Established in 1954, Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts at Brooklyn College (BCBC) is a community-based presenting organization located on the scenic campus of Brooklyn College. The mission of Brooklyn Center is to present outstanding performing arts and arts education programs reflective of Brooklyn’s diverse communities and at affordable prices. A central part ofthe Center's mission is to introduce young people to the performing arts, enhance their creativity and expose them to new cultures and ideas. As one of the largest arts education presenters in the Brooklyn, Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts at Brooklyn College annually welcomes over 70,000 people, including 46,000 school children, parents, and teachers.
Brooklyn Center is committed to presenting emerging and established artists from around the world. Artists and companies that have graced our stage include Luciano Pavarotti, Isaac Stern, Gregory Hines, Beverly Sills, Ray Charles, Itzhak Perlman, Martha Graham, Suzanne Farrell, Margot Fonteyn, Ballet Folklórico de México de Amalia Hernández, Les Ballets Africains, Moiseyev Dance Company, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, The Acting Company, and National Dance Theatre Company of Jamaica.
Ground breaking for Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts at Brooklyn Center.
The first performance -- Leontyne Price brings down the house.
Dante Negro -- our founding father.
Yiddish Theatre kept alive for a dozen years after it hadn't been performed for a decade.
Brooklyn Center becomes the first venue to seriously commit to provide the best programming designed for children and parents alike; FamilyFun was born.
Sir Rudolf Bing chooses to bring his astute programming skills to the Center directly from his long career at the Met.
Art many times is a catalyst not only of ideas, but also for social awareness and the Center has found itself facilitating the coming together of divergent points of views.
This immensely talented artist, composer and writer designed two posters for our 30th and 35th Anniversaries.
The Center has been the home of Brooklyn Center Cinema and has presented some of the most important films of the 20th century and in one of the best screening facilities of all the CUNY colleges and indeed in all of Brooklyn.
In the 80s, the Center developed one of the strongest, most respected classical and modern dance program in the tri-state. Heralded nationally, it was a crowning jewel in the Center's repertoire.
OK, so we like to brag a bit, that of all the venues President Bill Clinton could have chosen to launch his national version of The Peace Corps, he choose Brooklyn Center. So did Jimmy Carter, as a matter of fact.
We also are quite proud that we have keep the tradition of the bells of the LaGuardia Bell Tower ringing out the hour tolls and carillon melodies three times a day for many decades.
Our programs are changing, but still going strong.
The George Gershwin Theatre and the Sam Levenson Recital Hall are no longer standing as the north wing of the Performing Arts complex which housed them has been razed for new construction; we would be remiss if we did not respectfully give a tip of the hat and a brief description of those venerable performance spaces that have served the Center, the College and the Brooklyn community for over half a century.
In the late winter of 1955, the ground-work was just about completed on an ambitious project that involved the City, the State, CUNY and Brooklyn College. They all seemed to conspire to bring to fruition a magnificent arts center to central Brooklyn at the end of the IRT line in Flatbush. The physical plant was imposing; a modified "U" shaped building that housed four performance spaces ranging from a small experimental theatre, to an impressive 2350 seat house that would become the centerpiece for a variety of performers and events that even its architects and builders could not have envisioned. It was chilly and overcast on that day in March as Mayor Robert F. Wagner and a crowd of other dignitaries participated in the long anticipated ribbon cutting ceremonies; a distinct vision for the center was already forming.
The Performing Arts Center was about opening its doors to all in Brooklyn and the surrounding boroughs. Our Mission has always been to make great art accessible, and as an outreach mechanism to connect and engage the public with the college. So from the first time our doors opened and the curtain went up, they were opened to young and old, families and students, from every ethnic background, every economic strata and from all corners of the Borough and beyond.
