For almost the entire month of August, the plazas of Lincoln Center are devoted to more than 100 performances of music, dance, and theater. The Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival, now in its 36th year, is part of a New York tradition that has evolved over the decades: enjoying music and more in the open air.
Before about 1950 — which is to say, before air conditioning — summertime entertainment in New York was alfresco. Theaters and nightclubs took to rooftops. The Ziegfeld Follies played on the roof of the New Amsterdam Theatre. In June 1906, Harry Thaw shot Stanford White at the rooftop nightclub of the old Madison Square Garden. Years before, when Manhattan land was still plentiful, New Yorkers flocked to "pleasure gardens," like Vauxhall Gardens on Lafayette Street, or Jones' Wood on the East River.
Not least, city parks offered music under the stars. When Calvert Vaux designed Central Park, he included a "Concert Ground" between the Mall and Bethesda Terrace.Vaux's brilliant assistant Jacob Wrey Mould, who designed Bethesda Terrace, also designed a charming bandstand at the west end of the Concert Ground. At the east end, Vaux placed a wisteria-wrapped pergola for seating. Between the bandstand and the pergola was a gravel ground with trees encircled by handsome wooden benches like the ones we see encircling the trees just to the south. The whole design was a bit of fairy-tale enchantment — like so much of the rest of the park.
By the 20th century so many people wanted to hear music under the stars that in 1923 the Parks Department gratefully accepted philanthropist Elkan Naumburg's offer of a large, white, classical bandshell as the centerpiece of a radically redesigned Concert Ground. In this plan, the old bandstand was razed, the trees and benches removed, and the gravel asphalted over. Instead of a Concert Ground that was carefully integrated into the park — so as to enhance and be enhanced by the setting — the new bandshell could have been in any outdoor setting. That a charming part of the park was gutted for the new bandshell was just another sad example of the 20th-century tendency to view parks — even artistic masterpieces like Central Park — as ready receptacles for any sort of outdoor activity, whether or not it had anything to do with the park's aesthetics or mission.
The problem with many of our city's outdoor performance venues is that they've been dumped into inappropriate settings — and have been designed with little or no sensitivity to those settings. A prime example is the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, which is home to "Shakespeare in the Park." Originally, this series was begun by Joseph Papp, not in Central Park, but in East River Park on the Lower East Side. Like Naumburg, the book publisher George T. Delacorte thought he was doing something good for the city he loved when he made a series of benefactions to Central Park: the Delacorte Clock, the Alice in Wonderland sculpture, and the Delacorte Theater. Fine though each of these is individually, none has anything to do with the park. The theater was built in 1962, and was intended to be temporary, but instead was renovated in 1976. It is unfortunately infelicitous in its setting. Who thought that a modern theater could play nice with Vaux's enchanting Belvedere Castle? No one thought about that.The park was viewed as a big empty place just crying to have things like bandshells and theaters dumped in it.That such things are popular cannot be denied. A city, after all, gets what it deserves.
A few years after Central Park, Vaux was hired to design Prospect Park in the neighboring city of Brooklyn. He felt he could avoid the mistakes he'd made in the earlier park. He couldn't have foretold, however, that Brooklynites would want their own bandshell. The Prospect Park Bandshell is a massive modern structure in the part of the park once called the "Very Expensive Lots," bordering Park Slope. This is the long, narrow strip of land that Vaux felt at the last minute was needed to make his Long Meadow work. In fact, it's long been a rather forlorn bit of park, and was probably at its most interesting when it contained greenhouses. Today it is noteworthy as the setting of the splendid 1850s country house called "Litchfield Villa"and of the bandshell, home to the annual "Celebrate Brooklyn!" festival of music, theater, and dance begun in 1979. (The bandshell, which was completely rebuilt in 1983, is located just inside the park from Prospect Park West and 9th Street.) The summertime festival becomes more popular each year, now drawing some quarter of a million in attendance annually.The main seating area in front of the humongous bandshell has room for 2,000 people, while another 5,000 can be accommodated on nearby lawn. It's often filled to capacity.
Lincoln Center's Guggenheim Bandshell, in the Damrosch Park part of the complex, houses many acts during the Out of Doors festival. Lincoln Center's development was an agonizing process involving several star-chitects, impresarios with outsize egos, and Robert Moses. Moses played little role in the design, other than insisting that the complex include a park. (Moses liked to include parks in everything he built.) The bandshell, built in 1969, is a vaguely Moorish-looking thing just to the south of the Metropolitan Opera House, and became popular as the principal venue of the legendary Goldman Band.
Founded as the New York Military Band in 1911 by Edwin Franko Goldman, the Goldman Band (as it became known in 1918) had been for decades the mainstay of the Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park. It was also known in many of the city's other outdoor venues, including Prospect Park and Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, and the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx. Until it closed down last year, the band — arguably the most famous concert band in America — specialized in free, alfresco performances in New York parks.
In the case of another famous concert band, the Seuffert Band, its outdoor venue grew to keep up with the band's popularity. Founded as the Concordia Military Band in 1894, the Seuffert Band performed at a bandstand in Forest Park, Queens, until 1920, when that park's bandshell (perhaps the handsomest bandshell setting in the city) was built to accommodate the band's audiences.
After Seuffert's retirement in 1945, the band continued under George Seuffert Jr. In 1979 the Forest Park Bandshell was officially renamed the Seuffert Bandshell. Seuffert Jr. died in 1995, and the band ceased to perform. The Seuffert Bandshell is still a popular venue, however, featuring summertime concerts by the Queens Symphony Orchestra.
Whether or not their settings were the best, the Goldman and Seuffert bands were a part of the city's soul. In their absence are the many festivals, concerts, film screenings, and all manner of arts that continue to entertain the public in Manhattan's great, if somewhat cramped, outdoors.