One of the biggest influences on my poetic ear was due to Joe Papp‘s free Shakespeare in the park. I am a native New Yorker, born and raised in Manhattan. After Joe Papp won the right to put on the plays in Central Park, we never missed a performance. Even after I moved to the Boston area in 1978, I would occasionally get back to New York to see a play.
One of the reasons was that Sammy Silverman, the attorney who won Joe the permission he needed, was a long-time friend of my father. My dad, Louis C. Fieland, was an attorney, and he and Sammy went way back. How far? Alas, I don’t remember, and my father — and Sammy — are long gone.
After Sammy won the case, we all — my family, Sammy and his wife Claire — attended every performance. We could do this because Sammy and my family were sponsors. That meant we got tickets in exchange for contributing money. The tickets were free for everyone, but sponsors didn’t have to wait in line. Considering the popularity of the plays, this was a great gift.
The Pied Piper versus Goliath: Joe Papp and the fight for public theater
It was 1959 and Joe Papp was having a bad year. Not only had he lost his job at CBS, but also New York City Parks Commissioner Robert Moses had refused to issue Joe the permit he needed to present New York Shakespeare Festival‘s summer season of Shakespeare in the park, a permit that Joe had obtained without difficulty for the three previous summers. The commissioner wanted Joe to charge admission. Joe refused. Joe’s vision was of free public theater. Not only did he not want to charge admission, he thought that the city should provide the funds he needed to continue his performances. The war was on.
Joe Papp, more than almost any other man, transformed the face of American theater. Joe, the son of immigrant parents, had only a high school education and didn’t go to an acting school. What Joe had, though, was a vision, optimism, and persistence. He’d need plenty of all of them.
In 1959, Robert Moses was the king of urban planning and Joe Papp was nobody. What chance did Joe have against Moses? Moses had refused to issue Joe a permit unless Joe charged admission. Joe almost gave in, but when Moses demanded Joe charge $1.00 to $2.00 a ticket, Joe refused.
And that’s when Joe got lucky. His attorney, Samuel Silverman had once worked as corporate counsel to the city and knew that Joe could bring an “article 78” proceeding against Moses. An article 78 proceeding could be brought against an official who had exceeded or abused his power. Silverman told Joe he could make a good case that Moses was being arbitrary in denying the Festival use of a public park when other groups obtained permits and in demanding the Festival, a non-profit group that didn’t want to charge anything, charge admission to their performances.
But summer was fast approaching. On May 18, Silverman brought suit against Moses on the Festival’s behalf. On June 2nd, the court found for Moses. Joe was ready to give up but Silverman persuaded him to appeal the court’s decision, and this time the court found for the Festival. Joe had won.
But Joe’s troubles still weren’t over. Moses agreed to issue the permit, provided, that is, the festival could come up for $20,000 in expenses for the city to prepare the site for the Festival’s performances.
Here Joe had a stroke of genius. He asked Moses for the money, and Moses, much to everyone’s surprise, asked the New York City Board of Estimate for $20,000 for the Festival. On June 25th the board said yes. Joe was on his way.
Joe Papp went on to much more. Eventually, the city built the festival a permanent home, the Delacorte Theater, in Central Park. The Festival acquired winter quarters in the old Astor Library on Lafayette Street, where Joe gave young, promising playwrights a chance to put on their plays.
Joe Papp transformed the face of American Theater, giving many actors and other theater professionals their start. And if you go to New York this summer, you will be able to stand on line for a chance to get a free ticket to see Shakespeare in the Park, all thanks to Joe Papp, a man who had a dream and the belief in himself to go along with it.