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Friday, March 3, 2017

Working with a Visionary—Harvey Lichtenstein

Harvey Lichtenstein, who was president and executive producer at BAM from 1967 to 1999, recently passed away. Here are some memories from colleagues of the man who stoutly believed in Brooklyn, and whose actions would immeasurably transform and enrich both the borough's vibrancy and the world's cultural landscape.

Harvey feeling the dancing with his heart, 1985 Photo (crop): J. Ross Baughman

I didn’t know about modern dance before I worked at BAM. Maybe I had been to Alvin Ailey once with a school group. My first dance experiences at BAM were mystifying. I grew up with theater so I kept trying to figure out the story. One day Harvey came over and asked ”What did you think, Sweetie?” “I don’t understand what is happening,” I told him sheepishly. He said ”Stop using your head and open your heart.” Those simple words brought the enormous pleasure of modern dance into my life.

—Alice Bernstein, Executive Vice President

Harvey (far left) dancing in 1953

Harvey (in jacket and tie) with BAM stagehands in 1999.

I worked for Harvey Lichtenstein for 20 years. I first met him in 1979 when I applied for a job on the development staff at BAM. I wanted to move to New York from Washington, DC and I heard that BAM was building a new large-scale repertory theater company, so it seemed like a perfect opportunity. I was 29 years old and believed that New York City was my spiritual home so I was ready to make the plunge.

An interview with Harvey was part of the process, so I entered his legendary office on the 3rd floor following a morning breakfast at Juniors with Finance Committee Chairman, Stanley Kriegel. Harvey sized me up and said “Let’s get right to the point. I need someone in that development office who can work like hell.” I replied with no hesitation (even though I was shaking on the inside), “Harvey, I’m your gal.” We shook hands and only a few weeks later I was a proud citizen of Brooklyn.

For the next 36 years, I worked “like hell”—learning from Harvey for the first 20 years and then succeeding him as president in 1999 until my retirement in 2015.

The man was unstoppable. He bet the ranch every time when he believed that an artist or project was worthy. From his unconditional love of Merce Cunningham’s work, to his adoration of Peter Brook, Ingmar Bergman, Twyla Tharp, Bill Christie, Trisha Brown, Bill T. Jones, and so many more—here was a visionary leader who saw Brooklyn as the land of opportunity rather than the punch line of a joke.

When you worked for Harvey, he pushed you to the limits, and then he pushed you a little bit harder. He was—for Joe Melillo and myself—a mentor, a teacher, a taskmaster, and a trailblazer.

Harvey was larger than life. When you drove with him, he yelled at red lights. When our funds or big projects collapsed, it was epic. But when we succeeded, it changed the artistic landscape of the city and the country forever.

There was nothing small about Harvey. He was something special.

—Karen Brooks Hopkins, President (1999—2015)

Harvey and KBH at work.

Harvey between Steve Reich and Philip Glass at Nonesuch at BAM (2014). Photo: Mary Reilly

I loved the way Harvey would bound backstage after opening nights to congratulate the artists. He would arrive mission-driven—to provide his highly enthusiastic hugs, handshakes, and kudos, peering over his bushy brows while saying, “that was great, just terrific!” He often attended closing performances, as well giving the artist the knowledge that his watchful eye was more than an opening night gesture. I took this photo on my iPhone, backstage after the opening of Nonesuch at BAM in 2014. I love the way Philip Glass and Steve Reich are so warmly embracing Harvey. That night, so many artists were in awe that Harvey was there.

I wish the iPhone existed in my earlier days at BAM so I might have captured Harvey embracing Bill Christie, Pina Bausch, Merce, Mark Morris, Patrice Chéreau, Bill T. Jones, Meredith Monk, Misha, Lou Reed and Laurie, Anne Teresa De Keesrmaeker, Ian McKellen, Chuck Davis... Oh, and all those Swedes from the Dramaten: Erland Josephson and Peter Stormare and Bibi Anderson. The list goes on. Fortunately for us all, many of the more formal shots with these artists do exist in the BAM Hamm Archives. But I will always cherish seeing Harvey's face fresh from the performances, rushing back in resplendent enthusiasm to provide a huge hug of congratulations when the camera was not officially there. He was then Harvey! Those embraces were genuine and meaningful to each artist. Harvey’s warmth and excitement over their work was a privilege to witness. It is my turn to say, je te embrace dear Harvey, always. Thank you deeply for a glimpse into your world created at “le BAM!”

