Friday, April 11, 2008

The Power Broker, Part III

Another memorable Robert Moses moment was the Joe Papp fight. That confrontation actually wasn’t Moses’ fault so much as his lieutenant who ran Central Park, Stuart Constable, whose nickname was “Mustache.” In 1953, Joe Papp began producing free Shakespeare in an amphitheatre in East River Park. Moses had built that amphitheatre at Al Smith’s request; as a child growing up in that neighborhood he’d never seen a play because his family was too poor to afford it. I believe that amphitheatre is no more; about ten years ago I saw an Anne Hamburger piece (I think the last thing she did here before she went to work for Disney) there, staged around the crumbling (much of it) parts of the building.

In 1957, Papp got permission to produce plays in Central Park; there was no theatre there yet. His productions were very successful, and Moses volunteered to help raise $50,000 for the 1959 season. Moses left town for vacation, and Papp had to deal with Constable. Someone mentioned to Constable that Papp had testified to the House Un-American Activities Committee the previous year. Moses knew this; CBS-TV where Papp was working as a stage manager knew it, been let go and been reinstated after his union fought for him. Constable told Papp that he’d have to charge admission, Papp refused and Constable told him there would be no free Shakespeare in the parks anymore.

When Moses returned from vacation, he felt obligated to back Constable, Papp went to the press, and accusations were made that Papp was making Shakespeare into Communistic propaganda. Mayor Wagner tried to intervene, to no avail. Papp had to take his case to an appeal, and finally won. At that point, Moses (who was a great Shakespeare fan) said he’d abide by the court’s decision. By 1962, George Delacorte and other donors had given enough to build the theatre as it is today. Difficult to imagine Central Park without it, isn’t it?

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