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New York City Center, with its unique neo-Moorish facade, was built in 1923 as a meeting hall for the members of the Ancient Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine. Two decades later, the building was saved from the wrecking ball by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and City Council President Newbold Morris, who transformed it into Manhattan's first performing arts center: an accessible, affordable home for the best of theater, music and dance. On December 11, 1943, New York City Center officially opened its doors with a special concert by the New York Philharmonic. LaGuardia himself took the baton to conduct the national anthem. The highest priced ticket was $1.65.
The New York City Symphony and New York City Opera debuted at City Center in 1944, and in 1948 New York City Ballet was formed. A very young Leonard Bernstein conducted the New York City Symphony in low-cost, after-work concerts. Throughout the 1950s and 60s, luminaries of the theater, including Paul Robeson, Orson Welles and Tallulah Bankhead, played the classics on City Center’s stage. And still-rising stars such as Bob Fosse and Walter Matthau appeared in popular revivals of Broadway musicals. The Joffrey Ballet made City Center its home in 1966 and stayed for nearly 30 years, and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, City Center’s Principal Dance Company, has called the theater home since 1972.
In the mid-1970s, after the New York City Opera and New York City Ballet had departed for the newly built Lincoln Center, City Center became under-utilized and was once again threatened with demolition. It was saved later that decade when, under the leadership of then-chairman Howard M. Squadron, the theater was dedicated as New York’s premier home for dance and given landmark status, and the City Center 55th Street Theater Foundation was formed to manage the complex and ensure its survival as a performing arts center.
In 1994, City Center launched the Encores! musical theater series, which celebrates the rarely heard works of America’s most important composers and lyricists. Now in its 21st season, Encores! has produced several hits that have gone on to enjoy Broadway runs, including the Tony Award–winning Gypsy and Chicago, which is currently Broadway’s longest-running revival. Consistently attracting the best Broadway talent and discovering the stars of the future, Encores! has garnered a fistful of awards, including the 2000 Tony® Honor for Excellence in Theatre, the Lucille Lortel, and the Outer Critics Circle.
In 2004 City Center introduced the Fall for Dance Festival, which has received international acclaim for its quality, innovation and success in introducing new and younger audiences to the world of dance. Since its inception, the Festival has presented 165 different dance companies to almost 200,000 people. Newcomers and dance enthusiasts alike look forward to Fall for Dance as both an introduction to new artists and a welcome return to familiar and beloved companies.
In 2011, City Center completed a comprehensive renovation project to dramatically enhance audience and artist experiences while bringing back the beauty and charm of the organization’s landmarked theater. The modernization and restoration marks the building’s first major renovation since its construction in the early 1920s.
The 2011-12 re-opening season ushered in a new era for the building and for New York City Center. Several new programs were introduced, including the New York City Center Choreography Fellowship, a program that supports choreographers at critical stages of their careers. The program continues City Center’s long history of nurturing choreographers, from George Balanchine to Christopher Wheeldon. That season also saw the launch of a new producing partnership between City Center and Jazz at Lincoln Center. Its inaugural production, Cotton Club Parade, opened on Broadway in the fall of 2013.
New York City Center’s newest offering, Encores! Off-Center, launched in the summer of 2013. Composer Jeanine Tesori (Fun Home, Violet) is the artistic director of this new series, which features seminal Off-Broadway musicals filtered through the lens of today’s most innovative artists. The inaugural season included Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock, Gretchen Cryer and Nancy Ford’s I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road, and Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley’s Violet, which will make its Broadway debut in the spring of 2014.