Today would have marked the 113th birthday of the artist Al Hirschfeld, the Broadway caricaturist whose drawings chronicled shows and stars for close to 80 years. A name above the marquee, or a Tony Award have always been high points in an actor's career, but for anyone fortune enough to have had a Hirschfeld in the New York Times, that right of passage was perhaps the pinnacle.
The Line King, the ironic title of a 1996 documentary about Hirschfeld, showed in great detail how this artist could do more with the graceful flow of a simple line to not only create a drawing that flowed with movement, but to do so with wit, charm and love.
I'm not much for handing out new names to old theatres, but when it was announced that the Martin Beck (self-named by the theatre owner and booking agent who built it) would become the Al Hirschfeld in 2003, not a peep was heard from the purists. This was one of the true deserved renaming's, because not only did Hirschfeld work in service to the theatre practically until his dying day at age 99, but he must have seen more Broadway shows than just about anybody. He was a constant sight at opening nights, and in his earlier and more mobile days, he would go out of town to see shows in Boston or New Haven in order to get his firsthand view of a set and costumes and what the actors were doing with regard to movement or dance. His tireless work ethic was reflected in the joy he got from the performers he doted upon as he sketched.
Though Hirschfeld passed away six months prior to the official opening of the theatre that now bears his name, he died with the knowledge that it was imminent. Considering that the theatre originally opened in 1924, just about the same time Hirschfeld's artistic career was taking off, the choice was an appropriate one.
Due to the volume of his work, and the consistency of its quality, I doubt we will ever see a day when his drawings are not still part of the world of the theatre, no matter how many years go by. It's a legacy that will endure, considering that his drawings continue to sell for high sums via the Margo Feiden Galleries, that owns all exclusive rights to his archives.
In 1948, Hirschfeld purchased a townhouse at 122 East 95th Street where he lived and worked for the rest of his life. On its top floor was his studio, that featured a drafting table and a barber chair, versatile enough for him to recline and take cat naps in as it suited him. Both items are on display at the New York Public Library at Lincoln Center just as you enter the building—a tribute to his artistry and a reminder that he will never be replaced.
Of course titling this essay "Nina's Dad," refers to Hirschfeld's daughter Nina, perhaps the most famous person to appear in the New York Times without ever making an appearance. In a clever shout out to his only child, Hirschfeld would work her way into his drawings throughout his career. Sometimes a number would accompany his signature on the bottom right, which became a guessing game to find them all. An actress's hair or the folds of a coat were always good places to start. It was many a Sunday that began with my opening the Arts & Leisure section and hoping there would be a Hirschfeld so I could find the Nina's, one of the many pleasures this great artist brought to his artistry, and to everyone who loved the theatre.