Joseph Papp and Shakespeare in the Park, 1962 & 1965

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It's summertime in New York, which means theater lovers all over the city have been scrambling to get tickets to the Public Theater's near-daily Shakespeare in the Park performances. Today we celebrate the tradition with two archival recordings from the WNYC/Municipal Archives collection featuring Joseph Papp, founder of the Public Theater (and, later, Joe's Pub).

Stratford-on-East River, 1955

Joe Papp founded the Shakespeare Workshop (later the New York Shakespeare Festival) in 1954 as a means of making Shakespeare's works accessible to all members of the public, regardless of income. In those days, performances took place on the Lower East Side, along the East River, and by 1957, in each of the five boroughs via a "Mobile Theater." [1]

According to the New York Times, the workshop's first performances in 1955 of "As You Like It" were held "in a century-old church within earshot of the traffic sounds of the East River" and attracted "adventuresome theatre buffs willing to stray beyond the commercial confines of Broadway." The free performances aimed for "the building up of a love and respect for the English classics on both sides of the footlights." [2]

In 1956, 2,000 people reportedly attended a performance of "Julius Caesar" at the East River Park Amphitheatre on East River Drive and Grand Street. "Nature gave the Bard a meteorological assist," the Times wrote, "by providing a mild summer night."

"The opening scenes took place in the fading light of sunset. Darkness gathered as the plot thickened, and before the second act began, the lights on the Williamsburg Bridge mingled with those nearer the stage to supply illumination." [3]

Shakespeare in Central Park, 1957

The Festival didn't make its way to Central Park for its summer seasons until 1957, when the city gave permission to stage performances at the Turtle Pond.

Parks Commissioner Robert Moses was, apparently, unhappy with the idea and demanded that Papp begin charging for the performances as a means of paying for "grass erosion" in the Park. [4, 5] Papp and his supporters put up a fight and even sent Moses bags of grass seeds in protest until the Board of Estimate appropriated funds to construct an amphitheater in Central Park. That facility, dedicated as the Delacorte Theatre, was completed in 1962.

The Delacorte Theater Dedication, 1962

At the dedication of the Delacorte Theater on June 18, 1962, Joe Papp addressed the audience in attendance and over WNYC. Referencing the struggle he underwent with the city's administration to maintain free performances, Papp said the theater represented a "dramatization of a city government's response to the will of its people."

"By keeping [the festival] free," he continued, "I feel we have supported and defended the very core of the democratic philosophy, which is the greatest good for the greatest number."

Papp then read aloud a letter from First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy congratulating the festival for its "admirable cultural contribution" and applauding its role in enriching "the cultural opportunities of all Americans."

Listen long enough, and you'll even get to hear Papp's give a shout-out to WNYC.

The next day the New York Times reported that, during the intermission of this first performance in the Delacorte Theater, Mayor Robert Wagner praised Papp and called the Festival "a memorial to his persistence and his belief in Shakespeare." [6]

"Changing Times, but Is there a Change in Theater," 1965

Three years later, in 1965, Papp joined actress Nan Martin and Dr. Esther Jackson, Director of Education for the New York Shakespeare Festival, for an edition of the "Overseas Press Club," a regular program broadcast on WNYC from 1962-1967. The three guests spoke on the topic "Changing Times, but Is there a Change in Theater?"

Martin, Jackson and Papp discussed the ways in which arts, theater in particular, should respond to the dramatic changes in American culture. Jackson specifically mentioned the importance of the civil rights movement and the anxieties felt by all members of American society in the wake of such great change.

During his speech, Papp gave voice to the perseverance he displayed over the rocky early years of the Shakespeare Festival. He underscored that the traditional role of the theater has been as entertainment for the upper classes, and insisted that cultural education programs are necessary to attract a more socially diverse audience to the arts that more accurately reflects the country, especially in a time of great interest in artistic outlets.

"People are trying to communicate," he said, "and they're not orating from the stage, saying magnificent lines. These people that I'm talking about represent the people of the United States, and they represent the segments of the population that must be brought up to a point where they can begin to think about appreciating the arts."

[1] In a New York Times article from January, 1957, Lewis Funke describes these Mobile Theaters: "A system of connected pipes that can be erected like scaffolding, the whole thing can be made ready or dismantled with ease."
[2] Louis Calta, "Theatre: Shakespearean Workshop." NYT 10-29-1955.
[3] Larry Morris, "Stratford-on-East-River Opens with 'Julius Caesar' Under Stars." NYT 06-30-1956.
[4] "Shakespeare in the Park." NYT 04-18-1959.
[5] Brooks Atkinson, "Moses and Shakespeare: A Call for the Park Commissioner to Retain Free-Admission Theatre Policy." NYT 04-20-1959.
[6] Paul Gardner, "Central Park's Shakespeare Amphitheatre Dedicated." NYT 06-19-1962.

Audio courtesy NYC Municipal Archives collection.