How I Got to Carnegie Hall: A Retrospective Look at Over 100 Years of One of New York’s Most Famous Concert Venues

How I Got to Carnegie Hall: A Retrospective Look at Over 100 Years of One of New York’s Most Famous Concert Venues – The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – January 2003

by Gino Francesconi

I have probably heard the line, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” more than anyone on the planet.  Having worked at the hall for almost 30 years in various capacities – the last 16 as archivist and historian – I have come to realize how much I respect that line and that it is as much a part of Americana as baseball or Thanksgiving dinner. The words Carnegie Hall meant something to me as a kid in San Francisco with dreams of conducting on its stage. I didn’t even know what it looked like back then but I sure knew what it signified. Over the years I discovered that it meant different things to different people, all mixing into one fantastic magical destination. And it’s that very essence that distinguishes Carnegie Hall from any other performance space in the world.

How did that happen? At first it didn’t seem as though it would turn out that way at all.  In fact, everything was pointing to its failure from the get go: the location was about as far away from Midtown as Yankee Stadium is from it today; the architect chosen was relatively unknown and the term “Music Hall” usually referred to something other than a place where one would hear the classics.  Andrew Carnegie, who funded the construction, insisted on the location.  At the laying of the cornerstone for the new Music Hall (as it was originally known) on the corner of 57th and Seventh on May 13, 1890, he boldly said, “…It is built to stand for ages, and it is probable that this hall will intertwine itself with the history of our country.” No small words, especially for a music hall surrounded by breweries, stables and far from 14th Street – the heart of the city then. Yet by the time of his death in 1919, Carnegie would live to see his words go beyond even his vast imagination.

Peter Tchaikovsky appeared opening night, May, 5 1891, and history did begin passing through its doors. In addition to every major classical composer, such as Dvorak, Strauss, Saint-Saens, Mahler, Prokofiev, Bartok, Copland, Stravinsky, and Ravel or performers, such as Toscanini, Horowitz, Callas, Bernstein, Casals, Ferrar, Segovia, and Melba, the hall played host to almost every type of music genre such as jazz, popular, rock, folk, blues and gospel. James Reese Europe, Fats Waller, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Sophie Tucker, Tony Bennett, Edith Piaf, Woody Guthrie, John Jacob Niles, Pete Seeger, The Weavers, Bob Dylan, the Beatles, David Bowie, the Rolling Stones, Led Zepplin, Frank Zappa, the Beach Boys, Muddy Waters, B. B. King, and James Cleveland to name just a handful.

In addition, leaders in science, exploration, travel, politics, religion, literature and dance made appearances for a performance, address, lecture, speech or debate. Mark Twain, Albert Einstein, Amelia Earhart, Roald Amundsen, Martin Luther King, Martha Graham, Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway, Lowell Thomas, Woodrow Wilson, Margaret Sanger, John Jay Pershing, Emmeline Pankhurst, Franklin Roosevelt, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Thomas Mann, Isadora Duncan, Grover Cleveland, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Marcus Garvey, Sir Edmund Hillary, Mary Mcleod Bethune, and Garrison Keillor  to name just a few. Garrison Keillor, during his appearance here, called it “America’s town hall.”

In 1896, to supplement income to the hall, the roof was removed and a floor of studio apartments and offices was constructed. By the turn of the century, two additional wings of studios were added, making a total of 150 studio spaces.  Because of the uptown location, modest rents, wonderful city views (one tower consisted of 13 floors and the other of 16), and the best perk of all – having an air vent in your space that allowed you to hear all that was going on on stage free of charge – the studio spaces rented out quickly and a vacancy was rare.  A small bohemia of musicians, dancers, painters, writers, jewelry makers, speech therapists, photographers, and teachers began living and working above and around the Main Hall.  With three additional smaller theaters located in the building, and all the activity in the studios upstairs, Music Hall, which began referring to itself as Carnegie’s Music Hall and finally changed its name to Carnegie Hall in 1894, became the first performing arts center under one roof in the country.

Now imagine the phrase “the Carnegie Hall archives” and the imagery that it creates in one’s mind. Perhaps warehouses full of long corridors of shelves containing priceless treasures and well-documented representations of each event that took place, plus autographed photos, recordings and certainly a copy of each radio broadcast.  Yet as unimaginable as it might seem, it wasn’t until 1986, four years before the hall would celebrate its 100th anniversary, I was given the honor of being the person to establish Carnegie Hall’s first archives. That, too, looked like it was doomed to failure at first. Since no repository existed prior to that time, much of our documented history was lost, stolen, or simply thrown away.  And I was a musician, not an archivist. I wasn’t even sure what an archives was.