The greatness of this Center would be its accessibility -- a place where the hard-working Brooklyn Everyman would be able to experience the great artists in every discipline and at prices that were affordable. The far-reaching communities of Flatbush, Midwood, Flatlands, Carroll Gardens, Sheepshead Bay and Coney Island would be invited not only to come as an audience, but to use the Center as participants -- for their own community functions, meetings, lectures, and ceremonies -- even a wedding would one day take place on the Walt Whitman Theatre's Great Stage. And perhaps the most unique activity that would bond literally tens of thousands of Brooklynites to the Center (and what has now become a Brooklyn tradition), the hundreds upon hundreds of high school commencement ceremonies that have been held in the Whitman Theatre every June over the last four decades. Brooklyn now had a Performing Arts Center to which its people would come to feel a warm, personal connection.
Leontyne's First Time
The day after the ceremonial dedication, the Center opened with the Inaugural Premiere Concert. A young, rising star was the featured performer. Her name was Leontyne Price and she almost didn't make it to the stage door in time. It seems that the limousine driver could not find this new arts complex. She was first driven to BAM and then, of all places, to the Brooklyn Public Library. But what went askew in the drive over the Brooklyn Bridge to the middle of Brooklyn that night was more than redeemed when a packed house ranging from the black-tie folks to the blue collar workers to the students, all heard the incomparable, angelic voice of Ms. Price. She would revisit the Center many times over the next quarter century and the audiences would never tire of lavishing standing ovation after standing ovation upon her.
Over the more than half a century since the Performing Arts Center has opened its doors, the management and organizational structure has changed from time to time, but none of its directors abandoned the original vision our first impresario, Dean Dante Negro. His passion was to make all manner of artistic excellence available to the Brooklyn community, firmly establishing arts outreach as the Center's primary mission.
For the first twenty-three years of our history this pioneer rigorously presided over the direction the Center would take, forming it, nursing it. His exuberance for the arts was inspiring and infectious to both audiences and especially to his staff. During his tenure the classic repertoire flourished. Negro was adamant about bringing the classical arts to the Brooklyn public, creating distinguished programs of the top opera stars, symphonic and chamber orchestras as well as modern and classic ballet companies to grace the Center's stages and classic films to the giant screen. He created the Great Artist/Music and the Great Artists/Dance series and a retrospective film series.
One of his innovations during the late 60s was to commission two resident ensembles in conjunction with the Brooklyn College Conservatory of Music; they were to be permanent fixtures in the Center's repertoire -- The Carnegie String Quartet and The Dorian Woodwind Quintet. They were a staple on the music program for more than seven years, each giving intimate performances in the Gershwin Theatre on the stage and music seminars at various times throughout the season to the Conservatory's music majors. This was the first time any CUNY or SUNY campus had this level of professional musicianship by way of resident professional ensembles. Both these ensembles are still performing today to worldwide acclaim and notability.
Dante Negro, beloved by both staff and artists alike, remained Brooklyn Center's Concert Manager and impresario until 1973 -- a long and brilliant career which gave Brooklynites so much in the way of classical culture and artistic excellence, clearly establishing the Center as a thriving arts institution dedicated to those goals that were so dear to his heart and which continue to this day...a testament to his sustaining legacy.
Preserving the Tradition
Since the first Jewish immigrants landed on Ellis Island, the extraordinary story-telling tradition of that culture became legend. In the early 1900's the theatres on Second Avenue on the east side became the training ground for the dozens of Jewish comedians, musicians, and thespians with their own style of humor, music and a magical way of telling a story....and in a language all their own. Yiddish Theatre was a unique art-form and an entertainment staple -- as satisfying as matzo-ball soup (קניידלעs ) or Nova-lox-on-a-bagel-with-a-shmear. But by the late forties, vaudeville and the lower east side theatres were closing, moving out of the way of the new bully on the block -- television. The theatres either became movie houses or they shuttered their doors completely. Yiddish Theatre was on the brink of extinction. Many of its practitioners, talented and popular as they were, were able to make the transition to TV, and in fact, provided the new medium with some badly needed talent since Hollywood stars or "legitimate" theatre actors would not set foot in a TV studio. Unfortunately, although they got work in the TV studios, television was not interested in hearing any language except English.
