It is with both heavy hearts and deep gratitude that the staff, board, and community of artists of Symphony Space honor the memory of Founding Artistic Director Isaiah Sheffer, who died on Thursday evening of last week from complications after a stroke. He was 76 years old.
Isaiah Sheffer was the co-founder of Symphony Space and director and host of Selected Shorts on stage and on the radio. He also helped create The Thalia Follies, Bloomsday on Broadway and Wall to Wall. Along with his good friend and co-founder Allan Miller, in 1978 Isaiah transformed a crumbling building on the corner of 95th Street and Broadway into the vibrant and vital arts institution known today as Symphony Space. They brought the neighborhood together around Wall to Wall Bach, a free twelve-hour music marathon in which the audience was invited to join in. Wall to Wall would become a signature event and included themes from Beethoven to Bernstein, John Cage to Joni Mitchell, from classical to Broadway, folk to jazz.
Another of his ideas was Bloomsday on Broadway, an annual reading of James Joyce’s Ulysses, which over 30 years later still takes place on June 16th, the day in 1904 when Leopold Bloom, the author’s fictional Irish Jew, walks the streets of Dublin and reveals his interior life. More than 100 actors and other notables take part in readings that last seven hours or more. It was from Bloomsday on Broadway that Isaiah and the then producer of literary programs, Kay Cattarulla, came up with the idea for Selected Shorts. While listening to Lois Smith read a story from Dubliners, Kay turned to Isaiah and suggested that actors reading short stories on stage would make a great series. Isaiah loved to tell about his initial reaction. He told audiences, “With the foresight that has made me a great man of the theater I said to Kay, ‘Nah! Who would come to that?’” Now Isaiah's voice is recognized by millions in his role as host of Selected Shorts, co-produced by WNYC New York and distributed on Public Radio International.
Over 30 years later, Selected Shorts is still a popular, live stage performance and public radio program carried on over 150 stations around the country. Isaiah also loved politics and political theater which led to his development of The Thalia Follies political cabaret series, now in its ninth season of songs, sketches, and satire.
His radio, television, and film credits were extensive and include work as a commentator on the arts for WNYC's weekly radio column Around New York; producer/writer for The Road to the White House, a 20-minute public affairs series for NBC-TV (Emmy Nomination); director/writer for A Christmas Revel, NBC-TV Christmas Eve special, starring Dustin Hoffman and John Langstaff; writer for Millennium: Ten Centuries of Music, the television series funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities (Program #1, "Music in the 12th Century" winner of Gold Medal, Houston Film Festival); writer, new English translation of libretto to Stravinsky's Story of a Soldier, for a New York City PBS production; writer, Paganini, The Devil's Violinist, PBS video drama about Paganini; director/writer, The DMZ Cabaret, New York City PBS satirical series; director/writer, Oath of Office: The Inauguration Story, NBC-TV; writer/director, The Last Chapter, award-winning historical documentary film on 1,000 years of Polish-Jewish history; producer/director Manhattan Madcaps of 1924, by Jerzy Turnpike, a Rodgers and Hart reconstructed musical; and producer/director for Theatre Studio radio drama series, WEVD, New York. Mr. Sheffer wrote the book and lyrics for the musicals Yiddle with a Fiddle and The Rise of David Levinsky.
The extended Symphony Space family is honored to have known Isaiah, and proud to be charged with the great privilege of keeping his legacy alive. “Isaiah was an incredible man, with a probing intellect, unstoppable wit, life-affirming optimism, and an enormous, embracing spirit. His vision gave New York a unique cultural institution and his imagination gave birth to some of today’s most beloved and respected programs. Even in our grief, we are laughing as we remember one great Isaiah story after another,” said Symphony Space’s Artistic Director Laura Kaminsky.