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7 Surprising Facts About The Brooklyn Center For Performing Arts

(Photo: Nycpaspaces.org)

Established in 1954, the Brooklyn Center for Performing Arts (2900 Campus Road, Flatbush) was the collaborative brainchild of the city, state, CUNY and Brooklyn College. The Center is a community-based organization that hosts diverse arts performances and strives to make performances accessible and affordable for all borough residents. Located on the Brooklyn College campus, the Center is undergoing major renovations as the George Gershwin Theater and the Sam Levenson Recital Hall have been demolished to make way for the new Leonard and Claire Tow Wing.

Although progress, innovation and new, modern buildings have their place, what makes the Center   so interesting is its unexpectedly quirky history. Here are seven things you didn’t know about the Brooklyn Center for Performing Arts:

Rights to the Site
One would expect a project involving so many organizations and branches of government to be a fiasco, but we instead refer to the rights to the grounds way back in 1636. Obviously, the Native Americans were there first, but they transferred the rights to the Dutch that year in exchange for three long-barreled guns, some ammunition, one hundred guilders and two and one-half tons of beer.

No Stranger to the Performing Arts
Before Brooklyn College ever even owned the land, it had already hosted one of the most famous performing groups in American history. In 1924, Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus started using the grounds on their annual visit to Brooklyn.

The Walt Whitman Theater
The cornerstone of the flagship theater of the performing arts complex was laid on April 15, 1953. Its namesake, Walt Whitman, was born in Huntington, Long Island, but his family moved to Brooklyn when he was four, although it seems like those years were far from the happiest in his life. Some other locations that have taken his name: the Walt Whitman Bridge, which connects Philadelphia to Gloucester City, New Jersey, the Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Maryland, as well as in Huntington, New York, and the Walt Whitman Shops in Huntington Station, New York.

The Old with the New
Construction on the new Leonard and Claire Tow Wing began in August of 2011. But not everything will be brand spanking new. Although the Gershwin Theater is being replaced, only the interior of the theater will be part of the new construction; the original George Gershwin stage will be joined to the new building. As the Brooklyn Center website observes, it is “an amazing feat of architectural engineering in and of itself. In a real sense, there will be a metaphysical as well as brick-and-mortar continuity between the old and new!”

Rivalry of the Gershwin Theaters
George Gershwin was born in Brooklyn in 1898. His name has inspired a bit of a rivalry between the Brooklyn Center and the Uris Theater in Manhattan – also known as the Gershwin Theater and home to some musical called Wicked. The Center responds on the website: “Over the years this had [sic] caused unnecessary confusion and quite frankly, it is a move that is considered untoward in the theatre [sic] business…we are happy in the knowledge that although they may call themselves by our name (while disrespecting Mr. Gershwin by ignoring his first name), we will always be the first George Gershwin Theatre in New York City, County of Kings, Borough of Brooklyn, right in the heart of Flatbush – and we think we’re always the more exciting and diverse a venue, predating those Manhattan upstarts by decades.”

Yiddish Theater and Bill Clinton
The George Gershwin Theater hosted the Center’s Yiddish Theatre Series for nearly two decades, the only place in Brooklyn dedicated to preserving the art form. Incidentally, George Gershwin, the man, grew up in the center of the Brooklyn Yiddish Theater District. Also, in 1993, Bill Clinton unveiled his AmeriCorps initiative at the theater.

Who’s Sam Levenson?
The Sam Levenson Recital Hall is also a casualty of the new Tow building. The writer and Brooklyn College alum isn’t quite as well known as Whitman or Gershwin and this isn’t the first time Levenson’s been lost in the shuffle of history. A well-known piece he wrote called “Time Tested Beauty Tips” is popularly misattributed to Audrey Hepburn, who called it her favorite poem and read it to her children on the last Christmas Eve they spent together.
 

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