I came to New York City in 1974 to attend music school as a conducting major.  During my first week I played hooky to buy a ticket at Carnegie Hall to see where I was going to someday make my debut.  At the concert, I noticed one of the ushers was a classmate.  “Wow, it must be great to volunteer here”, I said. “Volunteer? They pay you $6 a night.” I couldn’t believe it. In San Francisco, at the Opera House, all the ushers were volunteers and the waiting list was long. Imagine getting paid to see concerts at Carnegie Hall! I ran backstage and begged for a job as an usher. “Do you have black pants?” I was asked by the assistant house manager. “No” I responded.  “Black shoes?” “No”.  “White shirt?”  “No.” All the while in my head was Lie, you dope. But I didn’t lie and I remembered exiting out through the backstage door thinking, was this the first or last time I would be exiting this way?

I was called shortly thereafter to substitute for an usher who was ill. By then I had the required clothing and I remember the thrill of signing in as an employee. I was assigned to the Balcony and the concert was the organist Virgil Fox doing a series of concerts to inaugurate a new electric Rodgers organ in the hall.  Pulling out the all stops took on a new meaning for me that night as Fox had so much sound coming from the organ that the vibrations caused a glass door behind me to open, behind which was a fire hose. The hose began unraveling, and that’s how I spent some of my first night at Carnegie Hall: holding onto about 40lbs of bronze nozzle and canvas!

From then on it was non-stop revelations for me: Berlin Philharmonic, Frank Sinatra, the Orchestra and Chorus of  La Scala, Shirley Bassey, Boston Symphony, James Taylor, Chicago Symphony, Oscar Peterson, George Carlin, Sarah Vaughan, Arthur Rubinstein, Peter, Paul and Mary, Aaron Copland, Count Basie, Leonard Bernstein, Benny Goodman, and literally hundreds more, and on the weekends, sometimes twice a day.  Once we had Vladimir Horowitz in the afternoon and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf making her farewell recital that night. I quickly learned an interesting aspect of the hall I had not known previously: how many non-musical events took place there. I saw the recreation of the Ethel and Julius Rosenberg trial, the National Book Awards, religious events, benefits, memorial services, political campaigns and graduations. Each season, we had approximately 600 events between the Main Hall and smaller Recital Hall next door.

I was shocked to see how some audience members behaved, some eating, smoking and even disrobing in the hall, or latecomers demanding entrance during the performance. One night after relocating at least 50 people in the dark (some concert patrons failed to understand that tickets actually stood for a seat location), I decided to stick my head out the men’s room window on the balcony level just to get some air. To my surprise, someone was out there on the ledge seven stories up with his legs dangling over the side.

“What are you doing out there?” I asked.  “Just hanging out.  It’s hot in there,” he replied. “Would you mind coming in?”  “No, I don’t think so, I like it out here.”  Now what do I do, I thought to myself, ask to see his ticket?  I told him if something happened to him and since it was on my watch, I would get fired and I needed the job. “OK, man,” he said as he stumbled in and I realized he was stoned out of his mind. Those windows are now sealed.

All of the ushers signed in and went to the front of the house but the one person who signed in and stayed backstage was the artist attendant. It was a very mysterious position to most of us and we weren’t exactly sure what they did. Whatever it was, they must not have done it well because one was fired after the other. One night, I was approached by the head usher and told to go backstage and see the house manager. I was told I would be artist assistant that night.  “What do I need to do?” I asked.  I heard a series of “gets”:  “Get the artist at the door, get them to the dressing room, get them comfortable, get the timing for each work being performed, get them to the stage, get and deal with guests at the end of the event and get them packed and to their car” he replied as he handed me the keys to the backstage area with one final “and get going.”

That was the beginning of an even more extraordinary experience for me at the hall. I remained backstage for almost eight seasons and worked more than 2500 events from that side. Imagine being a conducting student and working with Bernstein, Giulini, Ozawa, von Karajan, Levine, Ormandy, Tennstedt, Leinsdorff, and Previn, just to name a few, with every major orchestra in world.  My head is spinning here a little thinking about who to leave out of a list of names of other people I enjoyed working with: Ravi Shankar, Ella Fitzgerald, Burl Ives, Monserrat Caballe, Andre Watts, Rosemary Clooney, Yo-Yo Ma, Red Skelton, Helen Hayes, Yehudi Menuhin, Leontyne Price, Carlos Montoya, Judy Collins, George Shearing, Nana Mouskouri, Pete Seeger, and Liza Minnelli, who holds the Carnegie Hall record for 17 consecutive sold-out performances.  Sometimes it was a one-time unforgettable encounter such as with Ethel Merman.  For others, over the years, I became a familiar face – I imagine like the neighborhood bar tender – and I was privileged to experience private moments with some remarkable people.  The guests coming backstage after a performance were sometimes long lines of well wishers and fans but other times equally as impressive as the artist they were coming to see: Gloria Swanson coming up the backstage stairs with Liberace; Marian Anderson;  Henry Kissenger; Martha Graham; Aristotle Onassis; Elliot Trudeau, Jonas Salk, Indira Ghandi and Andy Warhol to name just a few.