In the late 70's, Brooklyn Center set out on a mission to preserve this exceptional art-form. The legendary, original Yiddish Theatre stars were contacted and encouraged to bring their own original skits and scripts and comedic bits. None other than the legends -- Molly Picon, Fyvush Finkel, Lillian Lux, Avi Hoffman, Elenor Reissa -- were thrilled to be able to give new life to their art. The Center created the same environment that they were familiar with -- an intimate theatre space (the George Gershwin), original sets were found and restored or likenesses of the stage settings were recreated, taking care to bring back the authentic Yiddish theatre style -- charm included. The plays, musical numbers and skits were not lost on those who didn't understand Yiddish. Translations were provided and much of the dialogue was repeated in English by the actors for the non-Yiddish speaking audience. In fact, this is the way traditional Yiddish Theatre had always been performed, so as to be universally understood.
The Yiddish Theatre project became so popular that multiple weekend runs had to be added. For the Center and the artists, it became a work of love, reviving and preserving this nearly extinct art-form. For the audiences, it became the most sort-after (and most difficult to get) ticket of any the Center's series. And from the sound of the laughter and wild applause, one of the most enjoyed.
As these artists departed one by, it became impossible to continue this endeavor, but the flavor of the Jewish experience was continued in our L'Chiam series as an offspring of the Yiddish Theatre project as the Center tried to keep the tradition alive. Many of the original elements were incorporated: the great performers, the rich ethnic components that transcend culture but speak directly to the mind and heart. And the fun!Unfortunately, the passage of time and the passing of so many of these great performers finally forced the final curtain on our long commitment to Yiddish Theatre; at Brooklyn Center we are rightfully proud of our historic association with the practitioners of this great and unique art-form.
It became clear in those early years that art appreciation does not happen in a vacuum. When a subscriber in his late forties told one of the Center's staff that he could trace his passionate love of live performance directly back to a single orchestra concert performance that his parents brought him to see at the Whitman Theatre when he was a child, the Center put into motion a commitment to children's programs and quality family entertainment.
The SchoolTime series buses in school children from all over the borough, giving these impressionable youngsters a taste of the magic that is live performance. In many cases, it might be their only opportunity to have that experience, one that may truly affect them for years to come, in what they will appreciate and what they will seek out. We know the power of this exposure; how lasting an impression is made on a young audience when they are given a demonstration of modern dance by Mr. Merce Cunningham himself! They see the breath-taking beauty of the dancers doing things that defy the laws of gravity, creating exquisite grace in motion. They can hear the passion in Mr. Cunningham's voice as he explains the dedication and work and pain and joy that is involved. This kind of unique experience may not make them give-up their MTV, but surely it opens their eyes and minds to the other wonderful possibilities that lie beyond the TV screen. And Brooklyn Center has been committed to bringing as many thousands of school children into contact with this kind of enlightenment and edification as we possibly can.
The original FamilyTime series has become the Target's FamilyFun series and it reaches our children from a different perspective. The series brings the live performance experience to the audience but in the context of the entire family. Nowhere else in Brooklyn has there been so consistent a program geared to quality, family entertainment. Year in and year out the line-up of presentations is as diverse as it is top-draw. Don't know what to do with the kids? Look through our Target FamilyFun programs and you will find quality children's programming only a telephone call away. The Center is indebted to The Target Foundation for their generous sponsorship of this series.
The Bing Years
In 1975, two years after Sir Rudolf Bing retired from his extraordinary career as Director at the Met, he took over the reigns of the Center from Dante Negro to become the Center's second impresario. Under his tenure, ticket prices were actually rolled back and he called upon his many friends and colleagues to put their names on the Center's roster of performers -- this included some of the most renown operatic performers and classical orchestras of the world.
