September 23, 2022: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
Is there anyone that doesn’t get a thrill from standing in front of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and luxuriating in its three main buildings and the fountain at its center? What about the pair of Chagall's (“The Triumph of Music” and “The Sources of Music") that hang in the windows of the Metropolitan Opera House? Or the State Theatre to the south and Philharmonic Hall to the north (both renamed, which I'll get to later)? Finally, there's the back NW corner where you can find the Vivian Beaumont Theatre, the smaller Mitzi Newhouse below it, and the even tinier Claire Tow rooftop theatre above it. In addition, there is the wondrous Library & Museum of the Performing Arts next door. With planted trees that provide shade where visitors can sit and relax in the tranquility of the environment, it’s one of my favorite places in New York City. So much so, that during the thirty years I lived in Los Angeles, my favorite hotel at which to stay was at the Empire, directly across the street. It was always a treat to walk out in the morning and be in close proximity to Lincoln Center, a home away from home.
Today marks sixty years ago that Philharmonic Hall, the first of its structures, opened and hosted a gala night. It was also the first symphonic hall to open in New York City since the Brooklyn Academy of Music (still standing) in 1908. Built to house the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, then led by its maestro, Leonard Bernstein, a live television broadcast aired that evening on CBS to commemorate the event, a cultural milestone that, sadly, would never manage sufficient interest as a prime time special anymore. But in 1962, this white-tie affair, wherein those in attendance paid $250 a ticket for the privilege, hobnobbed amongst such luminaries Governor Nelson Rockefeller, Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Aaron Copland (a mentor of Bernstein's) and then-current First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy.
With Bernstein hosting and conducting, the evening boasted leading opera stars Eileen Farrell and Robert Merrill. And though it sounded just fine on television, for those inside, considerable disappointment reigned. Designed for perfect acoustics, it never satisfied its critics throughout its history. Costly renovations over the years (1976 and 1992) did little to improve matters. Now, after many stalled attempts, the hall is coming to the end of a massive overhaul in its largest effort yet to fix things once and for all. The price tag? — $550 million dollars.
As the New York Times reported in April of 2021, the otherwise devastating impact of Covid on New York City's cultural life provided a silver lining to the renovation of the fabled Philharmonic Hall. Work has been able to proceed in a swifter fashion due to all theatres in the city shut down for over a year, resulting it now set to reopen next month, one-and-a-half years ahead of schedule. As for its new design, it will hopefully "render the lackluster hall more aesthetically and acoustically appealing," according to Katherine Farley, the chairwoman of Lincoln Center’s board. "Seating will wrap around the stage, which will be pulled forward 25 feet to what is currently Row J, bringing a greater sense of intimacy to what can feel like a cavernous shoe box. The new space will have about 2,200 seats, down from 2,738."
Sounds great to me.
Philharmonic Hall also underwent a name change eleven years after it opened when the philanthropist, Avery Fisher, the founder of Fisher Electronics, donated $10.5 million towards its being reconfigured. The renaming was still a relatively new idea at the time, though years earlier, when the first legitimate theatre opened at Lincoln Center in 1965, Ms. Vivian Beaumont, a May Department store heiress, was honored with the new theatre named for her after she donated $3 million towards to its construction. Now with naming rights a downright necessity to aid fund raising for countless institutions, and in a somewhat controversial move, the much-needed dollars to finally fix the acoustical problems at Avery Fisher Hall were essentially sold to the highest bidder. This was only made possible after the Fisher family received a $15 million dollar buyout, since Lincoln Center had no right to remove the Fisher name without the consent of his heirs. It was David Geffen’s $100 million dollar donation (less than a fifth of what was eventually required) that secured his name to adorn the building, prior to this new renovation.
During my heyday of attending the theatre as a teenager, I spent countless hours at Lincoln Center, especially at its library on the campus, sometimes killing time between a matinee and evening show on days I attended both. For me, it was a treasure-filled emporium where I delighted in research, poring through plays in its voluminous collection. I still hang out there: a kid in a candy store every time I visit.
Of course, Lincoln Center will forever conjure up the images for me as the former site of the tenement buildings preserved for posterity in the opening sequence of West Side Story. Filmed on the site in 1960, just prior to demolition, it’s a glimpse of what it all looked like once upon a time, recently invoked by Steven Spielberg in his 2021 remake using brilliant CGI techniques.
Not being an opera fan (sorry to those who are, but it just moves too slooooooowly for me), I’ve only been to the Met in that capacity a handful times, though I’ve been to many special events there over the years. The most memorable being the New York Film Society’s salute to Laurence Olivier in 1980 (my one and only time I saw him on stage, even if he wasn’t acting). Just to see him stand and speak on a stage was tremendously exciting. As for the New York State Theatre (now renamed for David Koch, he of the infamously wealthy and ultra-conservative Koch brothers), I first entered its 2,500 seat house for a 1969 limited engagement of Oklahoma!, my initiation to this landmark Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. It starred Bruce Yarnell and Leigh Beery as Curly and Laurie, who were wonderful, backed by Spiro Malas as Judd Fry, Lee Roy Reams as Will Parker and April Shawhan as Ado Annie. But it was the actress playing Aunt Eller who made an impact on me: Margaret Hamilton, forever to be identified with her most famous role as the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz. After the matinee, I went backstage to meet her, and she couldn’t have been more welcoming and adorable. In an attempt at humor, I said to her, “Has anyone ever told you that you would make a great witch?” She smiled at me and said, “Oh, so that’s what you’re interested in…” and opened a drawer of her dressing room table. She produced a beautiful 8 x 10 glossy of her glancing into her crystal ball and signed it for me with a flourish. Although I’ve misplaced the photo, I still have what she wrote on the cover of the program:
I could go on about the memorable days and nights I've spent in every structure at Lincoln Center viewing everything from one-person plays to spectaculars, but I'll leave one photo to sum up my feelings as tribute to how special it is to me: the indelible image of Gene Wilder (as Leo Bloom) joyously agreeing to enter a criminal enterprise with Zero Mostel (Max Bialistock) in the 1968 film The Producers.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also, please follow me here on Scrollstack and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.