While this was happening night after night, during the day I was trying to start my own chamber group and attending auditions. Finally, after failing at various attempts at starting a chamber group in the New York City area, in 1984, I decided to move to Italy to study with a conducting teacher who was known as the  ‘maestro of the maestri’, Franco Ferrara. I had a great send off from Carnegie Hall and I was sad about leaving a place I worked seven days a week from September to June for ten years. In Italy, I stayed with my grandmother on her farm until school started in Siena. I remember thinking perhaps I will be conducting at Carnegie Hall at the time of its 100th birthday in 1991.

As fate would have it, my teacher died 18 months into my stay in Italy and I floated for a bit trying to figure out my next move.  I found myself back at Carnegie Hall outside the door of the executive director’s office.

While waiting to see her I noticed the red bound volumes of house programs that lined the walls of the office space outside the director’s office. They had been scattered all over the building and it was good to see them all in one place.  During nights when I was not particularly interested in hearing an event, I would find one of these volumes and flip through it a page at a time.  I loved seeing the old ads and calendar of events.  Just before I went into her office, I noticed that the bound volumes for the hall’s earliest years, 1891-1898, were missing.

After exchanging pleasantries and recounting my experiences in Italy, I told her I was there to find work. As I left her office I remembered the missing programs. The hall was undergoing the final phases of a $60 million dollar renovation and there were 1000 people running around all hours of the night.

“I noticed the house programs and everything between 1891 and 1898 is missing” I told the executive director, Judith Arron.  “You better lock them up.” About two weeks passed and I received a call from her. “I found a job for you” she said.  “You lock them up.”   She explained that the hall would be 100 years old in 1991 and they would be celebrating the entire 1990-91 season and that there wasn’t a database to find out how many times Brahms First Symphony had been done in the hall or how many times anything or anyone had appeared.  “So I will give you a room, you collect these programs, find a database and see if you can catalogue the programs”.

The first thing I did after collecting all the programs I could find and bringing them up to a small room on the 14th floor was to contact the New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera, the Music Division of the New York Public Library and Radio City to find out what they did with their programs. We set up a meeting with the executive director of New York University’s archival training program, Marilyn Pettit, at which time Marilyn presented her report recommending that Carnegie Hall needed to establish an official archives right then and there or there would be nothing for even one small exhibition for the centennial year.

Judith announced that I would establish the archives and that my position would be archivist.  Now, how did you pronounce that? ARchivist? Or was that arCHIvist? I figured I should learn that, first thing.  Our director of public relations at the time saw this as a wonderful press story and so out on the wire went the story “Carnegie Hall To Start First Archives.” It was picked up by the New York Times and mentioned the upcoming centennial and then there was my name and what I had previously done at the hall.  Well, it wasn’t a review, but it was wonderful to see my name in that paper.  It was also amazing to see the reaction. I started getting phone calls from friends, from musicians I had worked with backstage and from agents in the business. One woman called to say her great grandfather was Isaac Hopper.  Great, I thought, who’s that?  “Well, Andrew Carnegie might have given the money to build the hall, but my great grandfather was the contractor. He actually built it and I have some material here.”  Silence.  I sat there stunned. “Where are you?” I asked.  “Old Field, New York” Picture the following: phone in mid-air, small cloud of dust with me running in the direction of the Long Island Rail Road.  I received lots of calls like that over the years.

There were others who also read the story: real live archivists. A couple of them started calling our press office wanting to know who I was and why had I been picked for the job and how dare Carnegie Hall entrust all its historical documentation to a musician.

My mission was to catalogue the programs and find “stuff” that would help document 100 years.  I started off at the museums and libraries around town. I tried the Metropolitan Museum, New York Historical Society, Museum of the City of New York, New York Public Library and on and on.  I found nothing except the same kinds of material we had: some programs, the same photographs, a letter or two.  I tried finding past employees. Because of my time downstairs, I had heard names of people over the years; legends at the hall like John Totten, house manager for 40 years. No employee files were available, however, so I didn’t know where to even start looking. I went down to the Library of Congress where Andrew Carnegie’s papers are kept. What a wonderful time I had researching those in the Manuscript Division. Across from me a man was looking at Benjamin Franklin material, to my right an Einstein project and down at the end someone was doing a thesis on the NAACP.  I spent two weeks and flipped through 35,000 pages, one page at a time. I certainly learned something about Andrew Carnegie but found almost nothing about the hall.  I think I photocopied perhaps ten documents, at most.

