Free Shakespeare and the Privatization of Central Park

Joel Epstein
Jul 20, 2019 · 3 min read
Central Park: New York’s backyard.

By Joel Epstein*

With the country going down the tubes faster than the president can send out another racist tweet, $399 for a ticket to a music festival in Central Park is hardly the most pressing matter facing the nation. Still, is nothing sacred in part-time New York mayor and presidential hopeful Bill DeBlasio’s Gotham? In an increasingly privatized New York, there are countless other venues that would serve as more appropriate settings for OZY Fest. How about Metlife Stadium? How about Yankee Stadium?

Have you no shame, Mr. Mayor? Have you no shame? Were he alive today, that would be the sharp quip of Merle Debuskey, the famed New York press agent.

Debuskey, who saved free Shakespeare from Robert Moses, knew that the park belonged to the people. Beginning in 1957, theatre producer Joe Papp, advised by Debuskey, offered free Shakespeare in the Park. The tradition continued in 1958 but in 1959 Moses’ top Parks Department aide had other plans. Stuart Constable, a conservative anti-Communist, detested Papp and his leftist politics. Early in March 1959, with Moses on vacation, Constable told Papp that there would be no more free Shakespeare in Central Park. Admission would have to be charged and the Parks Department would get five percent of the income to help pay for upkeep of the grounds and other expenses supposedly incurred by the city because of the Festival. According to an account of the back and force from The Gentleman Press Agent: Fifty Years in the Theatrical Trenches with Merle Debuskey by Robert Simonson, Constable figured that to Papp, the idea of a fee was anathema. He was right.

A series of meetings was held to no end and with Papp on the verge of caving in to Constable and Moses, Debuskey, the New York Shakespeare Festival press agent, told Papp, “Joe, I’ve worked for you since the beginning. I’ve worked for you a long time. I’ve knocked myself out for you. I’ve worked for nothing. I don’t mind. I’ll do anything in the world for free Shakespeare. But I can’t work for cheap Shakespeare.” As Debuskey put it, the difference between nothing and twenty-five cents isn’t two bits… “your armor and your spear is “free.” As recalled in the Simonson book, Debuskey argued that you can win battles if you’re free. You could lose them if you charge a quarter. You have the world on your side. You can get all kinds of concessions on stagehands, ushers, musicians, treasurers. Once you start charging money, you have union conditions you’re going to have to accept.

Who among us today carries the moral authority and smart campaign instincts that Merle Debuskey orchestrated on Papp’s behalf for free Shakespeare? It was the Bard’s David against Robert Moses’ Goliath.

Eventually, the case went before the courts and while Moses won the first round, the Shakespeare Festival won on appeal. Realizing he was beat, Moses gave in and eventually even agreed to build the Delacorte Theater for the Shakespeare Festival, one of the free cultural gems that makes New York the great city that it is.

New York is a poorer place without the likes of Merle Debuskey. That reality will be all the more apparent this weekend when the public loses access to its park.

*Joel Epstein is a New Yorker and an advocate for livable cities and public space.

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