—Mary Reilly, Director of Artist Services

Harvey with BAM Hamm Archives high school intern Tatiana Sangaré, 2013. Photo: Louie Fleck

Harvey with Next Wave Artists first photo shoot in 1997 Photo: Joanne Savio

BAM ties, including one featuring Harvey's portraits from over the years. Photo: Louie Fleck

In 1983, I was working at a Soho art gallery, and the visual art world was foundational for cutting edge performance art at that time. My boss would give me his Next Wave subscription tickets on occasion. The first show I saw at BAM, in my boss's seats, was Laurie Anderson's United States: Parts I—IV, one of the first Next Wave events chosen by Harvey. It was February, before the festival was established in the fall. It was freezing outside, and I was squeezed coat-and-all into one of the mezzanine seats—physically immobile, but also stunned by the hypnotic performance, which was not like anything I'd seen before. I was instantly hooked on BAM, and at that moment I couldn't even imagine working here. When I was employed here many years later, I felt like I'd won the lottery. In many ways, I did.

—Susan Yung, Senior Editorial Manager

Harvey watching a 2011 rehearsal of Atys by Les Arts Florissants. Photo: Louie Fleck

I was a little scared of Harvey when I started at BAM in 1988. He was larger than life and this was my first real job. If something happened that he was unhappy about he didn’t hold back in letting the staff know it. But I always respected him and the way he gave his heart and soul to this institution. In time I lost my fear of him and a great affection took its place. After he retired, when he came to BAM to see shows, he never failed to greet me with a smile, a twinkle in his intelligent eyes, and a big kiss. The last time I saw Harvey was when he came to see Peter Brook’s Battlefield this fall. It was wonderful to see him and Peter together again in the lobby of the theater named after him, where it all began decades ago at The Mahabharata. It came full circle. I think that’s a beautiful thing.

—Christine Gruder, House Manager

Photo: Catherine Noren

In my early days at BAM in Spring of 1996 we were getting ready for a production of The Misanthrope, directed by Ingmar Bergman, which was coming in a few weeks.

Then we got word that Mr. Bergman had seen the production after some time away and was no longer happy with it—and he pulled the plug! It would not be coming to BAM despite it being in the brochure, tickets being sold, etc.

Alice [Bernstein] came by my office and got me and said something like “you have to see this.” We went into Harvey’s office, all of the other VPs were in the room gathered in front of his desk (think planets around a sun) and he was going on as only he could—firing off questions, making demands, and otherwise trying to pull the production back.

Most of the detail is lost to memory, but a couple of things stand out.

He had a fax (fax!) of a newspaper headline or something from Sweden about the conflict between Bergman and Lichtenstein. Harvey barking (in a nice way) to his assistant to “Get me the Swedish Ambassador on the phone!”

When it was over I knew few things I did not know before about the place and man I was now working for: we made international headlines, Harvey could get an ambassador on the phone, and sometimes when things line up just right BAM is at the center of the world.

Alice said to me right afterward—you just learned more about Harvey and this place in five minutes than most people learn in a year.

He was an extraordinary man.

—Pat Scully, Associate Vice President & General Manager

Harvey in the BAM Howard Gillman Opera House.

Archivists are the custodians and protectors of their collections, and as such we monitor researchers. To be perfectly honest, sometimes we make exceptions and I figured if I could not trust Harvey—Harvey who ran the place for 32 years, Harvey who actually created a lot of these collections—who could I trust? So when Harvey came into the archive from time to time, I gave him a room and left him alone. One day I poked my head in to see Harvey tearing up papers, tossing them in the trash. We lost that little piece of history, but enjoy this clip from a 1993 video made on the occasion of Harvey’s 25th anniversary celebration.

—Sharon Lehner, Director of Archives

Additional articles on Harvey Lichtenstein:
Have your own memories of Harvey? Feel free to share in the comments below!

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