|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 ballby 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.
Throughout the 1940s and 50s, City Center flourished as a popular, affordable alternative to the Broadway theater, the Metropolitan Opera House and Carnegie Hall. City Center was so successful in fostering the performing arts that the New York City Opera, New York City Ballet and New York City Symphony were founded under its dome. A very young Leonard Bernstein conducted the New York City Symphony in low-cost, after-work concerts. 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.
In the mid-1970s, after the New York City Opera and New York City Ballet departed for the newly built Lincoln Center, City Centerbecame 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.
Today, City Center is home to many distinguished companies, including Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, American Ballet Theatre, Manhattan Theatre Club, and The Pearl Theatre Company; a roster of renowned national and international visiting artists; and its own critically acclaimed and popular programs. City Center’s Tony-honored Encores! musical theater series, now in its 19th season, celebrates the rarely heard works of America’s most important composers and lyricists.The series 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. This year, City Center will launch a new producing partnership with Jazz at Lincoln Center that will combine the organizations’ specialties: musical theater and jazz.
Continuing to fulfill its mission to make the arts accessible to the broadest possible audience, in 2004 City Center launched the acclaimed Fall for Dance Festival, which continues to offer tickets at the original price of $10. City Center’s partnership with London’s Sadler’s Wells Theatre, formed in 2006 to facilitate the exchange of innovative dance works, has brought acclaimed artists such as Russell Maliphant and Sylvie Guillem to City Center’s stage. And the 2011-12 season will bring the inception of the New York City Center Choreography Fellowship, a new initiative that will support choreographers at critical stages of their careers. The program continues City Center’s long history of nurturing choreographers, from George Balanchine to Christopher Wheeldon.
In 2010, City Center began 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 restorationmarks the building’s first major renovation since its construction in the early 1920s. The October 2011 grand reopening has given way to a new era for the building and for New York City Center.
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Reprinted with the permission of Playbill