Manhattan observers were skeptical that a Brooklyn audience would support a classical repertoire of music and dance in the numbers needed to keep ticket prices low for such stellar artists. But Bing was adamant. He often said in defense of his goal of making great music and dance accessible to everyone, very much carrying on the mission so well defined by Dante Negro: "Don't underestimate the good taste of the Common Man or his ability to appreciate what is beautiful; don't intimidate him with black tie and tails, and he will come." And come they did. Sir Bing presided over four of the most successful seasons ever and saw the Center grow in stature and reputation as a regional arts center in which artists actual sought to perform.
At the height of the Vietnam war protest, the Brooklyn College campus, like much of the rest of the country, became immersed in the growing anti-war movement. At first, small enclaves of students grouped together looking for ways to express themselves. The groups grew larger and a ground-swell of voices finally culminated in a "Be-In" event in the Whitman Theatre. The performers included artists like Pete Seeger, Tom Hayden, Jane Fonda and Phil Oches. The audience included students, teachers, protesters, some twenty-seven city police, parents and little children along with some very brave executives of Dow Chemical, all joining in. The crowd finally overflowed into the Gershwin Theatre and the Levenson Recital Hall.
For the finale, about 75 people crowded on the Whitman stage and put arm around shoulder as all slowly moved in a concentric circle chanting "OM;" those in their seats linked hands as they too chanted....as the chant became more and more intense and permeated the great hall, one could almost believe that the war could be stopped by the sheer will of the people. The result was one of the most haunting, moving sounds ever to be heard in that theatre.
Once again, the Performing Arts Center became the "Town Hall" for the entire college and neighboring communities. What was most striking was that unlike protests at some other campuses at the time, both sides of the issues were presented and discussed -- passionately, yes, but without tempers raised or opposing ideas shouted down. Music performances alternated with discussions and Q&As. It was an example of the best of what community is all about. We like to think that because the student organizers chose the Performing Arts Center for their Be-In, a place where art and creativity are the usual ascendancy, it contributed to the peaceful nature of the inspiring event.
The Art of Milton Glaser
In 1983 and again in 1988, the Center commissioned the beloved and iconic New York artist and author, Milton Glaser, creator of the I Love New Yorkdesign/logo as well as the world-famous a Bob Dylanposter, to create a fitting commemorative poster for the Center's 30th Anniversary. This prolific artist is world-renown for his incredible variety of works -- posters, prints, film, branding designs and illustrations. He co-founded New York Magazine and a little farther from home, created a 600 foot mural for the Federal Building in Indianapolis. Milton Glaser's work also graces the likes of Jet Blue, Target, Julliard, the School for Visual Arts, DC Comics, the Brooklyn Brewery to name but a few.
In this 30 Anniversary poster designed for us, Glaser uses a Dali-esque approach which features "Cello Man"dancing to his own music on a stage (notice the forced perspective abstract stage wingsin the background). This is a representation of the joy which both the music and dance performances on the Center's Great Stage bring to audiences year after year for the past 30 years.
The poster was so enthusiastically received by our patrons that five years later we were lucky enough to engage Mr. Glaser once more. This time we were poised to celebrate our 35th Anniversary with more elaborate festivities and a full fledged Festival that spanned the entire season with special events, nearly doubling the number of performances packed into that exciting Festival season. For this Anniversary poster, Milton created a design based heavily on cubism with elements representing dance and music but as seen from various and divergent perspectives, which is one of the marvels and richness of great art -- there is a never-ending variety of perspectives that can be take from it and yet it always remains fresh and vibrant.
Both posters are lithograph on heavy paper stock and are available for sale in our Concessions Booth. For more information about obtaining either or a set of these works, framed or unframed, signed or unsigned by Mr. Glasier, contact Frank Angel by email.
