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Town Hall Seattle, and lessons from the Book of Isaiah

Town Hall: A 1916 Seattle church converted into a performance center Credit: Town Hall Seattle

My friend and mentor, Isaiah Sheffer, died earlier this month at age 76. He was a quintessential New Yorker, the founder of Symphony Space on the Upper West Side. Manhattan is a continent away from Seattle, but Sheffer had a big role to play out here as well.

The Sheffer connection was Town Hall Seattle, which I helped get started in 1999 and ran in its early years. I didn’t really know what I was doing, which is where Isaiah came to my rescue. Town Hall is a huge Seattle success story today, thanks to its fine building, a great location, marvelous staff, and the skill, dedication and vision of my successor, Wier Harman. And thanks to Isaiah Sheffer.

Symphony Space is one of those only-in-New-York institutions, which Sheffer and filmmaker Allan Miller founded in 1978. Sheffer had enjoyed what the New York Times obituary called “an exuberantly varied theatrical career” as a playwright (Yiddish comedy), director and impresario. In early 1978 he spotted a neighborhood eyesore at 95th and Broadway that had struggled as a movie theater, ice-skating rink, and boxing arena. Rent was very low, and the owners were eager to unload the grimy place.

Sheffer and Miller had the idea of an all-day Bach marathon, tapping the many fine classical musicians in that neighborhood (thick walls in the old apartment buildings made them conducive to practicing). The Wall-to-Wall Bach marathon was free, and it lasted all day and well into the night. It was packed. Symphony Space was soon born, with Isaiah as the artistic director for 32 years. Among the beloved traditions — besides Wall-to-Wall Bach (and other composers) — each year were “Selected Shorts” with actors reading short stories (still broadcast nationally on NPR), and a 31-year tradition of readings from Joyce’s Ulysses each "Bloomsday on Broadway."

Town Hall Seattle got started as an idea in the late 1980s, and the original impetus was to find a mid-sized performance space for the numerous “homeless” music groups, none of which could afford to build or own a space on their own. Our doughty band (Early Music Guild, Northwest Chamber Orchestra, Ladies Musical Club, Seattle Camerata, Earshot Jazz) first tried to raise the money to save and convert the old sanctuary of Temple de Hirsch Sinai on E. Union St. That didn’t succeed, but our next try did: the handsome old Fourth Church of Christ Scientist at 8th and Seneca on First Hill, which reluctantly came on the market and sold to our group after eight years of wary negotiations and with a big boost from Historic Seattle. We opened for the first performances in the spring of 1999.

I knew of two possible models for the multi-disciplinary venue we were creating — part rentals and part our own productions. One was The Sheldon in St. Louis, a similarly-configured building that had been an Ethical Culture Society church. Michael Killoren, who later moved to Seattle and headed the Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs for the city, was working there and I remember his valuable advice by phone: reach out to the many smaller groups in the region, particularly ethnic organizations.

The other model was a famous one, the 92nd St. Y in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, which anchors a Jewish and German neighborhood as a YMHA and as a venue for a legendary series of classical concerts (Gerard Schwarz conducted his Y Chamber Symphony there), poetry readings, and author-based events and lectures. In visiting the Y, and also New York’s The Town Hall (founded by suffragists to mix music with the cause), I soon learned about their less-famous cousin, Symphony Space.

I gave Isaiah a call and he invited me right over to join him for breakfast at his usual hangout, a cheap Cuban joint across the street and filled with the locals. The advice began flowing at once, mixed with his impish humor. Is the public confused about which events are rentals and which ones you produce? “Just take credit for the good ones.” Can I steal your idea for “Selected Shorts”? “Not only that; we’ll come out and do some of the shows at Town Hall, teaching you how to do it.” (Which he did, and today the series continues, called “Short Stories Live.”) Should we book the place solid? “Always leave room for when ‘Love walks in’ and you discover a hot new group; you’ve got to be able to say to them, ‘How about next Tuesday?’”

Speaking of "Selected Shorts," which airs on KUOW-FM each Tuesday at 10 pm, tonight's (Nov. 27) program will be a special tribute to Sheffer, the show's founder and radio host.

Isaiah was from the Bronx and grew up in Greenwich Village, so he got along great with our program director Spider Kedelsky, from Brooklyn. Both had a great sense of show-biz and fun and what-the-hell-let’s-do-it. Sure enough, we also stole the Wall-to-Wall idea, doing “Bach Around the Clock” and other musical marathons. That first Bach marathon, free all day, with its hilarious Bach "Coffee Cantata" turned into a short opera set in a Starbucks and directed by Theodore Deacon, remains my warmest memory of my eight years at Town Hall.

Where Town Hall diverged from the New York model was how it came to reflect Seattle’s remarkable love affair with authors and with civic topics. Symphony Space, now greatly upgraded after some epic New York real-estate wars and maybe a little spiffier than Isaiah really liked, has stayed with the arts almost exclusively, particularly classical music, world music, literary events, and actor-centered programs. Few of the original Seattle musical organizations survived or stayed with Town Hall, though the marvelous Early Music Guild is happily ensconsed, and Town Hall has Town Music, a modern-tinged classical series produced by cellist Joshua Roman. It has an amazing lineup of speakers and authors, connecting the city almost each night with the broader world of public affairs, science, and ideas. And, true to Isaiah’s lessons, the ticket prices are still very, very low.

One of the lessons from Isaiah and from Town Hall’s experience is how much cities need mid-sized facilities and organizations. Town Hall, like Symphony Space, was meant to be a mid-sized auditorium (about 800 seats, plus a smaller 250-seat Downstairs at Town Hall) that was available, flexible, bookable well in advance, and affordable. Most cities, and this is especially true of Seattle, neglect this part of the spectrum, jumping quickly from grass-roots small groups to the big leagues. Mid-size is where audiences can affordably test out new experiences, and where artists can grow and keep experimenting. I like them also because of their intimacy. Seattle is a mid-sized, a right-sized city, so it needs more such venues.

A second lesson is that cities need intellectual stimulation that originates from outside of universities. It is said of New York that it has two intellectual centers: Columbia University and Greenwich Village. The academy has an unhealthy monopoly on our culture these days, employing poets, dominating scholarship, keeping string quartets alive. That other node, the Greenwich Village node, speaks to a larger audience, is more politically engaged, and has more fun. A city such as Seattle, a small place with a huge university, has a special need for these antidotes.

The final lesson is that these places anchor and create a strong sense of community. Symphony Space is surrounded with a wonderful community, and they clasp the Space to their civic bosom. “I have the pleasure in Fairway market of having someone lean over the onions and say, ‘Loved your Mongolian dance concert,” Sheffer would say.

Seattle’s First Hill, huddling under those huge hospitals, has much less of this natural sense of community, though Town Hall is now inspiring apartments and retirement homes to be built nearby, filled with residents who can take regular nourishment at its space. Still, it manages to create a very warm sense of Seattle community at many events, helped by the cozy pews, the spacious lobbies, the bargain prices, the reliably liberal vibes, the youngish crowd,s and the rigorous informality of dress and manner.

I remember the advice one local gave me about conceptualizing Town Hall. “Be like Harvard Exit,” he said, referring to the movie house on Capitol Hill, carved from an old social club. “A comfy old building that seems to grow out of the local soil; run by people who have a genuine passion for movies or whatever; and do something unexpected and generous such as serving really good popcorn.” 

Dear Isaiah, you were my really good popcorn.

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