Isaiah Sheffer: Founder of Symphony Space and Selected Shorts
Watch a selection of clips from Isaiah's memorial in December 2012, with Fionnula Flanagan, Jim Naughton, Allan Miller, Colum McCann, Kay Cattarulla and Kathy Minton.
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.
Selected Shorts and Thalia Follies
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, Fionnula Flanagan (pictured left), Stephen Lang, Kirsten Vangsness, Martin Sage, Colum McCann, and others.
In October of 2015, the New York Public Library acquired the archive of Isaiah Sheffer. Read about it in their press release.
More about Isaiah's life and work can be viewed on the memorial website dedicated to him, IsaiahSheffer.com.
Isaiah Sheffer Fund for New Initiatives
To honor Isaiah’s work and legacy, Symphony Space established the Isaiah Sheffer Fund for New Initiatives, an endowment to support emerging creative artists.
Individuals can donate online or email us to designate your gift to the Isaiah Fund.
Checks, payable to Symphony Space, may be mailed to:
Isaiah Sheffer Fund for New Initiatives
New York, NY 10025
Remembrances of Isaiah
Following the news of Isaiah's passing on November 9, 2012, hundreds of fans and friends posted their stories and remembrances on the Symphony Space Facebook and Selected Shorts Facebook pages. We also received a number of emails from staff, former staff and community members with wonderful "Isaiah stories" to share. Here are a few of them:
From Leslie Kandell:
My friend wanted his girl to move to New York, which she said she wasn't about to do, unless Isaiah Sheffer invited her personally. My friend knew I knew Isaiah (as did everyone for miles around) and contacted me. Isaiah was game to call her up. It didn't all end like a fairy tale, but she did move here from Chicago, and we never tired of hearing how her jaw dropped when Isaiah introduced himself to her on the phone.
From Lauren Davenport:
When I listened to the podcast this week and heard that Isiah Sheffer had passed away, I had a cinematic actual OUT LOUD gasp and punch to the gut reaction. I am not at all the kind of person to write "fan mail" but it really did feel to me that I'd lost a family member. This show is my secret --it's my alone time in a world where I have next to none, it's my tiny chance to have someone read aloud to me, to hear literature, to give me the great freedom of imagination, story and escape. I've appreciated this show so much for those weekly few minutes of pretending to be back in college--reading, writing, and studying narrative again. As Thanksgiving approaches, let me take a minute to say thank you, too late naturally, to a person whom I've never met and yet whose voice is as familiar as my own.
I am sure the show will evolve and grow in new ways, but thank you Isaiah for giving me the gift of story for so many years.
From Anne McCormick:
Isaiah Sheffer will long be remembered as a major force to bring wonder to the Upper West Side, indeed all of New York. His energy, vision and great sense of humor over the decades since the founding of Symphony Space never flagged. It was a lot of fun for me to work with him and Kay Cattarulla when Selected Short was forming, helping them to seek the necessary permissions for the stories to be read and taped. It is still hard to get my head around the idea that he has gone on, always to be missed. May this unique and remarkable gentleman rest in peace!
From Cynthia Harris:
I first met Isaiah when we were all very young. Morgan Freeman, Lou Antonio, and I performed under Isaiah's direction an original piece written by Eric Bentley and Isaiah , called the DMZ. We thought we were bold (I still think we were, though the critic at Columbia U. thought we were tame as I remember.) Whatever impact it may have had politically or theatrically or critically it was indeed one of the highlights of my life. To meet and work with these wonderful men, to be exposed to Isaiah's energy, humor and wit was truly extraordinary. I can't think of a funny story to tell, because I am filled with great sadness, but . I do remember that Isaiah was unfailingly upbeat, witty and a joy to work with.; all this before Symphony Space. Our friendship has lasted all the years since. We are privileged to have known him.
From Elise Kaufman:
My husband, children and I were privileged to have been close friends with Isaiah and his wife, Ethel, for many years. I had been well acquainted with Isaiah (well, ok, maybe just his voice!), through the "Shorts" program (I was a devoted listener) before finally meeting him when my husband's firm helped Symphony Space manage its renovation and expansion. This marked the beginning of a beautiful friendship between our families, with many great meals and events shared. One episode (of many) which I believe captures Isaiah's character, happened when Isaiah and Ethel were at an opening of my drawings at a gallery in Red Hook, Brooklyn. We stood in front of my work when a fan (of Isaiah's, not mine), approached our circle, and gushed praise for Shorts, Isaiah, Symphony Space, etc. Isaiah responded to the man, acknowledging his compliment to him and then said, "Well, thank you - but tonight is Elise Kaufman's night and I'd like to sing the praises of her work."
