4 Objects That Explain the History of Carnegie Hall

Ella Fitzgerald’s glasses. Benny Goodman’s clarinet. A ticket from opening night in 1891. These items have long been a part of Carnegie Hall’s archive. But now they are getting a moment to shine on the new podcast “If This Hall Could Talk.”

In eight episodes, the podcast — produced by Carnegie and the classical radio station WQXR — explores “the legendary and sometimes quirky history of the hall,” according to the show’s introduction. The Broadway performer Jessica Vosk is the host of the series, and archivists from the hall offer commentary.

“Time moves so quickly,” said Gino Francesconi, Carnegie’s founding archivist, who is featured on the podcast. “These are little anchors to remind people who we are, what extraordinary things have happened here and what continues to happen.”

The hall did not devote much effort to preserving its 133-year history until Francesconi was hired in 1986. The collection now includes more than 300,000 items related to more than 50,000 performances and events. The vast majority of pieces were donated, but archivists have also acquired some objects on eBay and other platforms. (One of the pricier acquisitions: a flier for Bob Dylan’s 1961 debut at Carnegie that the hall bought from a man in Sweden for $6,000.)

“If This Hall Could Talk,” whose first season concludes next month, also explores social and political aspects of Carnegie’s history, including a 1910 convention on women’s suffrage there and a starry 1961 concert that paid tribute to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

A wide variety of artists offer their reflections on the hall’s history in the podcast, including the jazz singer Samara Joy, the pianist Emanuel Ax, the bass-baritone Davóne Tines and the clarinetist, saxophonist and composer Paquito D’Rivera.

Here are the stories behind four objects featured on the show.

It was one of the hottest tickets of the century. On May 5, 1891, Carnegie opened with the American debut of Tchaikovsky conducting his own music. Horse-drawn carriages filled the area around 57th Street and Seventh Avenue, and Carnegie’s main auditorium was packed. Tickets were $1 and $2.

The hall, financed by the industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, opened just as New York was working to establish itself as a cultural center on par with Europe. “It was an important anchor for America’s growing cultural identity,” Francesconi said, “because before, it all had to come from over there.”

Despite the importance of this event, Carnegie did not acquire a ticket until 2007.

Fitzgerald, known as “the first lady of song,” made her Carnegie debut in 1947 and performed at the hall more than 40 times. She wore these plastic-frame glasses during a 1973 appearance that later became the album “Ella Fitzgerald at the Newport Jazz Festival: Live at Carnegie Hall.”

The lenses are so thick, they resemble magnifying glasses. Fran Morris-Rosman, the executive director of the Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation, said that the singer was at first frustrated about wearing glasses, worried they would turn off her fans.

“She always tried to be dressed nicely and to look good,” said Morris-Rosman, who appears on the podcast.

But her frames eventually became a signature look. Fitzgerald kept about two-dozen pairs at home. “It made her more like a real human,” Morris-Rosman said. “She was no glamour girl. She was no diva. She was a singer.”

Horowitz, the eminent pianist, was one of Carnegie’s most popular performers. He made his debut there in 1928 and gave his final performance in 1986, and appeared more than 90 times over his long career.

Horowitz could be exacting about the placement of his piano onstage; he also performed on his own Steinway grand rather than one of the hall’s instruments. He would ask stagehands to move the piano ever so slightly until he was satisfied with how the sound echoed in the hall.

“It was just a few inches here and there and up and down,” Francesconi said.

After Horowitz came out of retirement in 1965, a group of Carnegie stagehands, knowing that he would be a frequent presence at the hall, put three screws in the floor of the stage to mark the legs of his piano. During renovations in 1986, the screws were removed from the floor and given to the archive.

In the 1930s, it was not typical for jazz stars to perform at Carnegie, but Goodman upended tradition with his 1938 debut. It was one of the first times that audience members sat to listen to swing music rather than dance to it. And the band was one of the first to feature Black and white musicians playing together onstage.

Goodman’s concert was credited with helping bring new respect to jazz music in the United States. A recording of the performance, “The Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert,” became a best-selling album.

The donation of this clarinet by Goodman’s family in 1991 inspired the opening of the Rose Museum at the hall, where many of Carnegie’s treasures are now on public display.

Rachel Edelson, Goodman’s daughter, says on the podcast that the family wanted to “bequeath something to the world, to a place that helped make my father.” And the clarinet was her father’s “way to express himself and to leave behind what he wanted to leave behind.”

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