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By Clive Barnes
Just around now City Center starts its regular rite of fall, aka the Fall for Dance Festival, the opening of the 2007-08 dance season. Its resident companies are American Ballet Theatre, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and the Paul Taylor Dance Company. The theater’s first resident dance company, admittedly long flown that particular coop, was New York City Ballet. It’s a theater with a curious history.
New York City Center—for New Yorkers the name has a special ring to it, a kind of institutional magic. As a theater it is not particularly wonderful. It’s rather a barn of a place, with a stage wide but none too deep, inadequate wing and storage space, poor backstage conditions, a house that has too few premium seats in proportion to its two nose-bleeder (and often unused) top balconies, and foyer space that is, to put it gently, less than prepossessing. Yet we New Yorkers love it, partly because we are as a tribe guiltily masochistic and, despite our habit of pulling down any building that has been up for more than 20 years, oddly traditional.
It all started with a debt and a mayor. City Center was built in 1923 as the Mecca Temple for a neo-Masonic fraternal society, The Ancient and Accepted Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, familiarly called the Shriners. Ancient and accepted as they may have been, they were still expected to pay city taxes, and it was in default of such taxes that the city took over the building and slated it for demolition in 1941. It was then that president of the City Council, Newbold Morris, had the idea, blessed by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, of using this nearly 3,000-seater as a “temple for the performing arts.” Morris became its chairman, with city councilman Morton Baum on the executive committee.
Newly named the New York City Center of Music and Drama, it was to be a theater for the people, a place where New Yorkers unable to pay the prices of Carnegie Hall or the Metropolitan Opera could enjoy the performing arts at a high standard. The idea was that City Center would pay back the city’s farsightedness with both rent and taxes, and for a long time it did. The first performance was a concert by the New York Philharmonic on December 11, 1943. LaGuardia—never a blushing flower—conducted “The Star-Spangled Banner” himself. The top ticket price was $1.65—the price of 33 subway tokens, nowadays the equivalent of $66.
Under the guidance of Baum, appointed its chairman after Morris retired, the theater soon had two resident companies: the City Center Drama Company, which struggled for a decade or so; and the City Center Opera Company, which later was renamed the New York City Opera. Ballet took its first City Center bow on April 9, 1944, when the theater played host to Sergei Denham’s Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo for a three-week season. Between then and 1948, both the Ballet Russe and Ballet Theatre frequently appeared there on a commercial basis, paying City Center 10 percent of the gross.
Meanwhile, in 1946, Lincoln Kirstein and George Balanchine’s Ballet Society (their third attempt at forming a company) started giving subscription-only performances, and on November 12, 1947, moved to City Center. On April 29, 1948, the morning after the premiere of Balanchine’s Orpheus (with Maria Tallchief as Eurydice), Baum went to Kirstein’s office. He asked an astonished Kirstein if he would like Ballet Society to become New York City Ballet. Kirstein replied, “If you do that for us I will give you, in three years, the finest ballet company in America.”
Since those days City Center has had its ups and downs. City Ballet left for a new home in Lincoln Center in 1964, and two years later City Opera joined it. In the 1970s the theater was once more scheduled for demolition. Then Howard Squadron, like Baum a civic-minded lawyer, headed up the City Center 55th Street Theater Foundation, Inc., and in 1981 pulled in a large city grant to refurbish the house. In 1984 it was designated a New York City landmark, finally protecting it from demolition.
That same year the prestigious Manhattan Theatre Club moved in, constructing two small theaters in City Center’s capacious basement. And in 1994 City Center itself started its popular weekend series called “Encores!—Great American Musicals in Concert.” But despite the success of Encores! and the Manhattan Theatre Club, City Center is today, under the leadership of Arlene Shuler, primarily a dance house. It has recently formed links with both Carnegie Hall and the Sadler’s Wells Theatre (London’s leading dance venue), and further renovations are planned. But our Temple of the Mystic Shrine will surely continue in this 21st century to be both mystic and a shrine.
Senior Consulting Editor Clive Barnes also covers dance and theater for the New York Post.