Theatre yesterday and today



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Is there anyone that doesn't get a thrill from standing in the Lincoln Center Plaza and luxuriating in its three main buildings and the fountain at its center? The pair of Chagalls that hang in the windows of the Metropolitan Opera House? The newly designed section where the Vivian Beaumont Theatre and the Library are situated, with its planted trees that provide some shade and 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 to stay was at the Empire, directly across the street. It was always such a treat to walk out in the morning and be in such close proximity to Lincoln Center, a home away from home.

Philharmonic Hall: the first of the buildings to be completed at Lincoln Center

Today marks the date when the first building in the complex, Philharmonic Hall, opened in 1962. It was built to host the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, then led by the maestro himself, Leonard Bernstein. Nothing was going to stand in the way of the grandiosity of the first of the Lincoln Center theatres to open, so a live broadcast of the opening night concert aired on CBS. With Bernstein hosting and conducting, it featured leading opera luminaries of the day, Eileen Farrell and Robert Merrill. It probably sounded just fine on television, but for those in the theatre, there was considerable disappointment. Designed for perfect acoustics, the theatre throughout its entire history never satisfied its critics. There have been many renovations over the years, with none ever solving the difficulties. In fact, the hall will be shut down soon in order to receive a massive overhaul in the hopes that a solution will finally be found.

Philharmonic Hall also underwent a name change eleven years after it opened when the philanthropist, Avery Fisher, the founder of Fisher Electronics, made a $10.5 million dollar donation and, for his largess, received naming rights, a relatively new idea at the time, though years earlier when the first legitimate theatre opened at Lincoln Center in 1965, it was named for Vivian Beaumont, a May Department store heiress who donated $3 million dollars to its construction. Now with naming rights a necessary evil for aiding with fund raising, in a somewhat controversial move, in order to find the much-need funds to finally fix the acoustical problems at Avery Fisher Hall, its naming rights were recently made available essentially to the highest bidder. As a sizable footnote, this was only made possible once the Fisher family settled for 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 who came to the rescue last year with a $100 million dollar donation, even though the cost for renovation is currently budgeted at around $500 million. Hopefully the issues with its acoustics will be settled once and for all, although the New York Times has referred to the situation as "the classical music equivalent of the Second Avenue subway."

Every New Yorker knows what that means!

I spent countless hours at Lincoln Center during my heyday of attending the theatre as a teenager—mainly because there were at least eight shows a season at both the Beaumont and its downstairs miniature theatre, the Forum (later renamed—hello again—for Mitzi E. Newhouse, widow of the publishing magnate Samuel I. Newhouse). I was also a habitual visitor to the New York Public Library, directly next door to the Beaumont. For me, it was a treasure-filled emporium where I delighted in research and poring through plays in its voluminous collection. I still hang out there. I'm like 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 time capsule glimpse of what it all looked like once upon a time.

West Side Story's George Chakiris (center) on the former grounds of Lincoln Center.

On the Lincoln Center campus, I've only been to the Met a handful times to see a few operas, though I've been inside for special events like 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). As for the New York State Theatre (now renamed for David Koch, he of the infamous Koch brothers), I first entered its 2,500 seat house for a 1969 production of Oklahoma!, my initiation to this landmark Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. It was a limited engagement and starred Bruce Yarnell and Leigh Beery as Curly and Laurie. They were wonderful, as was 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:

"My best wishes To Ronnie—Margaret Hamilton"

Lastly, a tribute to Lincoln Center would not be complete without the addition of one last indelible image, especially in light of the recent passing of Gene Wilder. Good night, sweet prince.

If you would like to comment on any of these posts, please do so below. I look forward to hearing from you.