Isaiah loved artists, he loved being generous with and to artists, and he was a zany, gently irreverent soul - approaching life and art not looking askance, but stepping full tilt into the intrigue and potent of possibility. He had boundless energy, was great fun, and could sing an acopello duet with Ethel of the "Chiquita Banana" radio spot from the 40's that, regardless of how often we heard it, we'd break down in tear streaming, gut breaking laughter.
His legacy will continue through Symphony Space programs and through the many lives, young and old, that he touched through his work and his dedication to words. He was a gentleman, and a gentle man.
We miss him terribly already.
From Leenya Rideout:
Fifteen years ago, a sheltered Episcopalian girl who had just moved to New York from Colorado sat with the man who wrote the musical she was then performing the lead in, Yiddle with a Fiddle, learning how to pronounce and sing Yiddish. Her soul swelled singing Abraham Elstein's haunting music that still rings in her ears today. Fast forward to the present day and that girl has not only performed in 4 Broadway shows but in the Thalia Follies, Wall to Wall, Bloomsday, and Selected Shorts where she learned so much about comedy, culture, and poetry. She has burst onto the Thalia stage with Kathryn Markey and Mary Brienza as The Chalks, co-written skits where she impersonated Sarah Palin, played violin in a musical interpretation of a mayoral debate, sang the brilliant parody lyrics of Martin Sage and sang the first rewording of Bachianas Brasileiras by Isaiah entitled Miserias Economicas, the lyrics of which he had sang to her over the phone in excitement just weeks before. She knew she wasn't the only one made to feel like a star by Isaiah Sheffer.
But who will be her emcee and artistic champion now?
While attending Isaiah's funeral, (standing room only, of course!) I couldn't believe how many memories came rushing past and how much Isaiah is woven through my entire New York City experience. I wish I could have said thank you to him before he left us... but I think he knows. Somehow, he knows.
Thank you, Isaiah.
From Myra Lucretia Taylor:
Oh Isaiah I will miss you so--the twinkle in your eye, and the way you were so casually elegant and erudite. Thank you for sharing and teaching the gypsy tradition--being around you made this thing we do worthy and fun. Thanks for the memories. I owe you, and I am grateful to have known you. May you have peace in your rest.
My condolences to your family.
From Genevieve Dell:
Not very long ago, I found myself awaken from a coma at the ICU beginning a journey of recovery. The days were long and the nights even more so. It was your voice, it was your program recorded by my husband once a week that soothed, elated, aroused curiosity, and gave hope. I was alone in a very strange place and the familiarity of your tone and cadence, of the passion you had for the words of others, that soothed, that brought vocabulary, that allowed me to face the unfathomable with a little more certainty. When it was dark, you gave me a soft light. Since then, I am home, with my husband and children, but at night I have never stopped listening to your program and it has always brought affirmation and aspiration. I am sorry I will not hear your voice again, but thankful for the grace you shared for so long.
Godspeed, travel well, and do find more stories to revel in.
From Michael Webber:
I don't have an Isaiah story - never met the man. I had started listening to Selected shorts a number of years ago while living in Central Wisconsin. I frankly never learned to appreciate Isaiah as much as I would beginning about 2 years ago. That's when I returned to Maine from Wisconsin and began an hour long drive (each way) between my home in the woods in Western Maine to my job at a paper mill. Listening to podcasts of the show during the quiet, and often dark, drives I learned to appreciate what Isaiah was doing as well as how he was doing it. I loved listening to his dialogues/monologues at the beginning of the show and between stories. His love of the stories, and of the artists who were reading them was obvious. And I loved his quintessential New Yorkitude. When I was listening to him I felt like I was sitting with him right there in the city listening to great stories told by great artists.
He accomplished much and he will be missed, I know at least by one old guy in the woods of Western Maine. God bless you, Isaiah.
From Sue and Mike Sabes:
My wife and I travel to New York five times a year from San Francisco and for the past several years have attended Symphony Space each trip. One of the highlights has always been hearing Isaiah's wonderful voice and humor being part of the performance.
Isaiah will always be special to Upper West Siders, New Yorkers, as well PBS Radio listeners. We, as everyone will miss this wonderful, charming, beautiful man.
