, the Upper West Side cultural institution, announced on Friday that its co-founder and founding artistic director Isaiah Sheffer passed away, "Whether you knew Isaiah intimately, or simply as that warm resonating voice from the radio on Selected Shorts, everyone can agree that we lost a special soul who will be dearly missed by all."
Sheffer and Allan Miller opened Symphony Space on January 9, 1978, in an old ice skating rink and movie theater at Broadway and 95th Street. The first offering was a 12-hour free marathon of music called "Wall to Wall Bach." According to the NY Times' obituary:
The owner said he would rent it to these fledgling impresarios for $300, and Ms. Sheffer lent a hand, walking the neighborhood to collect it mainly in $5 donations. The lower portion of the building had once been the Sunken Gardens restaurant and in more recent years the Thalia Theater, which showed art movies. The Thalia would later be incorporated into Symphony Space.
Mr. Sheffer recruited foundation support and signed up board members, among them Schuyler Chapin, dean of Columbia University’s School of Fine Arts; and the flutist Eugenia Zukerman. Wanting to be inclusive, he also enlisted Jessica Beels, a 16-year-old high school student. Almost miraculously he secured a 30-year mortgage for $10 down. He paid in cash with a bill from his wallet.
Sheffer was born in the Bronx, grew up in Greenwich Village and attended Brooklyn College. Besides the "Wall to Wall" marathons, Sheffer made Symphony Space known for its Selected Shorts programs, where well-known actors read short stories (here's Stephen Colbert reading T.C. Boyle's "The Lie"), as well as Bloomsday, an annual reading of Ulysses by James Joyce. The venue also has other readings, concerts and films.
Actress Anne Meara wrote on Symphony Space's blog, "In 1982 I read ‘Molly Bloom’s’ speech in “Ulysses. I made Isaiah work with me on it. Even though I was Irish on both sides, I was ignorant of Joyce’s great work. We broke it down and I started to ‘get it’.
It was one of the greatest experiences of my acting life. Thank you so much Isaiah, for your love of Joyce and your patience with Meara."
Sheffer, who is survived by his wife Ethel, told the Times once, "I have the pleasure in Fairway market of having someone lean over the onions and say, ‘Loved your Mongolian dance concert.’”
Here are videos of Sheffer performing, one of him singing about reading Paul Krugman in the NY Times and another of him acting out a NY moment with Tony Roberts: