"Shakespeare in the Park" turns 50

For 50 years, the Delacorte Theater in New York City's Central Park has been the setting for shows that rival, if not exceed, the best Broadway has to offer. CBS

(CBS News) You can see a lot of New York from the air, including, if you look closely enough, the Bard in the Park. Tracy Smith takes us down to ground level to show you what we mean:

If all the world's a stage, as William Shakespeare once noted, even the Bard himself would have to admit - some stages are more special than others.

In the heart of Central Park in New York City, on the shores of Turtle Pond, in the shadow of Belvedere Castle, sits the Delacorte Theater, where every summer for the past 50 years audiences have come to see the stars beneath the stars.

"In this environment, in Central Park, which is just the heartbeat of New York, it's just a magical, transformative experience," said Amy Adams. The Academy Award-nominated actor from "Enchanted" and "The Fighter" opened this week in Stephen Sondheim's "Into the Woods."

Part of the fun of performing here, she says, is the unpredictability of the setting.

"We've had a lot of raccoon visits, had a really upset goose the other day that didn't want to leave the set," said Adams. "Haven't seen any rats yet, but I'm sure they're coming!"

The lineup of actors who've braved the elements before her reads like the guest list at the Academy Awards, from Al Pacino to Kevin Kline to Meryl Streep.

"I did my first plays in Central Park," Streep said. "Yeah, some of the first things I was ever in in New York, right out of drama school."

Kline's first job Carrying a spear in Central Park, in "Henry VI" and "Richard III."

"There's something about doing it outdoors which is special," he said.

"In this oasis in the middle of Central Park, in the middle of this insane metropolis. And here's this bubble of magnificent story and poetry."

This "oasis" was the brainchild of the late Joe Papp, a former CBS stage manager who was fired for refusing to name names during the McCarthy hearings.

A passionate promoter of the arts, in 1954 Papp founded the Public Theater in lower Manhattan. But he didn't stop there - he wanted to bring the works of Shakespeare directly to the people, by staging them in the park, for free.

In 1962 he told CBS the philosophy behind his free presentations of Shakespeare: "Well, the philosophy has always been to reach the greatest number of people, regardless of their ability to pay, with the classics. We didn't want to make money a factor."

That same year, with help from philanthropist George Delacorte, "Shakespeare in the Park" was born, opening with "The Merchant of Venice," starring George C. Scott.

"This is a marvelous thing for me," Scott said then. "Not only is this a new theatre but this is the first time I have ever played in the open."

A new experience for Scott, and for much of the audience, too.

Exactly what Joe Papp intended.

"They bring their children, they bring their lunch," mused Scott. "Certainly a large percentage of them have never seen a play, and a great percentage of them have never seen a Shakespearean play."

  • Tracy Smith

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