Friday, January 24, 2014

Joe Papp, Shakespeare in the Park, and me

Statue of William Shakespeare on "Literar...
Statue of William Shakespeare on "Literary Walk" in Central Park, Manhattan, NYC (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am a native New Yorker, born and raised in Manhattan. My father, an attorney, was good friends with Sammy Silverman, the attorney who won Joe Papp the right to put on free Shakespeare in Central Park.Along with  family, my aunt and uncle, Sammy and his wife Claire faithfully attended every play from the time Joe started putting on the plays until the time I left New York to move to the Boston area in 1978. Watching these performances had a huge impact on my ear and cemented a love of theater that I hold dear to this day.

Thanks to Joe Papp,  summer visitors to New York City enjoy free Shakespeare in Central Park. Visitors line up at the Delacorte Theater for free tickets for the night's performance. Then they wander over to the Great Lawn for a picnic supper before the show. They climb up the bleachers of  Delacort Theater. Once in their seats, they gaze at the medieval-looking Belvedere Weather Tower and Turtle Pond behind the open-air stage. All this thanks to producer and director Joe Papp. How did Joe Papp, a man with only a high school education and no formal acting training, do so much?

It was 1959  and Joe Papp  wanted to present free Shakespeare  as he had the three summers before. But New York City parks commissioner Robert Moses refused to issue the permit. He was angry. Moses claimed Joe had damaged the grass in front of Turtle Pond and he wanted Joe to pay. Joe was a nobody and Moses was the king of urban planning.  How could Joe succeed? Joe hesitated, but when Moses asked Joe to charge $1.00 to $2.00, Joe dug in his heels and refused.

Then Joe got lucky. His attorney, Samuel Silverman,  once worked as corporate counsel to the city. Sammy knew the laws inside out, and he told Joe he could sue Moses. Moses had allowed other groups to use the park. Joe should be allowed to use it, too. Moses wasn't being fair, and that was  against the law.

But summer was fast approaching. Sammy brought suit against Moses on May 18, and on June 2nd, the court found for Moses. Was was Joe to do? Again, Joe hesitated, but Sammy stood firm, and in the end, Joe agreed to let Sammy appeal the ruling. This time, Joe won. Moses agreed to issue the permit -- as long as Joe came up with $20,000 to prepare the site.

Joe didn't have $20,000 What to do?

That was when Joe had one of those AHA moments In a bold move, he asked Moses for the $20,000. Moses asked the New York City Board of Estimate. On June 25th the board agreed.  Joe was on his way. Moses' money was used to build Joe a theater.

Joe Papp did much more than present free Shakespeare in Central Park. He have a start to many famous actors including Natalie Portman, Meryl Streep, Morgan Freeman, Al Pacino. He established a theater downtown, put on plays that moved to Broadway and beyond, plays such as A Chorus Line and Hair.

Joe's vision, optimism, and persistence transformed American theater.  If you go to New York this summer, you can still stand on line for a chance at a free ticket to Shakespeare in the Park.  All because Joe Papp had a dream and made it come true.
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1 comment:

  1. How interesting, Margaret. It takes a dream and perseverance!

    I've gone to several Broadway and off Broadway plays, but never went to see Shakespeare in the Park.