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If this stage could talk: Schwartz Center turns 20


After hundreds of performances by thousands of students, the Sheila W. and Richard J. Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts is still a very young member of the Cornell family.

When it opened in 1988 as the Center for Theatre Arts, it provided much-needed space for productions and class work, from the spacious proscenium Kiplinger Theatre to the Film Forum, Dance Theatre, editing rooms and Black Box Theatre below deck. Not to mention offices for the Department of Theatre, Film and Dance, and space to build elaborate sets.

Previously, shows on campus were staged in more cramped quarters, including the 300-seat Willard Straight Theatre and the even tinier Drummond Theatre in Lincoln Hall. Larger productions had to go downtown to the Lyceum.

The multiple uses of the center for education, professional training and public performance have made it unique. "I think it's become a model in the country for an apprenticeship training program for theater," said longtime theater professor Bruce Levitt. "There are anywhere from 50 to 150 students involved onstage and backstage in any one of our productions."

The building itself is a magnet for creative students.

"Once a student came into the building and asked how she could sign up for dance," artistic director David Feldshuh said. "I asked her how she heard about the program. She said she was in Collegetown, looked up and saw people dancing in the window, and it made her want to dance."

The Schwartz Center's story began, appropriately, with a song.

"When the decision was made to build the performing arts center, [then-President] Frank Rhodes was looking to kick off the funding campaign," said Levitt. "He went to Herb Gussman, for whom the lobby is named, and Herb made the initial large contribution on the condition that when the dedication was made, he would play the piano and Frank would sing the alumni song."

When Levitt ran into Gussman on campus before the dedication, "he asked if we'd gotten the piano yet? When I said we didn't, he was gracious enough to arrange for us to get a Steinway, which we still have. And he did play and Frank sang at the opening."

After Gussman's gift, other donors stepped up, and continue to do so. Levitt believes the project "has been a catalyst for all sorts of activity on campus."

"It was the first, the largest, the most expensive building ever built at the time [at Cornell] with no state funds and funded by private donors," he said. "Many of the donors to the performing arts center were first-time donors to Cornell, as it was important to them to build what would be a beacon for the arts on campus. They wanted to expand Cornell's liberal arts profile and broaden the image of Cornell as being more than a science school. Since then, many of them have supported many other projects, including the sciences."

Designed by architects James Stirling and Michael Wilford, the center features some curious modern architectural details, from the circular staircase behind the building to its jutting crow's-nest bay window and enclosed concrete plaza in front. There's also the unattached Eisner Pavilion, aka "The Cupcake," which houses a seminar room and an office for the actors serving as resident professional teaching associates.