The Town Hall is a performance space located at 123 West 43rd Street, between Sixth Avenue and Broadway, in Midtown Manhattan, New York City. It opened on January 12, 1921, and seats approximately 1,500 people.
In the 1930s, the first public-affairs media programming originated there with the America's Town Meeting of the Air radio programs. The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission declared the Town Hall a designated landmark on November 28, 1978. The National Park Service placed the building on the National Register of Historic Places in 2012, and designated it a National Historic Landmark in 2013.
The Town Hall was built by the League for Political Education, whose fight for passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution (women's suffrage) led them to commission the building of a meeting space where people of every rank and station could be educated on the important issues of the day. The space, which became the Town Hall, was designed by the architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White, to reflect the democratic principles of the League. To this end, box seats were not included in the theater's design, and every effort was made to ensure that there were no seats with an obstructed view. This design principle gave birth to the Town Hall's long-standing mantra: "Not a bad seat in the house".
It has become not only a meeting place for educational programs, gatherings of activists, and host for controversial speakers (such as the American advocate of birth control, Margaret Sanger, who was arrested and carried off the Town Hall stage on November 13, 1921, for attempting to speak to a mixed-sex audience about contraception), but one of New York City's premiere performance spaces for music, dance, and other performing arts. While the lecture series and courses on political and non-political subjects sponsored by the League continued to be held there, the Town Hall quickly established a reputation as an arts center during the first fifteen years of its existence.
It has also had a long association with the promotion of poetry in the United States, which predates Edna St. Vincent Millay's public poetry reading debut at the Hall in 1928. The Hall has retained a close association with poets and poetry.
America's Town Meeting of the Air
America's Town Meeting of the Air was a radio program produced at the Hall for over twenty years, from 1935 to 1956. Town Meeting was the brain-child of George V. Denny Jr., then the associate director of the Hall. Envisioned as a means of expanding the audience – first nationally, then internationally – for the programs held at the Hall which promoted the free exchange of ideas, the format of Town Meeting was a conversation among four speakers on a predetermined question. The series was launched on the NBC Blue Network on Memorial Day 1935. Although it began broadcasting on a single station with approximately 500,000 listeners, within three years, Town Meeting was carried by 78 stations and boasted 2.5 million listeners. Town Meeting also toured the United States and twelve cities on three continents. It won numerous awards.
Recordings of America's Town Meeting of the Air, from 1935 to 1952, are preserved at the United States' National Archives' Donated Historical Materials collection, the catalog number of which is "DM.13".
The organizational records (archives) of Town Hall, Inc. and America's Town Meeting of the Air, 1895–1955, are held by the Manuscripts and Archives Division of The New York Public Library.
The Town Hall was owned by New York University for twenty years beginning in 1958.
The outstanding acoustic properties of the Town Hall for musical performance – which some performers say rival those of Carnegie Hall – were discovered during the first musical event held at the venue, a recital by Spanish violinist Juan Manén on February 12, 1921. Later in 1921, German composer Richard Strauss gave a series of concerts that cemented the Hall's reputation as an ideal space for musical performances. Aside from the acoustics, the sight lines and intimacy of the auditorium have made it a popular venue for both new and experienced artists, whatever the instrument, repertoire, or style of the performer. During the 1920s and 1930s, the Town Hall quickly gained a reputation amongst performers and audiences as the best venue for a New York debut.
In 1928, The Hall began producing regular musical concert series. Over the next few seasons, the Town Hall Endowment Series featured artists including Sergei Rachmaninoff, Ignacy Jan Paderewski, Lily Pons, Feodor Chaliapin and Yehudi Menuhin.
Contralto Marian Anderson made her Town Hall debut on December 30, 1935, after she had been denied an opportunity at an operatic career at many other venues due to discrimination against African-Americans. Her appearance followed her New York debut at Carnegie Hall in December, 1928, and marked her return from four years of concertizing in Europe.
On January 20, 1941, the Kolisch Quartet gave the world premiere performance of Béla Bartók's String Quartet No. 6.
Eddie Condon led a series of nationally broadcast radio shows from New York's Town Hall in 1944–45.
A June 22, 1945, concert – featuring Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Don Byas, Al Haig, Curley Russell, Max Roach and Sid Catlett – gave the public its first mainstream exposure to the style of jazz that came to be known as bebop. Prior to appearing in concert at the Hall, Gillespie and Parker had released only one 78-RPM record, and only Gillespie – due to his high-profile associations with Cab Calloway, Earl Hines, and Billy Eckstine – had enjoyed mainstream name-recognition. In June 2005, the Uptown Jazz label released a CD containing seven sonically restored performances transcribed from acetates made at the concert.
The Town Hall also hosted the 1947 concert that led to the re-invigoration of Louis Armstrong's career, and which led to the formation of Louis Armstrong and His All Stars, the small traditional jazz combo that he led for the last quarter-century of his life.
The Hall's tradition of jazz programming continues with the Not Just Jazz series of concerts, which also features poetry, film and dance. Past participants in the series include The Art Ensemble of Chicago, the Lounge Lizards, Cassandra Wilson, Meredith Monk, and Allen Ginsberg.
Anna Russell's performance of her analysis of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen was recorded at Town Hall on April 23, 1953. The performance can be heard on Sony Masterworks CD MDK 47252, issued in 1991.
On May 15, 1958, the Town Hall hosted the 25th Year Retrospective Concert of the music of John Cage. This performance was recorded by Columbia Records producer George Avakian, and the resulting 3-LP set was instrumental in making Cage's music known to many listeners.
In 1959 Sammy Davis Jr. recorded Sammy Davis Jr. at Town Hall a live album recorded at the Town Hall.
Jazz composer and bandleader Charles Mingus held two concerts here, resulting in his live albums from October 1962 and April 1964.
The Hall offers Morning Performances free of charge to public school students in grades 3 to 8. It also features programming in alliance with Theatreworks USA as part of its Arts in Education program.
The cast of the folk music mocumentary film A Mighty Wind performed in character at the Town Hall in September 2003, as part of a seven-city tour. Much of the film itself shows performances at the Town Hall, but the scenes were actually shot in Los Angeles.
When hosted by Garrison Keillor, the radio show A Prairie Home Companion was often broadcast live from the Town Hall in its New York appearances while on tour. Its successor, Live from Here, hosted by Chris Thile, now appears most frequently in the Town Hall. The venue was announced as the home of Live from Here for its 2019-2020 season, which proved to be the show's last; American Public Media abruptly cancelled the show after the June 13, 2020 episode.
In September 2009, singer Whitney Houston chose the Town Hall for her first interview in seven years, appearing on Oprah Winfrey's season premiere. When asked by Winfrey why she chose the Town Hall, Whitney said it held a special place in her heart because it was where she performed for the first time at the age of 14.
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- ^ Kelley, Raina (September 14, 2009). "Whitney Versus Oprah: Who Won Round 1?". Newsweek. Retrieved February 19, 2021.