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New Marcus Garvey Park Amphitheater Opens

By Jeff Mays | June 2, 2011 5:12pm

By Jeff Mays

DNAinfo Reporter/Producer

HARLEM—The rain had stopped in time for the dance performance but the water was still dripping onto the stage from the roof of the decrepit band shell at Marcus Garvey Park.

Not wanting to dissapoint the crowd, performers from the Dance Harlem Festival grabbed mops and put their artistic talents to a more practical use.

"They danced on stage while mopping up the water and made it look like it was part of the act. They did it in a very artistic way that was very elegant," said Valerie Jo Bradley, co-founder of the Marcus Garvey Park Alliance.

It was then, back in 2008, that Bradley decided that performers deserved a safe space to perform. On Thursday, Bradley joined with Parks & Recreation Commissioner Adrian Benepe and city and elected officials to cut the ribbon on the newly renovated $7 million Richard Rodgers Amphitheater.

"It's just a feeling of exhilaration that this actually happened," Bradley said.

The new performance space was made possible because of a $1 million donation from the Rodgers Family Foundation. In the 1960s Rodgers, who wrote 900 songs and 43 Broadway musicals, donated $150,000 to fund the construction of the original band shell. He lived with his family in the Mount Morris Park neighborhood as a boy.

Another $4.9 million came from mitigation funds provided to the Parks Department by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in connection with the Second Avenue Subway project. An additional $1.2 million came from the Manhattan Borough President's office and the City Council.

Rodgers' eldest daughter, Mary Rodgers Guettel, recalled how her father loved sledding in the park, then named Mount Morris Park, and climbing the fire watchtower. She called the park one of his "favorite places."

"My father was very proud of his role in getting this amphitheater built and my family is equally proud of our role in its restitution," said  Rodgers Guettel, executive board member of The Rodgers Family Foundation.

The amphitheater is used heavily by the community. The City Parks Foundation's annual Charlie Parker Jazz Festival, SummerStage and many community events were hosted at the band shell. That's why community input was taken into account in its redesign, said Carla McIntosh of the Marcus Garvey Park Alliance.

The wider stage is closer to the audience and performers now have back stage bathrooms and dressing rooms. A large, white fabric canopy shields a majority of the crowd from the sun and the benches, made from weatherproof recycled plastic, now have seat backs. Sight lines and acoustics have also been improved.

"This amphitheater was falling down and our performers had to be careful when it rained, but no more," said City Councilwoman Inez Dickens. "This park is once again becoming the park that everyone knew and loved when the Rodgers family lived here."

Benepe said the construction of the amphitheater was a real community effort between the community, government and non-profits.

"Harlem's historic parks have never been in better shape," Benepe said. "Ideally, every community should have a facility like this."

The Rodgers Foundation has also made $50,000 in grants available to support performances in the amphitheater. Half of which will be used by City Parks Foundation to commission new work for the space.

"This is a great day for us who live in East and Central Harlem. We are truly the lucky neighbors," said Matthew Washington, chair of Community Board 11.

Performers from the Roundabout Theater Company’s production of "Anything Goes" and P.S. 166's Richard Rodgers School Fifth Grade Honors Choir christened the stage by performing some of Rodgers' signature tunes such as "My Favorite Things" and "Oh What a Beautiful Morning."

Sitting at the top of the amphitheater, Esme Sanchez, 63, a retired theater makeup artist, sang along to "My Favorite Things." The new amphitheater will only help to improve the park which has undergone tremendous change in the last five years.

"Activity alone turns on the light and you get rid of the shadows in the corner," Sanchez said.