The Annenberg Center at 25

A Reminiscence by Charles Lee

The 1960s, often recalled as a period of turbulence and turmoil, was also a decade of cultural renaissance in which the performing arts flourished throughout the nation.

Recognizing the important role of the University in strengthening and enhancing the arts and in fostering an appreciation of, and support for, a broad range of artistic expressions, several committees of the University of Pennsylvania decided to plan and to build a campus center dedicated to the performing arts.

In 1965 the University asked Dr. George Gerbner, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication, to assume the additional responsibility of guiding this new University project and to head its administration.

Such a center for the arts had long been sought by the University community. Its realization was made possible by a generous gift from Ambassador and Mrs. Walter H. Annenberg, with additional major support from the Harold L. Zellerbach family and renowned Broadway producer/director Harold Prince, a Penn alumnus.

Key to the Hirschfeld illustration (front cover):

  1. Colleen Dewhurst
  2. Morgan Freeman
  3. Celeste Holm
  4. Martha Graham
  5. Judith Jamison
  6. Claire Bloom
  7. Jessica Tandy
  8. Hume Cronyn
  9. Paul Winfield
  10. Jason Robards
  11. Claudette Colbert
  12. Julie Harris
  13. Tammy Grimes
  14. Jose Ferrer
  15. Liv Ullmann
  16. Rex Harrison
  17. Hal Prince
  18. Pat Carroll
  19. Zakes Mokae
  20. Athol Fugard
  21. Robert Whitehead
  22. Zoe Caldwell
  23. Glenn Close
  24. Charles Durning
  25. Irene Worth

Dean Gerbner articulated the vision for the Annenberg Center as a place where the "specialized resources of the University should be used to express and advance its particular role in society, to serve its special clienteles and to complement Philadelphia's rich and varied cultural offerings. The Annenberg Center is an investment in such an expression of the idea of a University."

The Center--two years in planning and twice as long in building--was dedicated on Thursday, April 8, 1971.

At the dedication ceremonies, Nancy Hanks, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, echoed the University's hope for the Center: "Through theatre, music, dance and the electronic arts and with the resources of a great University, this Center will contributeand lead tosomething we are all interested in: the enrichment in all senses of life in America." President Richard M. Nixon, in a dedicatory letter, ex pressed both the vision for the center and the gratitude of its advocates to Ambassador Annenberg whose generosity gave substance to the dream:

"The dedication of the Annenberg Center... is a proud milestone in the history of the University of Pennsylvania and an event of great national significance... . I know that this exciting new Center will be a lasting tribute to the vision of its distinguished benefactor and a major instrument in the progress of American arts and culture for many years to come."

The Center means different things to different people. In addition to the three theatres: the Zellerbach, named after Penn alumnus and benefactor, Harold L. Zellerbach; the Harold Prince, named for the University's distinguished theatrical alumnus; and the Studiostill in search of a benefactor, it houses production and administrative offices, rehearsal rooms, dressing rooms and workshops. Penn's music department performance activities; the Theatre Arts office, rehearsal and performance activities, and many student extracurricular performance activities.

Richard Kirschner, the first managing director, said he saw the major challenge of the job was coping with the "hundreds of groups" who wish to participate in the Center, as well as the "innumerable vested interests involved." He felt if he could make order out of this and survive, we would be the people's hero.

Well, much order has been made out of that since the opening day and tonight we want to quickly give you an overview of what 25 years has produced. Time does not permit us to include everything so we have gleaned what we feel are significant productions, events, milestones and will present them in categories rather than chronologically, beginning with Theatre.

At left: The young Charles Durning played The Au Pair Man to a perennially youthful Julie Harris in a 1979 production of the New York Shakespeare Festival.

Let's go down memory lane...

St. Joan of the Stockyards opened April 27, garnering enthusiastic reviews from the Brecht scholars, and dazed expressions from many of us who were in the audience.

The following fall the Prince Theatre opened with Hough In Blazes starring Judd Hirsch in his preTony Award days.

All My Sons was the offering of the Theatre Lab, directed by Ilona Gerbner.

The Center mounted productions of Julie Bovasso's Gloria and Esperanza... Sean O'Casey's The Plough and the Stars

Hal Prince, directing for the New Phoenix Repertory Company brought productions of O'Neill's Great God Brown and Durrenmatt's The Visit.

Joseph Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival at Lincoln Center brought Charles Durning and Julie Harris in The Au Pair Man, Liv Ullmann and Sam Waterston in A Doll's House Miguel Pinero's Short Eyes... and Ron Milners's What the WineSellers Buy.

It was during this production that the Center, in an effort to fulfill its responsibility to the community, and particularly the West Philadelphia community in which it is located established its Community Outreach Programs under the direction of Marcella Beresin.

