On October 31, 1991, producer Joseph Papp, the founder and longtime director of New York’s Public Theater, died, at the age of 70. Armed with vision, a flare for publicity and sheer force of personality, Papp took a program he began for performing Shakespeare in a Lower East Side church basement uptown to Central Park, turning it into one of the city’s most celebrated cultural institutions. At the same time, he established a non-profit theater company downtown that brought plays like “Hair” and “A Chorus Line” to New York and the world.
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Josef Papirofsky was born June 22, 1921, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. His parents, Samuel Papirofsky, a trunk maker, and the former Yetta Miritch, a seamstress, were both recent Jewish immigrants from what would become Poland and Lithuania, respectively. The family was extremely poor, and, often unable to pay the rent, they found themselves moving several times a year. Yosl, as he was called as a child, grew up speaking Yiddish.
Papp (he shortened his name when he began working as a stagehand for CBS, claiming later, according to one version, that his full name wouldn’t fit on the TV screen when the credits ran) attributed his precision with language to the African-American playwright Eulalie Spence, who taught him English in high school, and his love of Shakespeare to his school days. He told a reporter from the Associated Press, in 1985: “I had no idea of the legitimate theater until my last term in high school. They took a lot of poor kids to see two productions of ‘Hamlet’ in one week. One starred John Gielgud, the other that movie actor Leslie Howard. Both were playing on Broadway in 1938.”
In 1942, Papp enlisted in the U.S. Navy, and he spent much of World War II staging performances for the sailors aboard an aircraft carrier. After the war, with the help of the G.I. Bill, he began to study acting and directing in Los Angeles, and he worked with the Actors Laboratory Theater, an experimental company.
Back in New York, between 1952 and 1960, he worked as a television stage manager with CBS and also on Broadway. In 1958, Papp was called to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities for his alleged Communist affiliations. He refused to answer some of the questions, invoking his Fifth Amendment rights, and in response, CBS fired him. He insisted on an arbitration hearing, and the network was forced to hire him back.
Staging Shakespeare outdoors
It was in 1953 that Papp organized the Elizabethan Workshop, which began presenting Shakespeare plays in the basement of the Emmanuel Presbyterian Church, in the Lower East Side. Somehow, he had convinced the church’s pastor that its basement meeting hall resembled London’s Globe Theater. Three years later, he received permission from the city to produce a free outdoor performance of “Julius Caesar” at the East River Park Amphitheater. His budget was $250, and an audience of 2,000 showed up. When a later production that summer, of “The Taming of the Shrew,” with Colleen Dewhurst in the title role, was praised in The New York Times by critic Brooks Atkinson – he called it “one of the pleasantest episodes in the outdoor night life of New York during the summer” – Papp was off and running.
A mobile theater company, which traveled with Shakespeare through the five boroughs of New York, followed, until it settled in Central Park. It was there, in 1961, that a permanent outdoor stage was constructed, but that only happened after the parks department, then headed by the powerful Robert Moses, attempted to evict Papp’s company. In his biography of Moses, historian Robert Caro explained that an aide, offended that a leftist like Papp had refused to testify before the HUAC, convinced Moses that the company had to begin charging fees for tickets to its plays, so that it could reimburse the city for damage to the park facilities. That was a point on which Papp was unwilling to compromise, and so the performances were shut down. That too ended up in legal litigation, and again Papp was ultimately victorious. And the publicity helped elicit a donation from publisher George Delacorte for the construction of a permanent theater.
In 1966, Papp took over the abandoned Astor Library, on Lafayette Street downtown, where he eventually established a complex with six stages. He renamed it the New York Shakespeare Festival Public Theater. It was there that “Hair” premiered, in 1967, and that “A Chorus Line” was originally produced in a theater workshop, in 1974. Papp wasn’t especially fond of the play, which cost $1.1 million to organize, but when it moved to Broadway, it stayed for 15 years. The nearly $150 million it grossed went a long way to guaranteeing the future for the Public Theater for the decades that followed.
Playwrights who worked with Papp included David Rabe (“Streamers”) and Sam Shepard (both of whom famously had bitter disputes with the temperamental producer), Ntozake Shange (“For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf”), Jason Miller (“That Championship Season”), Larry Kramer (“Normal Heart”), David Henry Hwang (“The Dance and the Railroad”) and Miguel Pinero (“Short Eyes”) – and many, many more.
Actors associated with Papp included Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Raul Julia and Mandy Patinkin.
Papp also had many failures – including three marriages that ended in divorce before he married the woman who survived him, Gail Merrifield. An attempt to run the theater at Lincoln Center ended after three years. And toward the end of his life, Papp was unable to groom a successor to take over the management of the huge institution he had fostered. Nonetheless, the Public Theater is still operating today, 22 years after its founder's death, and offers numerous educational programs in addition to the plays it produces for adult audiences.
Although Joseph Papp steered clear of Jewish culture early in his career, later in life – biographer Helen Epstein attributed it to the staging of “The Merchant of Venice,” with George C. Scott, in 1962 – he became more open to Jewish causes and to his identity. He tried a short-lived Yiddish theater; he loaned his name to a children’s fund operated by Chabad for programs in Ukraine; and together with Rabbi Arthur Schneier, he founded the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, which works to foster better relations between Jews and blacks, in 1989.
In 1987, Papp was diagnosed with prostate cancer, and although he was given a terminal prognosis, he held on until 1991. He died on this date, three weeks after his son Tony, an artist, died of AIDS, at age 29.