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Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Happy 50th Birthday to the Delacorte Theater

James Earl Jones in the inaugural production of
Merchant of Venice at the Delacorte Theater;
courtesy of the New York Public Library
On June 19, 1962, the Delacorte Theater held its first public performance--The Merchant of Venice with George C. Scott and James Earl Jones--and Shakespeare in the Park as we know it was born. (The actual first performance had been the night before; it was a benefit preview for donors and city officials.)

In 1954, Joseph Papp was granted a charter from New York State to create what was then called the "Shakespeare Workshop." In 1956, the workshop -- now dubbed the Shakespearean Workshop Theater -- began performances. These early shows were at a variety of venues, including an amphitheater on the Lower East Side on Grand Street, outdoors in Central Park near Turtle Pond (close by the current site of the Delacorte) and at Wollman Rink before Robert Moses finally agreed to Papp's request that the company be given a permanent home in the park. First, however, Papp had to sue Moses, who insisted that the Shakespearean Workshop charge admission -- at least a dollar or two -- to offset the extra costs that would be involved in hosting the plays in the park. The courts sided with Papp's desire to keep his performances free, and soon work on the Delacorte began.

Delays in the design and construction of the theater led the initial season to be pushed back from 1961 to 1962, and for the city to need an additional $150,000 in funds to complete the project. Philanthropist and publisher George Delacorte (of Dell Books), a major supporter of Papp's efforts and of the park, stepped in with the cash and the theater was named in his honor.

Playbill has a slideshow you can peruse of past productions at the theater -- or go check it out in person. This summer features a delightful As You Like It (on through June 30) followed by Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods from July 23 to August 25. Information on tickets (including "virtual tickets") can be found at the Public Theater's website.

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For more on Robert Moses, Joseph Papp, and theater in New York check out
Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City

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