July 22, 2020: Theatre Yesterday and Today

With so many libraries across the country closed since the pandemic came upon us, my mind has gone to how much I not only miss them, but how much I have loved them since I was a child. For a bookish kid, a library was like stepping into a candy store and being told you could take home a whole lot of candy to devour whole. And devour I did. I made many a trip by bicycle to Great Neck’s half-dozen libraries and discover what was new and wonderful for a ten-year old kid back in the 1960s.

Possessed with an overwhelming need to read, and my parents’ limited resources, which made buying books unfeasible, the library was a life saver. So was Miss Barbara, the librarian at my town’s local branch, who guided and pushed me in directions I could never have navigated myself. She had a beehive hairdo and wore thick black glasses and I can easily conjure her voice after more than fifty years. With her aid, I devoured everything from Where the Wild Things Are to Stuart Little, and nearly every other recipient of the Newbery and Caldecott Medals.

When I was in 4th grade, my school was undergoing a renovation that forced a temporary relocation that put me directly next to one of Great Neck’s better stocked libraries. The library buttressed the school’s playground, so while all the rest of the kids were tetherballing and playing soccer baseball, I finagled special permission to spend recess at the library. As the character of Amalia marvels in Jerry Bock & Sheldon Harnick’s She Loves Me, “Let me tell you, you’ve never seen anything like it! All those books… all that marble!”

The Arrandale Public Library had no actual marble, but you get the idea. I was just as gobsmacked then as I am when I visit the 42nd Street branch of the New York Public Library, which I would often do pre-lockdown. I not only spent time at that venerable institution with its two lions standing guard, but also at the Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. They may not be tourist attractions, and no doubt millions of New Yorkers take them for granted, but no one should cheat themselves of all they offer. Especially Lincoln Center, where if you head up to the third floor, you will find the vast collections named for esteemed donators such as Billy Rose and Jerome Robbins. I won’t catalog their treasures here, especially as its been done by people far above my pay grade, and readily available on-line.

Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center

With the internet making it possible to conduct proper research on practically any given subject, I’m pleased to report proof that there is still no substitute for the brick and mortar world of a library. About fifteen years ago, while still in high school, my son was writing a report on Porgy and Bess. After a thorough internet search he couldn’t find composer Virgil Thomson’s scathing critique of the show written after it first premiered in 1935. Taking an “old school” approach to the problem, we drove together to Los Angeles’s Central Library, a magnificent eight-story structure in the heart of downtown. There, with just a modicum of research, we found the Thomson review in a dusty old book with little effort. My son was astounded.

My mentioning Where the Wild Things Are as an early favorite is no arbitrary pick. My love of books and Miss Barbara’s enthusiasm made it possible that I read Maurice Sendak’s now classic book as soon as it was published in 1964. For all I know, I was the first person to check it out of my town’s local branch. So being the fan that I was, imagine how happy I was when, at seven-years-old, to my delight and total surprise, I was informed by my 2nd grade teacher that Sendak himself was coming to our little elementary school. Nowhere near the celebrity he would become, somehow he came and addressed a small assembly for an informal talk. I remember it like it was yesterday, seated cross-legged at Sendak’s feet. He drew a few things on a large pad and the moment he asked if anyone would like to have him do a sketch of them, my hand shot in the air with an alacrity that came out of nowhere. But to my never ending disappointment, Sendak called on someone else. I mean, come on! Did that kid even KNOW what a prize was being bestowed upon them? I sure as hell did, and to this day I still wonder if whoever it was had the wherewithal to have saved that sketch. I know I would have.

I find it hard to work in a library, because the distractions there are so great. When I got to college at eighteen my infatuation with the library on my college campus (Purchase College, for the record), was like a love affair. I recall that once I found that they had every copy of Life Magazine bound in volumes on the second floor, that’s where I would be instead of working on a paper or research project. And even if there are some libraries whose policies are a little too strict, with librarians that are not a lot of fun to engage with, or have a problem with homeless people hanging out to keep warm in winter or cool in summer, I still think they are interesting, inspiring and engaging places to hang out. No, really… I do.

In thinking through this on-going longtime relationship, it suddenly dawned on me that my reverence for libraries might also be traced to the Broadway musical (and why not?). After all, The Music Man, my all-time favorite show, has an entire number set in one. 😊

“Marian the Librarian,” The Music Man (1962)

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Ron Fassler

Ron Fassler is a theatre historian, drama critic and author of "Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway."