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(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.”
Not everyone in the audience was uninitiated. Director Stanley Kubrick was there, hoping to cast Scott in his next film, “Dr. Strangelove.” But another young actor caught his eye as well – James Earl Jones, currently on Broadway in Gore Vidal’s “The Best Man.”
“He came to see George and he said, ‘You know , ‘I’ll use George and I’ll take the black one, too,'” Jones laughed. “No, he didn’t really say that, but that’s how I tell the story.”
It was his first film. “Yeah, first role I’d ever done in front of a movie camera,” Jones said.
During the next 50 years, all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays would be performed in front of 4 million people.
To celebrate the half-century milestone, last month the Delacorte held a star-studded benefit. Al Pacino accepted an award.
“I knew Joe very well,” Pacino said. “He was a dear friend and I was with him at the end. And I loved him greatly.”
Other stars looked back on the early days. Jerry Stiller first performed here in 1957, before the permanent theatre was even built.
“Joe Papp called one day and said, ‘We’d like to use you here in the park,'” Stiller recalled. “I said, ‘What are you paying me?’ he said, ‘I’ll give you 35 bucks a week.’ And that was it, the beginning!
“We had no dressing rooms, so we dressed with the people in the men’s rooms. It was really rustic.”
Sam Waterson has performed here ten times, beginning in 1963. “My career would be nothing like what it is if it hadn’t been for this place and the people here,” he said.
“It is an institution, but it still remains true to its original purpose, which was the best playwright in the English language for free, for everybody who wants to come. And the thing that hasn’t changed in 50 years is the audience, ’cause the audience is the most important thing about this place.”
And the audiences keep coming – and waiting.
Waiting in line for free tickets to the Delacorte has become a New York City rite of passage.
Some arrive at five in the morning, and wait in line half the day. Why? Hannah told Smith, “It feels better when you earn it. It’s not like you’re just putting money on the table and seeing a show. It’s like, we’ve been waiting, in the park, and it’s just so cool!”
Five decades into its run, playing the Delacorte has become, for actors like Amy Adams, a rite of passage as well.
“Is this theater like any other?” Smith asked.
“I don’t believe so,” Adams replied. “To bring a show into the elements, to participate in the outdoors – it makes the set the world, and it brings the world to the stage and brings the stage to the world.
Which is pretty much exactly the way Shakespeare would have scripted it.