreno and earned a certificate in the field.
Brin returned to the Twin Cities when his mother became ill in 1960. He co-founded and directed the Minnesota Institute of Psychodrama and became involved with the local board of the actors union, SAG-AFTRA.
In 1973, Brin was a co-founder of KFAI, the first community radio station in the Twin Cities. It began to broadcast in 1978, and he co-hosted the beloved “Spoken Word” program with Greenberg for 38 years.
Each week, Brin and Greenberg would read short fiction stories and on Halloween, they would present Edgar Allan Poe’s The Telltale Heart. After his death and at the request of Greenberg, KFAI replayed their reading of that story for a final time.
Brin also continued acting and doing voiceover work. He had a small role in the 1993 film Grumpy Old Men, and played the Hebrew teacher in the Coen brothers film A Serious Man, in 2009. At the age of 90, Brin was cast as Uncle Matty in The Jingle Dress, local filmmaker Billy Eigen’s story of a Native American family transitioning from life on the reservation to life in Minneapolis.
Brin Ingber noted that Brin was the only non-Ojibwe player in the cast, but was immediately embraced by his fellow actors.
“My uncle was taken up by award-winning people,” Brin Ingber said. “He was so unique and so powerful in what he would do, people want to be around that. The best would turn to him.”
In a letter that was read at Brin’s funeral, which was held Feb. 1 at Illusion Theater in downtown Minneapolis, Eigen said that Brin was “game for anything and was everything we could have asked for.”
“At the wrap party, I said, ‘Charles? From one old Jew to another, you made a great Indian,’” Eigen wrote. “Charles was a man that stood on his own, held his own, but was so very open to anything new. He was a truly rare kind of guy.”
Brin was also a gifted artist who took classes at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, and a musician who played the violin in the Northeast Community Orchestra; he performed with the group in the week preceding his death.
Speaking at the funeral, Rabbi Sharon Stiefel, of Mayim Rabim, the Twin Cities’ Reconstructionist congregation, said that Brin was a “very dear and unique man.” (Brin and Greenberg were also members of Or Emet, the Minnesota congregation for humanistic Judaism.)
Stiefel told the story of how the people of Rome asked Michaelangelo how the city would get along without him after his death.
“With a weak wave of his hand toward the open window and city beyond — filled with creations of his genius, Michaelangelo answered, ‘Rome will never be without me,’” Stiefel said. “In the same way, we can say that we will never be without Charles Brin for his life touched so many and so deeply.”
And then, in the time-honored theater ritual, the house went dark and the stage was lit for Brin’s last role. Brin is survived by his partner, Beryl Greenberg; and loving nieces and nephews.
(American Jewish World, 2.12.16)