NEW YORK — Isaiah Sheffer, who three decades ago looked at a grimy, derelict movie theater on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and envisioned the palace of performing arts that became Symphony Space, a vibrant, eclectic institution known for its broadcasts of actors reading short stories, died Friday in Manhattan. He was 76.
The cause was complications of a stroke, his wife, Ethel, said.
The stage was part of Sheffer’s life even before he was born; he was still in his mother’s womb when she appeared in a Yiddish play. He went on to an exuberantly varied theatrical career as a librettist, playwright, director and impresario.
But he said his professional life had “no coherence" until he and his artistic partner, the conductor Allan Miller, put on a marathon concert of Bach at the theater on Jan. 7, 1978. The next morning, he wrote down his idea for a place he had decided to call Symphony Space, in part because that was the name of the theater and in part because its first event was a symphony concert.
After tens of millions of dollars raised and a decade of litigation, it became a complex of two theaters with a cafe, offices and a board directors. He was its artistic director, and would remain so for 32 years. Symphony Space is the home of a Sheffer brainstorm called “Selected Shorts," produced by WNYC for NPR, in which actors read stories for broadcast on more than 160 radio stations nationwide. Another of his ideas was “Bloomsday on Broadway," an annual reading of James Joyce’s “Ulysses," of which the 31st rendition occurred this June.
The Joyce events are held on June 16, 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. Readers have included Stephen Colbert, Tony Roberts and Marian Seldes. Sheffer would add music and touches like the clatter of ale bottles behind the voices.
“I’ve been asked, ‘Is this a serious literary event or a grand drunken reunion for all your actor friends?’" Sheffer said in an interview with The New York Times in 2004. “Yes!"
Sheffer saw the theatrical arts as a huge adventure, and his bookings over 32 years reflected it; there were operettas, African dance and political satire. There have been jazz and opera and blues, and more of the marathon concerts that began the whole enterprise, featuring composers like Stravinsky and Sondheim.
With his characteristic self-deprecating sense of humor, Sheffer was never reluctant to mention his biggest producing failure. “Never have an accordion sextet," he advised.