Smiles of a Summer Night: The Public Theater's 50 Years of Free Drama at Central Park's Delacorte

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16 Jun 2012

Joe Papp
Joe Papp

The Public Theater's Shakespeare in the Park celebrates its 50th anniversary at the al fresco Delacorte Theater in Central Park this month. More than five million people have enjoyed productions of Shakespeare, other classical works and musicals since then. The founders and heirs remember it well.


Few things in life are as head-clearing, as soul-soothing, as some free Shakespeare at sunset in the summertime. New Yorkers have partaken of this urban "vespers therapy" since June 18, 1962, when The Public Theater set up permanent summer residency in Central Park, opening its Delacorte Theater with a production of The Merchant of Venice, directed by The Public's visionary Joseph Papp and starring George C. Scott.

Bernard Gersten, now executive producer of Lincoln Center Theater and then associate producer of the New York Shakespeare Festival, remembers it well — even poetically: "I have a vivid memory of a moment in the first act when George Scott was holding the scarf of his daughter who'd just run off with that Gentile, and he was saying something like, 'My daughter! My jewel!' He held the scarf up, and a breeze took it and wafted it around the stage. It was extraordinary — a really spiritual thing!"

George C. Scott in The Merchant of Venice, 1962.
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

His other memory of that opening night is very much down-to-earth, if not lower. In the days immediately preceding the opening, the rains came, delaying the labors of The Sicilian Asphalt Paving Company to lay asphalt in all the footpaths around the theatre. Only hours before the curtain went up, hot asphalt was poured and rolled on mud rather than dirt. "It was a benefit audience dressed to the nines, the women with spike heels," Gersten recalls. "They no sooner got their feet on the asphalt than the heels sank in. They couldn't get out of their shoes and walk on the asphalt in their stockings or pantyhose so the men, two at a time, used a fireman's carry — four hands linked — and carried them to higher ground where there was wood. Then someone went back and retrieved the shoes that were stuck in the asphalt and returned them to the women. It was the biggest collective hot-foot I've ever seen."

A great civic free-for-all developed over making Shakespeare free for all, with Papp standing his ground against NYC "master builder" Robert Moses, who felt charges should be made for lawn-upkeep. "They came up with all sorts of stuff — bothering the squirrels . . . ," cracked Merle Debuskey, Papp's media-savvy publicist from the mid-'50s to 1990. He took the argument to the press, where it became a case of David-versus-Goliath. Along the way, critic Walter Kerr suggested in print a compromise: "Joe, charge a quarter. What's that?" Papp was pondering that possibility when his publicist, famously, put things in proper perspective: "Joe, I'll work for Free Shakespeare for nothing, but I won't work for two-bit Shakespeare."


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