Tuesday, January 20, 2009

BAM: The Theater That Just Won't Quit

The New York Times reported Tuesday that BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music) is bravely beginning a new expansion in this hostile economic climate, with new theater space, cinemas and an art gallery in the works. BAM, one of the oldest continuously running performing arts spaces in the country, will formally announce this "Next Stage" campaign on Wednesday evening. (Look to the Eagle's INBrooklyn arts supplement later this week for an interview with BAM Executive Producer Joseph Melillo).

BAM has a long history of staying ahead of the curve, despite whatever hardships may try to stifle it. It had its opening performance on Jan. 16, 1861, and was originally located on Montague Street, near the then City of Brooklyn’s civic center. None other than the first lady, Mrs. Abraham Lincoln, was in attendance at a performance during the academy’s opening week.

For many Brooklynites, BAM signified that their growing city had staked a claim on the sophistication and culture then reserved for Manhattan. Brooklyn was no longer “an overgrown village,” the Brooklyn Eagle wrote in the wake of BAM's opening.

Two auxiliary buildings were erected on Montague St. One known as Knickerbocker Hall, a two-story, 70-foot-long building, was just west of the academy. It housed a gigantic restaurant where delicacies were served by waitresses dressed in red, white and blue uniforms. The other structure was across the street from the academy and housed the Hall of Manufactures, displaying various industrial products.

During the 19th century BAM hosted such luminaries as Edwin Booth, Isadora Duncan, Enrico Caruso, Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain. But on the morning of Nov. 30, 1903 the original BAM theatre on Montague Street burned to the ground. The real estate had been worth so much, however, that the academy's stock went up the day after the fire. They rebuilt in Fort Greene on Lafayette Avenue—the eclectic Beaux Arts-style brick building was designed by noted theater architects Henry Beaumont Herts and Hugh Tallant.

The new theater held its opening night performance on Nov. 8, 1908 with Enrico Caruso starring in Faust. As the 20th century progressed, audiences came to BAM to see Martha Graham's Dance Group illustrate John Martin's lecture "How to Look at Dancing," or hear Thomas Mann speak on democracy, or look on in awe as Sergei Rachmaninoff gave virtuoso piano recitals.

In 1967, the modern BAM was born when a young Harvey Lichtenstein took the reins and opened the institution to modern choreographers like Merce Cunningham, Trisha Brown, and Alvin Ailey-who would reshape the art form of dance.
For the past 10 years, BAM has been in the able hands of President Karen Brooks Hopkins and Executive Producer Joseph Melillo, who have seen attendance double during their tenure.

Read more on early BAM history here: BAM Opens on Montague Street [Eagle]
The photo above is a sketch of the interior of BAM's original theater on Montague Street.

1 comment:

Tom said...

Nice article but Mrs. Lincoln wasn't quite First Lady yet. Her husband was inaugurated a few weeks later on March 4 (the old way), 1861 following his November 1860 election. (Yes, I am a historian.)