I searched everywhere I could think of for Carnegie Hall related items without much luck.  Not being a trained detective, collector or archivist, I hadn’t a clue where else to look and began asking questions.  I found myself at a flea market one weekend looking for a picture of a cat for a girl friend of mine.  While flipping through material, I spotted a Carnegie Hall program from 1941 for $1.  I was really excited and asked where I could get more.  “Well, stuff has been coming out of Carnegie Hall for years. If you play your cards right…”   I told him what I was trying to do and that we were just starting archives. He told me “you see all these dealers? They are the ones you need to tell. Here, put an ad in this.” He handed me a local trade publication and I called and placed an ad.  A few months later, I was contacted by trade publications from all over the country asking me to place ads in their publications, too. Little by little the phone started to ring.

Then one day a friend of mine received an application to join The American Association of Retired Persons, the AARP.  She was mad as hell, as you have to be 50 and over and she was well below that age (there, do you forgive me now?) and wanted to know what the rush was.  As a joke, I decided to sign her up; it only cost $5 a year.  While looking through the material, I saw if you became a member you received a publication called Modern Maturity which reached 26 million people.  I called the editor right away and asked if I could place an ad in this publication.  When I was told the cost, my mouth dropped, as it was many thousands of dollars.  When I explained my purpose, he replied,  “This isn’t an ad, this is a story” and he said he would place a small article in the publication.

About two months later, I received a package in the mail from a woman in Montana. In it were 12 programs from the 1930’s with a note that said she had seen the article, had held onto the programs for years and if Carnegie Hall needed them it would be a pleasure.  I was so excited and as it turned out, we needed every one.  The next day I received 5 packages, the day after 9, then 12. Hundreds started arriving from all over the country and ultimately from as far away as South America: programs, posters, photographs, ticket stubs, flyers, and recordings. If they didn’t have material, they had stories. “I took a few minutes out of the Depression at Carnegie Hall.” “I dropped my hat next to a woman I was sitting next to and we have now been married 45 years.  One of the most moving was from a man who, years before, as a boy, sat in the balcony listening to Artur Rubinstein playing Brahms with the New York Philharmonic, on December 7, 1941.  The house manager stepped out to tell the audience the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor, sending the crowd into hysterics. Rubinstein ran to the piano and played the Star Spangled Banner and everyone stood and sang. The man said it was one of the most moving moments of his life.  I have since found the broadcast of that event but once the transmission is interrupted, it never goes back to the hall so if you weren’t one of the 2800 people in the hall, you wouldn’t know that story. Ultimately, we received approximately 6,000 pieces from that one article in Modern Maturity and the magazine must have continued to circulate because people responded for years.

Then, in November 1987, I received a call that still excites me every time I think about it.  The call was from the executor of the Benny Goodman Estate. Benny had died the year before and he wanted to know why there wasn’t a photo of Goodman hanging in the hall. In the 1920’s a tradition of hanging autographed “To Carnegie Hall” photos began. When the hall was threatened with demolition in the late 1950’s, much material disappeared including many of these photographs. I told the executor that perhaps Goodman’s was one of the stolen photos. I was invited to the Goodman home to get another photograph.

The family was there, packing up material to send off to Yale, where Goodman’s archives are today, and I was allowed  to select a couple of nice photographs. I was babbling a mile a minute telling the executor how I needed to find material for just one centennial exhibition and that I didn’t know if I would succeed.  One of Benny’s daughters asked,  “What are you going to do with all that material when your centennial is over?” I wasn’t sure. I hadn’t thought that far down the road.  I told her perhaps if we had a few small display cases on the First and Second Tiers that might be nice.  She then said something which almost knocked me over: “If you do something more permanent than that, I will give you my father’s clarinet.”

“The 1938 Goodman concert at Carnegie Hall was a landmark for jazz in many ways” she explained “and was one of the first concerts where people actually bought a ticket to sit and listen and not dance. I want the Smithsonian to have one, Yale to have one, the family, and I would love for Carnegie Hall to have one if you get a permanent place for it.” What went through my mind was: Hold That Thought.  I ran back to our executive director and we chatted about opening a small museum one day. A few months later, on January 16, 1988, on the 50th anniversary of her father’s concert, Rachel Goodman Edelson handed one of her father’s clarinets to Isaac Stern on stage as the first donation to a future museum at Carnegie Hall.

