The Public. 50+ Years of Greatness

By Anthony Paradiso

THE STAGE OF THE DELACORTE THEATER in Central Park, where Free Shakespeare performances are shown. Photo credit: Joseph Moran.

“Following on the heels of great success with his free Shakespeare in the Park at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, Joe Papp, the legendary founder of the Public Theater, was looking for a place to build his dream…When his associate producer, Hilmar Sallee, walked into his office on December 27, 1964, with the New York Times headline screaming “Landmarks for Sale – or the Wrecker’s Ball,” dreams were about to come true for Mr. Papp and his beloved New York Shakespeare Festival, later to become known as the Public Theater…Papp and Bernie Gersten, his right hand man, took a train downtown to see the Astor Library building, which was about to face the wrecking ball… “It was such a mess,” Papp recalled. “It reminded me so much of the Holocaust. It looked like there had been a pogrom in that place. But you could also see the glory of the building.” —Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation

“I went for a job at the Public as a carpenter. Technical director Andy Mihok got my resume and called me. As I entered the former Astor Library, I saw a great open hall with fantastic columns and enormous ceiling height. I was summoned inside a black curtain and Andy hired me as a “swing” carpenter. He would call me when he needed me. It was 50 bucks a day– not bad for 1977. I started that same day building seating risers for a production which I don’t remember. But there was a lot of activity at the Public especially after Hair went to Broadway and ran for a long time.” —Roger Paradiso

In 1966, Papp who created Shakespeare in the Park in 1954, made a deal with Mayor John Lindsay to turn the Astor Library into what is now the Public Theater. It was one of the most significant deals in artistic preservation of a landmark that was about to be knocked down by a wrecking ball. Today, the Public is a world-renowned theater on Lafayette Street in the Village.

“The Public’s wide breadth of programming includes an annual season of new work at its landmark home at Astor Place, Free Shakespeare in the Park Theater at The Delacorte in Central Park, the Mobile Unit touring throughout New York City’s five boroughs, Public Works, Public Shakespeare Initiative and Joe’s Pub. Since premiering HAIR in 1967, the Public continues to create the canon of American Theater and is currently represented on Broadway by the Tony Award-winning musical Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda and the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Fat Ham by James Ijames. Their programs and productions can also be seen regionally across the country and around the world. The Public has received 60 Tony Awards, 190 Obie Awards, 57 Drama Desk Awards, 61 Lortel Awards, 36 Outer Critics Circle Awards, 13 New York Drama Critics’ Circle Awards, 62 AUDELCO Awards, 6 Antonyo Awards and 6 Pulitzer Prizes.” –

The Public’s landmark home on Lafayette Street contains five theater spaces. This includes Joe’s Pub, a Cabaret-style venue for new work, musical performances, spoken-word artists and soloists. Yet, the most popular venue that the Public Theater operates is the Delacorte Theater.

Throughout the summer and fall, the Public Theater shows plays for free inside the Delacorte. And the amazing thing is that the Public has staged Shakespeare in the Park at the Delacorte since 1954, which means it is closing in on its 70th anniversary.

“I would bring a small toolkit into the park around midnight on strike night and meet up with dozens of carpenters who had to strike the set by sunrise that morning. It was quite interesting being on that stage at night with the lake at the backstage end. I don’t remember the shows, but it was always an experience seeing the sun come up.” —Roger Paradiso

The free productions by the Public at the Delacorte this summer include two classic Shakespearean plays, Hamlet and The Tempest. Hamlet is currently in the middle of a nine-week run that will last until August 6, while The Tempest will run from August 27 to September 3.

In order to make these two shows more accessible to people throughout the city’s five boroughs, the Public distributes “a limited number of free ticket vouchers” on the day of select performances. To receive a free ticket voucher, one must have a “Public Theater Patron ID” which can be created by visiting