Vit Horejs (born Vít Hořejš), 1950
Vit Horejs was born in Prague in 1950. His father, Jaromír, was a teacher and author (who published over 50 books), while his mother, Věra, taught gym and Czech. Vit was the youngest of three siblings. Growing up in communist Czechoslovakia, he says he ‘believed in the system’ and even became Young Pioneer of the Year when he was around ten years old. Vit says he became disillusioned following the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. That same year, he made his first trip to France. It was at this time that Vit began studying French, philosophy and theatre at Charles University in Prague. He returned to France in 1969, having faked an invitation to secure himself an exit permit. Also during his studies, Vit visited England which, he says, made him ‘fall in love with English’ and consider a life abroad. He stayed in the United Kingdom for longer than his exit permit allowed and so had his passport confiscated upon his return to Czechoslovakia.
Vit graduated from university in 1975 and went to the Moravian town of Šumperk to take an acting job in the municipal theatre. He left the theatre after one year so as to move back to Prague, where he worked as a freelance actor and developed plans to leave the country. The chance came in 1978 when Vit was translating Primo Levy’s Il Sistema Periodico; he says he managed to procure an invitation from the author to consult with him on the translation in Italy. Vit left Czechoslovakia in March 1978. He did travel to Italy, but continued on to France, where he spent one year in Paris, studying mime and waiting for either the United Kingdom or the United States to process his visa request. He arrived in New York City in February 1979, sponsored by the American Fund for Czechoslovak Refugees. Vit settled briefly in Queens, working first as a bike messenger and then a cab driver. He subsequently moved to Manhattan and became involved in the Czech-American black light theatre company Divadlo Ta Fantastika. He stayed with Ta Fantastika for a number of years, moving to Florida in the mid-1980s with the company. Towards the end of the 1980s, however, Vit embarked upon his own venture, the Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre – using (among other props) puppets unearthed in the attic of New York City’s Jan Hus Presbyterian Church.
Vit has toured the United States with the Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre on several occasions, often performing his adaptations of traditional Czech fairytales (such as Rusalka and Jenůfa) in American schools. He serves on the board of the Bohemian Benevolent and Literary Association and lives in Manhattan with his wife Bonnie. The couple have one daughter, Sarazina, who is currently in the Czech Republic on a scholarship learning Czech.
Vit once refused to vote in Czechoslovakia
“There was one moment when there were elections and I refused to vote, which was tantamount to voting no for the Party. She [my mother] was very scared about that and she was trying to convince me to go and vote. But I didn’t.”
What was the voting age?
You didn’t go and vote?
“I didn’t go and vote, I was actually… I was on purpose not at home on the day of the voting, on the election day. Because I knew, somehow I knew that they might come to – the election committee might come and invite me to vote. And they did in my absence.”
Upon graduation from Charles University, Vit took an acting job at the municipal theatre in Šumperk
“Talking about the politics, it was very tightly controlled by the government, by the Communist Party. You were told what plays you could produce and what you could not stage. You also had to produce a Soviet play, and a play that was so-called ‘progressive’ – that was a political propaganda play. I was fortunate that actually I didn’t have to play, for the year that I was in this theatre, I didn’t have to play in any of those propaganda pieces. I even got to play in an American play. It was controlled, you were only allowed a certain percentage of Western plays, so I was in that ten percent of Western plays we were allowed to play. The theatre had altogether ten plays in a year. We would split the company and stage ten plays, of which I was in five.”
Vit says his mother had problems with the authorities concerning Charter 77
“She once, during Charter 77, she – there was a meeting at her school and the Communist Party chief was talking against Charter 77 and she asked her, my mother asked her, “Well, have you read it?” And the communist said “No,” and my mother pulled out Charter 77, a copy, and handed it to her. That was definitely the wrong thing to do. Fortunately they kind of hush-hushed it, she just had to move, she couldn’t teach in that particular part of Prague anymore and eventually she stopped teaching altogether and became a dorm supervisor for high school kids, which she liked better anyway. I remember that moment when… She actually had a nervous breakdown when this happened to her, and I remember us children telling her “How could you do that? This is just something that’s not done!” And then I realized the absurdity of it, that she was doing something that was right, but of course, under that current regime, it was suicidal to do anything like that.”
Vit arrived in the United States in February 1979
“I was scared of the United States before coming here. I knew… I guess there were still some remnants of the communist propaganda in me about America. There was what I knew from novels about crime in the United States and I was expecting that I would immediately be meetings gangsters at the airport. But that did not happen. I was met by a friend, because already in Prague we – there were three of us at [Charles University’s] Department of Philosophy that decided we would leave, and we planned together and all managed to leave at around the same time, and they already were in the United States, so I stayed with them in Queens for a little while. But my first impression: I didn’t quite meet the gangsters, but my first impression was that New York was tremendously dirty.”
Vit explains the origins of the Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre
“In 1984, while I was with the black light theatre [Ta Fantastika], I did a storytelling performance at Jan Hus Church with my three marionettes. And they told me, “We used to have a puppet theatre here.” So I kept asking what happened to the puppets until they let me go to the attic and there, in an old chest, were 24 marionettes – 24 large marionettes – between 18 and 26 inches.”
… The dimensions of the ones…
“No, these are 48 inches. These are much bigger. Maybe we can pan later on across some of those puppets here. So, I did two shows at Jan Hus Church and the second one, the next week after the discovery, I brought out a king and a vodník (a water spirit) and did a story with vodník and a story with the king. And then kind of kept thinking about them. And when I quit the black light theatre I put together with another friend, Jan Unger, who studied puppetry at the puppetry school in Prague – the Academy of Musical Arts [DAMU] had a puppetry department – so with him I put together a puppet company.
“My own training in puppetry really goes to childhood when I played with my mother’s toy puppet theatre from the 1920s and, together with my brother and sister, we put on shows. Fairy tales, mostly.”
When Vit arrived in New York, he did not at first seek out fellow Czechs
“I was really determined not to be closed in a Czech community. So I met some Czechs, but I was trying to totally live in an American circle, in American circles, and I purposely avoided Czechs. And despite that I met some Czechs who are good friends, but it took quite a while before I joined some Czech organizations, and that was after I started our theatre company. And surprisingly enough – that is contradicting everything I was saying, but I was trying not to meet Czechs, but I was telling Czech stories and started a Czech puppet theatre company.”
Vit did intend to raise his daughter speaking Czech
“At one point I tried, I was reading to my daughter in Czech when she was really small, and at some point she started refusing it, at a point where she recognized that she didn’t understand, she suddenly started refusing reading in Czech. And I gave up too easily, I guess, because years later she complained that I never taught her Czech.”
Category: New York City, Oral History