A film series was part of that very first 1955 season's programming, but at that time it relied on 16mm equipment; in 1969 professional 35mm projectors were installed in the Whitman projection booth and the Brooklyn Center Film Festival debuted. Its maiden voyage fittingly began with Stanley Kubrick's epic 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. The Whitman Theatre's cinema capabilities (a huge CinemaScope screen and high-fidelity, 6 Channel Total Surround MegaSound) plus the quality of the presentation, thrilled audiences who at that time had gotten used to the single screens that had been tortured into unpleasant twins and triplexs with small screens, mono sound and bad sightlines. Our single screen cinema, operating in the tradition of the great movie palaces like the Brooklyn Paramount, the Lowes Kings and the RKO Keiths caught the eye of the movie studios and they soon began asking the Center to showcase sneak previews of their films weeks before they opened in Manhattan. Sneaks were shown free of charge to the delight of our patrons. The studios used the screenings here at a vital performing arts center with a campus of potential moviegoers in its midst, as a way of generating word-of-mouth excitement.
In 1984 the original film program morphed into Brooklyn Center Cinema which became Brooklyn's first retrospective and alternative movie showplace. The program was an on-going, aggressive art-house format that ran during the summer for its first season, and then year round thereafter. One of the most popular films was the Italian import, CINEMA PARADISO. This gem became the "mascot," signature feature, being brought back over and over again. It was planned to be run at least once a season, every season.
In conjunction with Brooklyn College's Film Department, Brooklyn Center Cinema's screening of the annual Student Academy Awards was an anticipated event every April. Unfortunately the cinema project was put on hiatus because of severe budget cuts in 1992. The Sneak Previews and special CinEvents, continue, now presented with the improved, newly installed digital sound system.
Years of the Dance
During the late seventies and through the mid-eighties, the Center's reputation grew nationally as one of the few performance venues that had not become overgrown with bureaucracy. Under the tutelage of the then Executive Director and General Manager, the late Dan Swartz who, with Artistic Director Joel Garrick, envisioned the Center as a welcoming haven for every variety of dance company, from classic ballet to modern, Brooklyn Center grew as a highly respected dance venue. From the struggling, fledgling dance companies to the renown, well-established giants, the Center's Guest Artists Series / Dance program courted the very best to perform in front of the Whitman footlights (the complementary Guest Artists Series / Music featured luminaries from the world of classical music).
The word quickly traveled afar that Brooklyn Center was decidedly "dance company friendly." Our audiences became affectionately named by dancers as those "crazy Brooklynites" because when our patrons enjoyed a performance, their applause, shouts, and occasional double-finger whistles, as well as the more traditional "bravo," were resoundingly, unequivocally enthusiastic. No dance company could find a more welcoming environment in which to perform. Add to that, a staff and stage crew which, although considered small in size compared to most other venues, was one that maintained a warm, easy rapport backstage while at the same time proving themselves to be top notch professionals eager to make the dancers look their best. This seemed to be a perfect fitand it lured the dance "troops" here to Brooklyn.
Dance companies as far away as the west coast (the Washington and San Francisco Ballets) began requesting to premiere their new works at the Center; east coast greats like The Joffrey, Alvin Alley, Merce Cunningham and Paul Taylor also made their way across the bridge to find out what all the talk in the dance circles was about. Budding young dance companies, who perhaps were not yet house-hold names, were thrilled to be able to bring their dance repertoire to debut in New York-by-way-of-Brooklyn. As a result, the Great Artists/Dance gained a national reputation and flourished beyond all expectations. The program debuted many of the acclaimed dance companies of the US and the world. In just three years, over twenty-six world premiere dance compositions were premiered and more than forty-three New York premieres were performed before enthralled Brooklyn audiences. From 1981 to 1984, the acclaimed Atlanta Ballet joined Brooklyn Center as its resident dance company, premiering eight new works on Walt Whitman's Greatstage.
We have compiled a list of some of the most celebrated dance companies and acclaimed solo dancers who have graced our Whitman stage; the list is quite astounding and even makes us stand in awe when we see the names all in one place. Click here and see for yourself.
