The Taming of Robert Moses

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Joe Papp, 1954

Shakespeare in the Park has been a beloved--and free--summer institution for more than 50 years. If Robert Moses had gotten his way though, that might not be the case.

New York Shakespeare Festival founder Joseph Papp aimed to make Shakespeare's works accessible to the public. By 1958, his productions on the lawn in front of Central Park's Turtle Pond were drawing thousands of people to each performance.

That's when Parks Commissioner Robert Moses stepped in, informing Papp that he would no longer be able to stage plays in the park unless $1 and $2 admissions were charged, with 10 percent of the proceeds going to defray the cost of "grass erosion." Papp’s insistence that the plays remain free set off a battle of wills that made front-page headlines for nearly a year.

After failing to beat Papp in the courts and being rebuked by the Mayor for circulating an unsigned letter calling Papp a Communist, Moses finally capitulated, asking the city's Board of Estimate to appropriate $250,000 for construction of an amphitheater in Central Park, or as he put it, "well, let's build the bastard a theater."

In this WNYC broadcast from June 18, 1962, Joseph Papp and Moses' successor Newbold Morris dedicate The Delacorte Theatre. On Papp's "2500 planks and a passion," William Devane, James Earl Jones and George C. Scott starred in the New York Shakespeare Festival's first production of the season, "The Merchant of Venice."

(NYC Municipal Archives Collection)