Symphony Space Honors the Memory of Founding Artistic Director Isaiah Sheffer
It is with both heavy hearts and deep gratitude that the staff, board, and community of artists of Symphony Space honor the memory of Founding Artistic Director Isaiah Sheffer, who died on Thursday evening of last week from complications after a stroke. He was 76 years old.
Isaiah Sheffer was the co-founder of Symphony Space and director and host of Selected Shorts on stage and on the radio. He also helped create The Thalia Follies, Bloomsday on Broadway and Wall to Wall. Along with his good friend and co-founder Allan Miller, in 1978 Isaiah transformed a crumbling building on the corner of 95th Street and Broadway into the vibrant and vital arts institution known today as Symphony Space. They brought the neighborhood together around Wall to Wall Bach, a free twelve-hour music marathon in which the audience was invited to join in. Wall to Wall would become a signature event and included themes from Beethoven to Bernstein, John Cage to Joni Mitchell, from classical to Broadway, folk to jazz.
Another of his ideas was Bloomsday on Broadway, an annual reading of James Joyce’s Ulysses, which over 30 years later still takes place on June 16th, 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. It was from Bloomsday on Broadway that Isaiah and the then producer of literary programs, Kay Cattarulla, came up with the idea for Selected Shorts. While listening to Lois Smith read a story from Dubliners, Kay turned to Isaiah and suggested that actors reading short stories on stage would make a great series. Isaiah loved to tell about his initial reaction. He told audiences, “With the foresight that has made me a great man of the theater I said to Kay, ‘Nah! Who would come to that?’” Now Isaiah's voice is recognized by millions in his role as host of Selected Shorts, co-produced by WNYC New York and distributed on Public Radio International.
Over 30 years later, Selected Shorts is still a popular, live stage performance and public radio program carried on over 150 stations around the country. Isaiah also loved politics and political theater which led to his development of The Thalia Follies political cabaret series, now in its ninth season of songs, sketches, and satire.
His radio, television, and film credits were extensive and include work as a commentator on the arts for WNYC's weekly radio column Around New York; producer/writer for The Road to the White House, a 20-minute public affairs series for NBC-TV (Emmy Nomination); director/writer for A Christmas Revel, NBC-TV Christmas Eve special, starring Dustin Hoffman and John Langstaff; writer for Millennium: Ten Centuries of Music, the television series funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities (Program #1, "Music in the 12th Century" winner of Gold Medal, Houston Film Festival); writer, new English translation of libretto to Stravinsky's Story of a Soldier, for a New York City PBS production; writer, Paganini, The Devil's Violinist, PBS video drama about Paganini; director/writer, The DMZ Cabaret, New York City PBS satirical series; director/writer, Oath of Office: The Inauguration Story, NBC-TV; writer/director, The Last Chapter, award-winning historical documentary film on 1,000 years of Polish-Jewish history; producer/director Manhattan Madcaps of 1924, by Jerzy Turnpike, a Rodgers and Hart reconstructed musical; and producer/director for Theatre Studio radio drama series, WEVD, New York. Mr. Sheffer wrote the book and lyrics for the musicals Yiddle with a Fiddle and The Rise of David Levinsky.
The extended Symphony Space family is honored to have known Isaiah, and proud to be charged with the great privilege of keeping his legacy alive. “Isaiah was an incredible man, with a probing intellect, unstoppable wit, life-affirming optimism, and an enormous, embracing spirit. His vision gave New York a unique cultural institution and his imagination gave birth to some of today’s most beloved and respected programs. Even in our grief, we are laughing as we remember one great Isaiah story after another,” said Symphony Space’s Artistic Director Laura Kaminsky.
Cynthia Elliott, President & CEO of Symphony Space shared, “Isaiah was a brilliant artist and an inspired visionary who brightened many lives both here at Symphony Space and, thanks to his wonderful Selected Shorts, throughout the country. He was also the mastermind of Bloomsday on Broadway, our annual James Joyce marathon, The Thalia Follies, a political cabaret show that was an equal-opportunity skewer-fest, and several decades of Wall to Wall, the free 12-hour extravaganza that inspired Isaiah and Allan Miller to found Symphony Space in 1978. He was a delightful colleague, and we will miss him terribly.”
“Isaiah Sheffer was a natural storyteller and an incredible human being. He was a talented writer, a gifted performer and he had a voice that was made for radio. He was loved by all of us at WNYC and will be missed by so many New Yorkers,” said Laura Walker, President and CEO of New York Public Radio. “Isaiah's legacy of entertainment, his generous spirit and his ability to capture the hearts and minds of so many will live on in the gifts he has left behind, including Symphony Space and WNYC’s program Selected Shorts.” Symphony Space Board Chair Steven Aresty added, "I am honored to have known Isaiah and to have so many warm memories of his quick wit, great warmth, and resounding passion for this amazing legacy that he built." Long-time friend and past Board Chair Steven M. Alden remarked, "Isaiah is the reason that all of us are galvanized around Symphony Space today. Isaiah's vision and perseverance made this special home for brilliant art and artists possible." On behalf of those who worked intimately with Isaiah for decades, Director of Literary Programs Katherine Minton said, “Isaiah’s warm and funny presence on Selected Shorts for almost 30 years engaged millions of people and connected them to books and writers in a deep and rich way. His voice and one of a kind personality will be greatly missed."
Symphony Space is currently planning a memorial service for Isaiah to be hosted in the theatre that Isaiah helped to build. This will be an opportunity for friends, family, colleagues, and the community to gather and pay tribute. Isaiah touched the lives of so many, and we hope to offer a place where great stories about a great man can be shared. "Neither James Joyce nor I ever had a better friend and champion. Isaiah was a giant and we will not see his like again. I shall miss him forever,” said Isaiah’s friend and frequent Bloomsday on Broadway showstopper Fionnula Flanagan. “Isaiah shared the arts with all of us and made the world a better and a happier place. I will miss him terribly,” remarked another close friend, Jane Curtin.
Please check www.symphonyspace.org/isaiah to share your thoughts and for more details on the memorial service, currently being planned for early December 2012.