​Happy 125th birthday, Carnegie Hall!

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The landmark New York City concert venue is marking its sesquicentennial.

CBS NEws

Benny Goodman was just one of countless talents who have appeared on Carnegie Hall's stage during its 125-year history. And now to that list you can add the name Mo Rocca:

"Every performance I've done here is something memorable for me," said conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin. "I treasure them as the highest of my career."

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Advertising a Carnegie Hall recital by Yehudi Menuhin, 1942. Carnegie Hall Archives

Pianist Emanuel Ax said, "That was THE dream. It was the equivalent of pitching for the Yankees."

And what does Laurie Anderson find special about the hall? "The ghosts," she said.

There are 125 years of ghosts at Carnegie Hall, the legendary concert hall in midtown Manhattan. And its archivist, Gino Francesconi, can tell you about pretty much everyone who's played this stage.

Among his treasures: One of Benny Goodman's clarinets, given to Carnegie Hall by the family.

Why is it a very significant piece? "When Benny Goodman came here in 1938, it was the first time people sat and listened to jazz," Francesconi said. "You used to dance to it."

He also had a very big ticket from a show featuring Julie Andrews and Carol Burnett, and Toscanini's baton ("In fact the tip is broken. He used to get mad and break the tips and throw the sticks").

In the old ledgers, booking managers kept track of the performers, such as on February 12, 1964, when the "Beetles" performed. "She thought they were a folk group, and she wasn't even sure how to spell them."

Carnegie Hall was built by Andrew Carnegie, one of the wealthiest men of the 19th century.

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Louise Carnegie loved to sing, so her husband, Andrew, built a hall. Carnegie Hall Archives

"The idea didn't come to Andrew Carnegie himself, it came from his wife," said Clive Gillinson, the hall's executive and artistic director. "His wife sang in a chorus. And so as you do, she said to her husband, 'Could you build us a concert hall.' It didn't start saying, 'New York needs a great concert hall, how do we build it?'"

"It was more about making his wife happy?" Rocca said.

"And he transformed music forever!"

That chorus was the Oratorio Society of New York, which performs in Carnegie Hall to this day.

Carnegie commissioned William Tuthill to design the hall, even though Tuthill lacked what would seem to be an important qualification -- the architect had never built a concert hall.

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Mo Rocca made it to Carnegie Hall. CBS News

"It's incomprehensible almost," Gillinson said. "He knew nothing about it. Andrew Carnegie sends him to Europe to look at the greatest concert halls. He comes back and designs something that bears no relationship. So this guy must have had such an instinct and an understanding of sound. And when you look at the shape, in some ways it is reminiscent of the beauty and the curve of a violin or a cello.

"Everybody looked to Europe in those days, so the assumption was you copy the best in Europe. But he didn't."

"So Europe is probably thinking, 'Top this' -- and he did!"

"Absolutely."

For its first concert, on May 5, 1891, Carnegie brought in (direct from Russia!) none other than the great composer and conductor Tchaikovsky. And musicians have been singing the praises of the hall's acoustics ever since.

"Everything we play here takes another dimension," said Nezet-Seguin, who is the musical director of the Philadelphia Orchestra and the newly-named musical director of New York's Metropolitan Opera.

"Whether it's more intimate repertoire, there's an aura or a halo around it. It has a glow which makes it still intimate but with a broader radiance. When it's a bigger repertoire, lot of people on stage, there is an extra clarity -- we can hear each other on stage better than any other place."

Laurie Anderson has played Carnegie Hall 17 times. "The feeling that the audience is in a bowl, and that's a very nice feeling. I definitely feel like they're going, oooooh, like that."

Musicians not only remember when they played Carnegie Hall; they have life-long memories of the people they HEARD there.

In 1965, pianist Emanuel Ax camped on the sidewalk outside Carnegie Hall to see Vladimir Horowitz. "I was in front of the hall from Friday evening to Monday morning," he said. "I waited for days to get tickets. I listen every once in a while to the recording of that concert. It's just as amazing now as it was then. It really was an incredible, incredible concert."

"And you can listen to that and you must think, 'I was there!'"

"Oh yeah!"

Debbie Harry remembers not only whom she saw (such as Nina Simone), but whom she DIDN'T see.

"One of the times that I tried to crash in here as a groupie was when David Bowie was playing. And we tried to get in, and we got absolutely nowhere!"

But not just musicians, like the great Van Cliburn, have played Carnegie Hall. The biggest names of the day, period, have headlined there: Teddy Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Lenny Bruce.

In 1906 Booker T. Washington and Mark Twain appeared at a benefit to help raise funds for the Tuskegee Institute. Carnegie Hall had integrated audiences from the very beginning, Francesconi said.

As archivist, he's spent a lot of time trying to run down one bit of Carnegie Hall lore: Where does the joke come from?

How do you get the Carnegie Hall?
Practice, practice, practice!

"The closest I came was to a violinist by the name of Mischa Elman," Francesconi said. "He had a bad rehearsal. And he was going out through the backstage door, head down, violin case in hand. And two tourists saw him. And they said, 'Can you tell us how to get to Carnegie Hall?' And without looking up he just said, 'Practice.'"

"Wow," said Rocca. "So a terrific joke born of bitterness!"

When I asked Emanuel Ax about the joke, he struck a different note.

"There're several versions of it, only one of which is clean," he said.

"A guy says to the New Yorker, 'How do I get to Carnegie Hall, or should I just go f*** myself?"

Whether Andrew Carnegie would be shocked by that punchline, who can say? But no doubt he'd be surprised by his hall's place in history, 125 years later.

And what would he have made of the concert recently held there? A tribute to David Bowie, culminating with the audience singing about an astronaut lost in space.

And you know what? It sounded pretty good!


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