A volunteer student organization, InterAct, whose founding members included Wendy Neuss, now a producer of Star Trek, and David Zippel, Tony Award winner for the lyrics to City Of Angels, was formed to serve and integrate the Center's professional and student performing arts activities.

Zoe Caldwell makes her first appearance at the Center in Strinberg's The Dane of Death with Robert Shaw and Hector Elizondo.

The Shaw Festival of Canada debuts with Charley's Aunt, starring Paxton Whitehead.

197576 Richard Kirschner resigns... Stephen Goff, the assistant managing director is appointed managing director. Goff, with the assistance of two Penn alumni and theatre enthusiasts, Howard Burnett and George Robinette are successful in obtaining support from the Western Saving Bank for the Bicentennial Theatre Series which included: Jose Ferrer and Clifton Davis in Tom Cole's Medal of Honor Rag, Odet's Awake and Sing from the McCarter Theatre starring Morris Carnovsky and Richard Gere

Tennessee Williams' Sweet Bird of Youth with Irene Worth and Christopher Walken... Ms. Worth won a Tony for her performance when it moved to Broadway.

A Streetcar Named Desire with Glenn Close, Shirley Knight, Kenneth Welsh and George Dzundza.

At right: Dance Celebration produced a tribute to Martha Graham in 1986 for the Center's 15th anniversary. Miss Graham is seen here in her 1940 Letter to the World

Anthony Quayle starred in Rip Van Winkle, directed by Joshua Logan... and the Abbey Theater Players presented The Plough and the Stars with Shiobahn McKenna and Cyril Cusack.

Tammy Grimes and daughter Amanda Plummer appeared in the McCarter production of A Month in the Country... Jason Robards in A Touch of the Poet... Celeste, Holm and G. Wood in Hayfever... The Acting Company in Pericles... and Marc Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock.

The Shaw Festival returns with An Inspector Calls, Mercedes McCambridge in 'Night Mother... The Yale Repertory production of Kiss of the SpiderWoman... The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit from the Organic Theatre Company, Chicago... The Shaw Festival's Night Must Fall... Philip Bosco in the Roundabout Theatre's A Man For All Seasons...

The Annenberg Center introduces Philadelphia audiences to Athol Fugard's work... Sizwi Bansi is Dead... the preBroadway production of Master Harold... and the boys from the Yale Rep which went on to win the Drama Desk Award and the Outer Circle Critic's Award for best play and a Tony for its star, Zakes Mokae...

Fugard and Mokae in the 25th anniversary production, prior to Broadway of, The Blood Knot and My Children, My Africa from the People's Light and Theater Company...

The Center also introduced Philadelphia audiences to the work of August Wilson with the Yale Rep production of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. The Broadway "deal" was made in the Center's conference room...

Hal Prince returns as director of Joanna Glass' Play Memory. The Broadway opening night party was a smash...

Who will forget Mickey O'Donoughue in the New Vic Theatre of London's production of Canterbury Tales... and Hunchback of Notre Dame... the American Repertory Theatre brought Julie Taymor's imaginative puppets in The King Stag...

"I was mugged at your theatre without anyone laying a hand on me"... "What I saw belongs in the garbage can." "Rather harsh criticism for a performance that also evoked the following responses... " I want to thank you endlessly for having the artistic courage to present the Mabou Mines production, Dead End Kids... The last scene was absolutely necessary, even though it caused some people to walk out." Undoubtedly this was the most controversial production ever presented by the Center. But, hey, that's what theatre is all about!

David Mamet's Oleanna caused some stir... as did this fall's Angels In America.

At left: In 1987, a millisecond in mid-air from Bob Fosse's Percussion Four, by the Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. Photo by Eileen Glenn

International companies, in addition to the Shaw and Abbey previously mentioned, have had a strong presence over the years. Woza Albert and Asinamali from the Market Theatre, Johannesburg... The Ik, from Peter Brook's Center for Theatre Research, Paris... Uncle Vanya from the State Theatre of Lithuania... The Tempest of Argentines Compania Rajatabla and Shadow of a Gunman and the Plough and the Stars from the O'Casey Theater Company of Northern Ireland.

Solo artists have added a special lustre to the Center's programming including Jessica Tandy in Beckett's Not I... Hume Cronyn in Krapp's Last Tape ... Colleen Dewhurst in My Gene... Pat Carroll in Gertrude Stein, Gertrude Stein, Gertrude Stein... Zoe Caldwell in Lillian... Uta Hagen in Charlotta... Laurence Luckinbill in LBJ and Clarence Darrow... and Spalding Gray in Gray's Anatomy.

The Center has collaborated with many companies in mounting productions including the Philadelphia Festival Theatre for New Plays... Bruce Graham's Early One Evening at the Rainbow Bar and Grill... Dennis McIntyre's Established Price... Christopher Davis' A Peep Into the 20th Century...

The Cherry Orchard in a new translation by founding artistic director, Carol Rocamora... Joyce Carol Oates Here She Is with People's Light and Theatre Company, Kabuki Othello... and American Century among others.

