New York is a city of treasured traditions. We have our lavish Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, the thrilling Times Square ball drop on New Year’s Eve, the Fourth of July fireworks in the skies above our two rivers, ice skating at Rockefeller Center, and, until last year, the eye-popping Christmas windows at Lord & Taylor (a New York institution that, sadly, shut its doors in 2020 after over 100 years in business.)
Then there are the quieter traditions that are better known to savvy locals than to tourists: the fare-free ride on the Staten Island ferry, the pastrami at Katz’s Deli (open since 1888), the beautiful walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, and so much more.
Since 1962, New Yorkers have made pilgrimage to Central Park’s Delacorte Theatre to see Shakespeare in the Park—gorgeous, full-blown productions starring name actors, performed on an open-air stage under the summer stars, and all for free. The only price we’ve paid for those coveted tickets: a beautiful, traditional ritual that’s an experience in itself.
In the early hours of the morning (the recommended time has crept earlier and earlier over the years)—we’ve lined up along the path that leads to the Delacorte to wait for the opening of the box office. Seasoned Shakespeare in the Park devotees like yours truly know just what to bring: something to read, something to eat, something to sit on, something to keep ourselves warm, a thermos full of coffee…and plenty of patience for the many hours of waiting.
To the uninitiated, it sounds like a chore. But those of us who’ve experienced this local New York tradition know of its delights. For hours, we’re surrounded by trees, grass, and local neighbors whom we never would have met. We watch dogs frolicking, joggers jogging, birds flitting from grass to branch, squirrels chasing each other up and down trees. Musicians work the line with their solo, unamplified instruments, collecting tips from their captive audience. One enterprising nearby deli dispatches an employee to distribute menus in one sweep, then collect the orders in a second sweep. Less than an hour later, they deliver hot breakfasts and coffee to the die-hard, line-bound theatre fans.
That’s the other thing: There are rules. No one may leave the line, except to use the toilet. No one may hold a place for a friend. Those lucky enough to score tickets before they run out (which they always do) receive only two. If there are four in a party, two of them have to spend the morning on the line.
Last year, as a pandemic devastated the world, the Delacorte sat shuttered through its usual summer season. This year, the great New York tradition of free Shakespeare in Central Park is back…but without the attendant early morning ritual. Tickets are now conveniently obtained by entering an on-line lottery. And that makes sense, of course, considering the state of things.
But the problem with breaking traditions is that often, they stay broken. And unless I miss my guess, this one, like so many others, is destined to be gobbled up by the convenience obsession that has overtaken our culture. After all, why have a line, or a box office, or outdoor musicians, or a deli that delivers to the park when people can stay home, type into their computers, and enter a ticket lottery? Thus, another charming ritual goes the way of the Horn & Hardart Automat, another magical, bygone New York institution that I still miss.
Curmudgeons love traditions. We like good things like manners and proper English and beautiful old buildings and special little experiences to stay as they are. And when they go away, it feels a bit like the earth has been dislodged from its axis.
And so this week’s message is a sort of a eulogy.
I have spent many blissful hours engaged in the adventure of waking up early on a summer day, making my way to the ticket line at the Delacorte, and waiting with my fellow New Yorkers in beautiful Central Park for tickets to see some top-notch Shakespeare for free. And before we send this precious ritual off to New York tradition heaven, I want to say that I will miss it terribly. I’m sad that future attendees will miss out on the wonderful inconvenience that was worth its weight in gold. I only hope that these productions don’t suffer the same fate. After all, wouldn’t it be more convenient to play them on our cell phone screens at home, where we can multitask, rather than gathering with other humans to see live theatre?