Then, in late 1989, our executive director visited the then-Soviet Union to negotiate the loans of musicians for our 100th anniversary season. The government was beginning to break up and she wanted to get a jump on things. She asked me if I had any requests of the Russians regarding Tchaikovsky, who had appeared at our opening night in 1891. Half joking, I told her I wanted everything the Russians had involving Tchaikovsky’s trip to the US to open Carnegie Hall.  About ten days later I received a call from her in London.

“There isn’t much time” she said, “you need to get visas approved. The Russians like your idea, you are going to Moscow next week.”

My three trips to Russia between 1989-1990 could easily be a subject for an entire book. However, after two of those trips, which were unsuccessful because of bureaucracy and misunderstanding  (“We want rent for the documents” said one official. “Rent?”  “Yes we want $750,000”  “We are not for profit”  “Carnegie Carnegie capitalista”), I found myself  there a third time working just with the officials of the museums. They wanted to know where the exhibit would go.  I realized I hadn’t thought that far so I mentioned the Morgan Library. There was hardly any food available this trip and most restaurants were closed.  The last night of my trip the head of the three museums and I tried to eat something and while waiting we all started drinking.  “We are so sorry this will not work out” they kept saying.  At one point, drunk out of my mind, I said “Tchaikovsky came to open Carnegie Hall in 1891. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if he came exactly 100 years to the date to open our new museum?” After some silence and lots of talking in Russian, the head of the Glinka Museum said “you get your museum for the centennial and you will have Tchaikovsky”

My trip back was done mostly lost in thought as to how to approach our executive director and tell her we had to have a museum. Not only that, build one in less than a year and curate an exhibition and pay for the shipping of what would amount to $14 million worth of documents. She listened while I told my story.  A few weeks later she called me down to her office and said, “Tell these people what you do,” as she pointed to a sweet looking couple.  After a while I felt a tug at my arm saying, “OK thanks, you have talked enough.” A few weeks after that, I received a call from Judy saying that the couple, Susan and Elihu Rose, had given us a check for $1, 250,000 to build our museum and curate the Tchaikovsky exhibit. We opened the Rose Museum at Carnegie Hall with a Tchaikovsky exhibit, 100 years to the day that Tchaikovsky arrived in New York to open Carnegie Hall.

Since then we have done about a dozen temporary exhibitions based on an anniversary or event taking place on the stage.  Borrowing the Tchaikovsky material allowed us to borrow Beethoven sonatas ($50 million worth, never before out of Austria and Germany), Schubert documents ($60 million worth, never before out of Austria), and so many other wonderful spectacular items. One of my favorites was loaned to us by George Gershwin’s nephew for an exhibit on George and Ira.  It was a silver humidor inscribed to George on the occasion of the world premier of An American In Paris by the New York Philharmonic in 1928, by more than 70 of his friends: Fred Astaire, Otto Kahn, Oscar Levant, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Al Jolson. An extraordinary piece. Our permanent exhibit on the history of the hall features more than 300 items including the Goodman clarinet, and a section called “Recent Acquisitions” rotates featuring new items added to our collection which as I write, consists of debut flyers for Thelonius Monk, Louis Armstrong, a piece of sheet music called Carnegie Blues by Duke Ellington, a flier for Richard Byrd discussing his flight over the North Pole, and a text of a debate between Clarence Darrow and Wayne Wheeler on Prohibition.

Even though the gaps in our history are narrowing, we are still on the search and I recently purchased my 491st piece on eBay, a fantastic source for items.  I just gave a talk for members of the Ephemera Society down in the museum, after which a member presented me with a flier for a mystic, Tahra Bey, appearing in 1930 and we had no record of it.  We are still searching for our original architectural drawings in William Tuthill’s hand – which  would all be marked Music Hall, since that’s what it was originally called – a ticket from opening night, about a dozen or so Tchaikovsky letters written to the daughter of the first president of the hall, and many programs between 1891 and 1950. Once we had entire seasons missing and nothing catalogued. Now we have a good handle at least on most seasons, and what we have has been entered into an enormous database.

My staff consists of Kathleen Sabogal, the associate archivist and records manager who has been with me here for 13 years. She was a trained archivist and has allowed me to do what I do best while she keeps an overall watchful eye;  and Rob Hudson the assistant archivist, a trombonist, writer, and jazz expert who started like me as a musician and has a natural gift for this kind of work. The three of us have wonderful positions here protecting and securing Carnegie Hall’s past for all time and are always on the search for more. “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” Well, if you have any of the missing items I mentioned above, you give me a call and I’m sure something can be arranged!

Leave a Reply