The intervening years have seen more great performers, dignitaries, and events than could ever be listed here, but through it all, the ebb and flow of every manner of Brooklynite through the theatre doors has been the unique strength of the Center -- a fact not lost on the politicians. The former Borough President Howard Golden has been a welcomed, staunch supporter of Brooklyn Center. Over the years he has bestowed on our efforts and varied projects, more that 25 Presidential Awards and Citations. Now our own Borough President Marty Markowitz, Brooklyn College graduate and an impresario in his own right, continues to support and encourage our efforts.
When Jimmy Carter was running for the presidency, he came to the Whitman Theatre to address the people of Brooklyn. Golda Meir, the then prime minister of Israel, addressed a packed Whitman Theatre via an overseas audio link and answered questions and heard opinions from some very vocal Brooklynites. In 1996, President Bill Clinton chose Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts to present his views to the people in the Gershwin Theatre. It was quite an experience listening to the Secret Service communications describing his progress along Flatbush Avenue until the motorcade entered the main gates and he walked onto the stage as the carillon rung out Hail to the Chief.
"Music to My Ears"
As patrons walk to the entrance of any of the theatres in the Performing Arts Center, they cannot help but notice the stately LaGuardia Hall Bell Tower with its spire and Gold Dome, or hear its carillon bells striking the Westminster hour melodies. This edifice, which overlooks the Performing Arts complex and dominates the entire Brooklyn College campus, has come to symbolize everything that is inspiring and noble at our community. It is appropriate that the late President Robert L. Hess, who was an avid carillon aficionado, asked the technicians at the Performing Arts Center to discover the mystery behind why, one day in the early 60's, the carillon mechanism stopped sounding the bells for no apparent reason. The technicians went to work and did coax it back to life; from that time on, it has been our happy labor of love to keep the carillon playing its uplifting melodies and hour bell strikes, insuring that this beloved tradition be carried steadfast across each graduating class from decade to decade.
As the LaGuardia Tower is the icon for Brooklyn College, so too the sounds of the carillon bells have also become a symbol of the art and music that has been a part of the Performing Arts Center here for the last 60 years. Upon hearing the melodious bells sounding for the first time again on campus, President Hess proclaimed that "the carillon sounds are music to my ears!"
In the more than 25 years since that presidential mandate for Brooklyn Center to keep the carillon playing its tunes, the bells have only been silenced once for a short time during the rebuilding of the Library. The Center's staff wouldn't have it any other way.For a more detailed history of the LaGuardia Bell Tower Carillon, click here.
Still In Touch
Today the Center is finding new audiences and new artistic flavors. But the vision that gave Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts the artistic energy to bring to its Brooklyn audiences the world of art and beauty at affordable prices, still empowers it today. As the diverse communities across Brooklyn grow, the Center meets the challenge to offer a wide variety of events that will give most everyone something to cheer about, from the World of Dance series to the new Theatre and Target FamilyFun series; from the World Stages series to exciting Special Events.
In addition, the MainStage and Thesis Productions of the Brooklyn College Theatre Department and the literally hundreds of Conservatory of Music concerts ranging from classical to jazz to opera to the acclaimed Electro-Acoustic International Music Festival, all provide Brooklynites with a potpourri of eclectic events sure to stimulate, edify and entertain.
And always watch for Brooklyn Center Cinema's special CinEvents, be they one of the great classics brought back with restored new prints or a sneak preview not yet playing in the first run theatres, the Whitman Theatre is a unique state-of-the-art venue for the ultimate in movie enjoyment.
Finally the Center continues its mission to outreach to the Brooklyn communities through our Community Access which welcomes groups large and small as well as producers of the widest variety of shows, all happy to have the facilities of a first class Performing Arts Center available to them to reach their respective audiences. Rental arrangements for theatre rental can be made with our General Manager. For more information on how to present your event click here:
And again, today the ticket prices for some of the greatest classical artists to the hottest pop entertainers are kept deliberately, shockingly low, thus echoing the directors of past years...."never underestimate the common man; make great performances accessible to them, and they will come!
Jason Mraz & Raining Jane in All Five Boroughs
Charles Mee's "Big Love"