2:20 pm Oct. 16, 20121
“I’ve been a member of this place since Joe Papp was alive,” said Zaneta Zelon, 79, sitting in a refurbished Joe’s Pub this past Saturday during the Public Theater’s block party.
“[Will] you describe the history of this place?” Zelon asked me, “Because you should. I don't know if you can see it or if anything is covering it, [but] there is a block outside that says that this building originally was called the Hebrew Immigration Association. They were here when the Jews came in the early 20th century, and they helped them to settle here."
The spiffed-up look of Joe’s and the rest of the Public Theater, thanks to a recently completed $40-million revitalization project, not to mention food trucks lined up and the ongoing performances taking place all day on a makeshift stage out front, could certainly have distracted from the rich history behind the dark-brick home of the Public Theater for over half a century. But Zelon wasn’t going to stand for that.
"Then, after that," Zelon said, "you know, the history of Joe [Papp] getting this building for a dollar a year.”
So here’s that story then: In 1954, Joseph Papp founded the New York Shakespeare Festival, an itinerant playhouse staging Shakespeare all around the city. Papp's mission of reintroducing Shakespeare to the public eventually found a permanent home at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. Itching to dabble in more experimental work, Papp then took over Lafayette Street's Astor Library, renovated it into the Public Theater, and transferred ownership to the city, paying a dollar per year in rent for occupancy. Since then the theater has hosted many of the biggest names in theater and become a central part of the city’s dramatic culture.
Yet it was the future that this block party was meant to celebrate, and the much-needed structural and aesthetic improvements making their debut to the general public. It couldn’t have taken place on a more perfect New York fall day—sunny, right around 50 degrees, light-coat weather with no need for a scarf.
Food trucks served pizza, dumplings, and burgers, while the Public had its own stand offering a “New York-inspired” kielbasa on a pretzel roll, a new addition to the lobby bar’s menu by chef and restaurateur Andrew Carmellini, who runs the theater’s official restaurant-bar, The Library.
Plenty of people strolled in and out of the Public’s glitzy new lobby. More sat on the steps or on chairs outside listening to the outdoor performances. From noon to 5 p.m., every hour on the hour, a new performer took the stage outside, selected from a roster of Joe’s Pub artists. Jessy Carolina & The Hot Mess, a jazzy blues band, led the way, followed by soulful songstress Sasha Allen of the Tony Award–winning revival of Hair, and then plucky banjo player Tony Trischka.
“Hello! How’s everybody doing?” Trischka said between songs. “It’s a huge pleasure to be here for this grand refurbishment of the Public Theater. The Public Theater is such an amazing organization. And they had the very good taste of doing a bluegrass version of As You Like It for Shakespeare in the Park.”
Out in front of the theater dozens waited in line, though some seemed unsure what for.
“This is a line for people to spin the wheel for free prizes!” a theater employee bellowed, “Not to go into the theater. You can just take the stairs and walk in over there.” A few peeled off. Most stayed to spin for prizes ranging from Public Theater hats to free theater tickets.
Harvey Van Toast, the topless paparazzo, roamed the crowd snapping photos, and claimed to be her very own version of a “public theater”: "I am the defi-fuckin’-nition of it," she said.
Diversity and a receptive attitude have long defined the Public's approach to programming. Now the theater's design matches, more open, with greater access among the various smaller performance spaces within. And steps are being taken to further diversify Joe's Pub programming too.
“We are doing a lot of cross-genre programming in terms of theater and music meeting,” Shanta Thake, director of Joe’s Pub, said. “We're not going to just be a singer/songwriter venue [or] a jazz venue. We're doing a little bit of everything so everyone feels like they have a place here. If you're a rock band or you're a country fan you know that Joe's Pub is a place for you. It's awesome because now we have a building that really reflects the mission with it being such an open welcoming space.”
Performers who had played at the theater strode in, remembering when.
“The first time my wife ever saw me play was in this room,” drummer Mark Manczuk, 37, said, “So I wanted to see how it is different or the same.”
“I was by this pole watching him play.” his wife, actress Ebbe Bassey, 37, remembered, “It had been sold out but my girlfriend was here and she snagged me two tickets. I always like to say ‘I sat by the pole watching my Pole.’” (Manczuk is Polish; Bassey is Nigerian.)
The biggest crowd formed for a sneak peek of the Public’s new musicals—Here Lies Love, Fun Home, and Giant. Tony Award nominees Brian d’Arcy James and Kate Baldwin of Giant captivated the crowd with a scene from the show (pictured above right). Their voices, broadcast out of huge speakers, carried on for many blocks.
The Public hasn’t forgotten that it belongs to the city, but for Zelon, whose husband, her longtime theatergoing partner, died recently, a part of it belongs to her as well.
“The Delacorte [theater], no matter what they do,” she said, “every time I walk through the doors and out into the open air, it just thrills me…. Meryl Streep and Raoul Julia, they did Kiss Me Kate and oh, it was to die for, just to die for,” Zelon continued. “And Meryl Streep way back, maybe the second year she came to New York, she did Alice in Wonderland with Mark [Linn-Baker]… it took our breath away.”
As the afternoon wore on the crowds thinned; Joe's Pub closed up to do a soundcheck for that evening's performer. It was business as usual.
The show had to go on.
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