The Life and Work of Isaiah Sheffer

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Symphony Space Founding Artistic Director Isaiah Sheffer (1935-2012) was an American original and beloved figure in the New York City arts community. He was known nationwide as the host (and voice) of Selected Shorts on stage and on the radio.

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 arts institution known today as Symphony Space. They brought the neighborhood together around Wall to Wall Bach, a free 12-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 and from John Cage to Joni Mitchell.

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.

Over 30 years later, Selected Shorts is co-produced by WNYC New York and distributed on Public Radio International. It 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 are extensive and included 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; 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. His last play was Dreamers and Demons: The Three Worlds of Isaac Bashevis Singer.

On December 17, 2012, Symphony Space held a memorial celebration of Isaiah’s life and work. The event featured friends and family telling stories, sharing laughs, and celebrating Isaiah – with appearances by James Naughton, Stephen Lang, Kirsten Vangsness, Martin Sage, Colum McCann, and others.

Learn more about his life and work at symphonyspace.org/isaiah.