Thank you, Isaiah, for making the world a better place for all.
From Patricia Fernandez-Kelly:
I never knew Isaiah Sheffer personally but I heard his rich and textured voice almost every sunday for many years as part of Selected Shorts. He always sounded like someone worth knowing--modest, erudite, enthusiastic, kind, and a bit mischievous; someone I would have loved to have as a dinner guest. When I first entered his name in the Google search engine, I found precious little information about him. How could that be? In my imagination he stood as tall as the most famous of celebrities. Now that he is beyond pain and sorrow I hope that his memory will not fade. May the vibrancy of that voice resound forever.
Thank you, dearest Isaiah Sheffer, for making my days so happy for such a long time.
From Wendy Wen:
We heard the sad news from the NY Times that Mr. Isaiah Sheffer passed away yesterday. I, as well as my husband, feel very, very sad. I have always been concerned about Mr. Sheffer's health. Whenever I heard him on the Selected Shorts program, I felt a little released from those concerns. When I saw he was on the stage, I knew he was still working hard for us. I knew how lucky we were to have him.
Mr. Sheffer had gone beyond performing arts and broadcasting; he had used his talents and golden voice to shape New York City's adult literacy communities through the "All Write!" program. I have been a witness to how this program and his forceful reading inspired me and, most importantly, my ESL students--- immigrants from all over the world--- to write English well and to work hard to reach their American Dreams. Through Mr. Sheffer's powerful voice, our students' stories were heard by society. Without this invaluable opportunity, many of my students would probably have never known for a long time, if ever, what the artistic and literate world look like, and many of them would have never believed that they could write, and that everyone can write. Just ask each of my students, just read their stories, just listen to their reflections. I can see how valuable "ALL Write!" is to them, and Mr. Sheffer was the director of this wonderful program. I feel very sorry that the New York Times didn't mention a word about his great contribution to our city's literacy world.
There isn't a place in the NY Times to publish my thoughts. I know I am just a teacher in the South Bronx. I don't even know if I can attend Mr. Sheffer's funeral service. But know that Mr. Sheffer not only influenced and contributed to NPR and NY Times followers, but also to many "ordinary" folks, the newcomers to our country. Their hands may be full of dishwashing grease, their clothes may be full of construction dust and their English words may be expressed with thick accents, but it is Mr. Sheffer and his colleagues who bring literacy power to all of them, all of us.
May our beloved Mr. Sheffer be at peace. May Mr. Sheffer's family, friends and colleagues know we'll continue our creative writing. We will write more interesting stories to read to Mr. Sheffer.
Our hearts are with all of you who have worked so tirelessly with him over all these years.
From Kevin Hylton:
So sorry to hear about Isaiah passing. When I first came to Symphony Space with Spirit Ensemble to audition for Music Under New York (which led the band into CAP) in '87, I remember seeing and talking a lot with Isaiah. He was always friendly and jovial and seemed to care about you, no matter who you were. His office was right next to the stage and he was supportive and "hands on" with most of the things going on there. I will always remember him standing in the back of the theater shouting, in reference to the CAP in Africa performance, "This is the best darn show we put on here!" He was the heart and soul of Symphony Space as it was truly the house that he built. I remember seeing him in more recent years and noticing that he was moving more slowly, yet he maintained a very "childlike" quality about him that made you feel free to open up and talk to him knowing that he was going to reply with warmth and humor. No matter how busy things seemed to be he could always slow down, look you in the eye, and talk with you.
From Darren Critz:
One of my favorite memories of Isaiah was discovering, during what may have been my first season at Symphony Space, that I was scheduled to read at Bloomsday, despite the fact that I’d never asked to read, didn’t feel up to snuff reading in the presence of so many great people, and quite honestly, just didn’t want to! I was simply informed in an e-mail that I was reading, and told when I was expected to rehearse – no questions asked. At the time I didn’t understand it, but now I do now. Isaiah saw the creative side in EVERYONE, and refused to let creative energy lie fallow. It was his way of lighting a fire under me to not lose sight of that side of myself. In hindsight, it’s an amazing gift from an even more amazing person.
From Laurine Towler:
In the earlier years of Selected Shorts I was a co reader with Isaiah and I'll never forget his introduction. After tellling the audience about my credentials he closes the introduction with "yet strangely enough Laurine has never been on Law & Order." He had the audience chanting Law & Order and then the readings went forward. Well Isaih, last evening Laurine was in Law & Order SVU for the last episode shot in New York.