In 1983 the Center joined forces with Dance Affiliates, Randy Swartz, Artistic Director, and presents the major dance series in the City. Over the years such companies as Alwin Nikolais... Bella Lewitzky... Dance Theatre of Harlem... Eliot Feld.. National Ballet of Caracas... Paul Taylor here in its popular "Company B" work done to the music of the Andrews Sisters... Momix... Lubovitch... American Indian Dance Theatre... and the Alvin Alley American Dance Theatre...

In 1989-90 an alliance was made between Philadelphia's music ensemble, Relâche, and the Center to present a contemporary music series.

Some of the extraordinary programs have been The Philip Glass Ensemble providing the score for the Jean Cocteau film, La Belle et La Bête... and Godfrey Reggio film, Koyanisqatsi/Live... the Kronos Quartet... and Diamanda Galas.

As stated at the beginning, the Center is also home to the Theatre Arts Major. Richard II, directed by Dr. Cary Mazer and Miss Julie... and the Music Department performance activities. The Symphony Orchestra, shown [in the April celebration] playing at the Church of the Savior, will give two concerts in the Zellerbach Theatre next season.

Among what the Center calls "Specials" have been the Flying Karamazov Brothers... Sandra Reaves, who we will enjoy hearing this evening, in The Late Great Ladies of Blues and Jazz... O.T., the Dutch theatre/dance ensemble which along with Stuffed Puppet. are part of the U.S/Netherlands Exchange Program, The Academy of Vocal Arts and the Center joined forces to present Hansel & Gretel... and have done the same with the McCarter Theatre Company to present The Christmas Carol.

A very special holiday special was The Lord of the Rings from Theatre San Fil whose The Hobbit will be part of this year's International Theatre Festival for Children

A favorite of the Center's Theatre for Children has been the famous Potato People... In 1990 the Zoppe Circus Europa, animals and all, gave a dazzling performance. Giovanni Zoppe will thrill us tonight... and what child would not know Sharon, Lois, and Bram?

Student performing arts are an important part of the activity which takes place in the Center. Rehearsal rooms are full from 3 in the afternoon until midnight. Among the groups which perform in the Center's theatres are the Glee Club, under the able direction of Bruce Montgomery who was just honored Saturday night for his 40 years as conductor... Penn Players in The Caucasian Chalk Circle... and On the Twentieth Century ... Penn Singers in H.M.S. Pinafore... African Rhythms... and Mask & Wig in Hit or Mrs.

Two special events occurred which don't fit into any neat category. The first was the College Hall sitin which began shortly after noon on March 2, 1978, which was triggered by the rumor of the proposed elimination of the University's ice hockey, gymnastics, and badminton teams, and the curtailment of professional theatre at the Annenberg Center. This "puck and play massacre," as it became known on campus, featured the rally outside College Hall with the Arts and pucks deserve bucks posters prominently displayed. The protest gained a partial victory. Although ice hockey was cut, the Center's programs were able to continue.

The second special event was the jewel in the crown of Philadelphia's Century IV celebration. The Center sponsored "A Philadelphia Tribute to Grace Kelly, Actress" culminating in a Gala Dinner and presentation of the Center's Award of Merit.

At right: In 1984, when The Annenberg School celebrated its 25th anniversary, the Center gave its Award of Merit to Actor James Stewart (at left with his wife Gloria) and to the Ambassadors Leonore and Walter H. Annenberg.

And now, I'd like to stand in for Ambassador and Mrs. Annenberg currently in Palm Springs, and read his letter written for this celebration.

It is with pride that I join in the celebration of the 25th Anniversary of the Annenberg Center for Communication Arts & Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania. May I also salute you, Stephen Goff, for the manner in which you have directed the Center's activities. My wife Lee, and I are indeed proud of the services given the public, the faculty, and the students of the University of Pennsylvania.

Most sincerely,
Walter H. Annenberg

This is Charles Lee with Arts in Review, covering 25 dramatic years at the Annenberg Center.

Coda: The talk above was given by Dr. Charles Lee, with pictures, at the celebration of the Annenberg Center's 25th Anniversary on April 29, 1996. But the script is not complete. Before delivering his formal text Dr. Lee offered a bit of verse he called the briefest possible history of Philadelphia:

After Penn,

Then, nearing the sign-off that has made him a household name to generations of WFLN-FM listeners, Dr. Lee fell prey to further inspiration. Citing Center Director Stephen Goff's remarkable success in bringing the arts to life in West Philadelphia, he improvised:

After Adam and Eve,

The standing ovation for Steve Goff (at right) was a prolonged one. --K.C.G.

Below right: Dr. Lee (left) as seen by self-portraitist Bruce Montgomery


Volume 43 Number 6
October 1, 1996

Return to Almanac's homepage.

Return to index for this issue.