Isaiah Sheffer, a Founder of Symphony Space, Dies at 76

November 13, 2012 | Alumni

By DOUGLAS MARTIN

November 11, 2012

Isaiah Sheffer, who three decades ago looked at a grimy, derelict movie theater on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and envisioned the palace of performing arts that became Symphony Space, a vibrant, eclectic institution known for its broadcasts of actors reading short stories, died on Friday in Manhattan. He was 76.

The cause was complications of a stroke, his wife, Ethel, said.

The stage was part of Mr. Sheffer’s life even before he was born; he was still in his mother’s womb when she appeared in a Yiddish play. He went on to an exuberantly varied theatrical career as a librettist, playwright, director and impresario.

But he said his professional life had “no coherence” until he and his artistic partner, the conductor Allan Miller, put on a marathon concert of Bach at the theater on Jan. 7, 1978.

The next morning, he wrote down his idea for a place he had decided to call Symphony Space, in part because that was the name of the theater and in part because its first event was a symphony concert.

After tens of millions of dollars raised and a decade of litigation, it became a complex of two theaters with a cafe, offices and a board directors. He was its artistic director, and would remain so for 32 years. Symphony Space is the home of a Sheffer brainstorm called “Selected Shorts,” produced by WNYC for NPR, in which actors read stories for broadcast on more than 160 radio stations nationwide. Another of his ideas was “Bloomsday on Broadway,” an annual reading of James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” of which the 31st rendition occurred this June.

The Joyce events are held on June 16, the day in 1904 when Leopold Bloom, the author’s fictional Irish Jew, walks the streets of Dublin and reveals his interior life. More than 100 actors and other notables take part in readings that last seven hours or more. Readers have included Stephen Colbert, Tony Roberts and Marian Seldes. Mr. Sheffer would add music and touches like the clatter of ale bottles behind the voices.

“I’ve been asked, ‘Is this a serious literary event or a grand drunken reunion for all your actor friends?’ ” Mr. Sheffer said in an interview with The New York Times in 2004.

“Yes!”

Mr. Sheffer saw the theatrical arts as a huge adventure, and his bookings over 32 years reflected it; there were operettas, African dance and political satire. There have been jazz and opera and blues, and more of the marathon concerts that began the whole enterprise, featuring composers like Stravinsky and Sondheim.

With his characteristic self-deprecating sense of humor, Mr. Sheffer was never reluctant to mention his biggest producing failure. “Never have an accordion sextet,” he advised.

Mr. Sheffer was born in the Bronx on Dec. 30, 1935. He was encouraged to pursue theater by his uncle Zvee Scooler, an actor and radio commentator in both English and Yiddish. By the time he was a teenager, Isaiah was appearing in Yiddish plays and radio broadcasts.

He grew up in Greenwich Village and was smart enough to skip a grade. He did not remember which one, he said, but he believed it was the one in which children learn fractions, which he never mastered. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Brooklyn College and a master’s degree from Michigan State University, both in theater.

He proceeded to patch together a living by writing plays like “The Rise of David Levinsky,” which was performed Off Broadway in 1983 and called “charmingly well done” by Richard F. Shepard of The Times. He also acted, directed, and produced and taught theater at Columbia University and elsewhere.

Mr. Sheffer and Mr. Miller had lived on the same floor of an Upper West Side apartment building for 15 years when Mr. Miller had the idea of a “Wall-to-Wall Bach” marathon.

It turned out that Ethel Sheffer, an urban planner and community activist, had already spotted Symphony Theater as a neighborhood eyesore badly in need of sprucing up.

The building, at Broadway and 95th Street, had been an ice-skating rink before it was a movie theater and had more recently been used for wrestling and boxing matches. The owner said he would rent it to these fledgling impresarios for $300, and Ms. Sheffer lent a hand, walking the neighborhood to collect it mainly in $5 donations. The lower portion of the building had once been the Sunken Gardens restaurant and in more recent years the Thalia Theater, which showed art movies. The Thalia would later be incorporated into Symphony Space.

Mr. Sheffer recruited foundation support and signed up board members, among them Schuyler Chapin, dean of Columbia University’s School of Fine Arts; and the flutist Eugenia Zukerman. Wanting to be inclusive, he also enlisted Jessica Beels, a 16-year-old high school student. Almost miraculously he secured a 30-year mortgage for $10 down.

He paid in cash with a bill from his wallet.

There was a cleanup in which generations of grime had to be removed. Gallons and gallons of chewing gum remover were employed. Almost all the staff members worked as volunteers. Newspapers and television took notice.

But the toughest fight was the legal one. As the neighborhood improved, past owners claimed the building still belonged to them. After more than a decade, Symphony Space won title, then raised millions by selling rights to a developer to build an apartment building over the theater.

Besides his wife, the former Ethel Shatunoff, Mr. Sheffer, who lived on the Upper West Side, is survived by a daughter, Susannah Sheffer; and a sister, Barbara Brook.

For all its wider fame, Upper West Siders came to cherish Symphony Space as their own, much as they do Barney Greengrass (the “Sturgeon King” restaurant), or a popular grocery nearby.

“I have the pleasure in Fairway market,” Mr. Sheffer said, “of having someone lean over the onions and say, ‘Loved your Mongolian dance concert.’ ”

Originally published by The New York Times