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25 Years of Shakespeare in Delaware Park

Eric Ortner
North Buffalo Rocket

Elkin, Walker, Link -- Shakespear in the ParkFrom L to R: Saul Elkin, Shakespeare in Delaware Park's Founder; Marla Walker, Executive Director of the Delaware YMCA; Russ Link, Kiwanis Vice President and former Drama Teacher, at a Kiwanis Meeting.
photo: Eric Ortner

The City of Buffalo hosts a lot of summer time events. The Allentown Art Festival, The Italian Festival, Taste of Buffalo, are just a few of these activities. However, one of the most popular and longest lasting summertime events is Shakespeare in Delaware Park.

Saul Elkin, who is founder of the summer long Shakespeare festival, spoke to the Elmwood Community Kiwanis on May 2 about his experiences with the program. He explained that before coming to Buffalo he was an actor in New York City. He said, "I was struggling, going from one job to another." 
He was working for a while as an extra in a soap opera playing the part of a doctor. As is often the case in the fickle world of TV drama, his part was written out. Dr. Elkin was told, "Your role is going away." 

Saul Elkin then had a few failed auditions. The parts he tried out for included a spot in the first year of Shakespeare in the Park in Manhattan. He was sure he would get the part of Richard III, but it went to the soon to be renowned name of George Scott. This turned out to be in Buffalo's best interest.

Dr. Elkin moved to Buffalo in 1969 to teach at UB as a professor in the Theatre Department. It was then still on the South Campus. At that point in time, Buffalo's interest in theater was nothing like it is now. Saul explained, "I thought maybe we'd start something somewhere."

He then had the idea to hold a free performance of Shakespeare similar to what was being done in New York City's Shakespeare in the Park. Saul Elkin didn't know where to start on the project, but someone suggested that he call Mayor Stanley Makowski. "Being from New York, the thought of just calling the mayor was somewhat daunting," explained Dr. Elkin. "But I just boldly picked up the phone to call Mayor Makowski. Not only did I call him, but I got right through to him. He was wonderful!"

Dr. Elkin has such strong feelings for the Mayor, because not only did he allow Shakespeare in Delaware Park to take place, but he promised that the city would pay for the production's electricity. Mr. Elkin proudly stated, "For 25 years we've had electricity at the site because of Makowski's pledge."

As a Chairman of the Theatre Department of UB, Dr. Elkin asked the Dean of the summer session for some money. The resulting funding basically paid for the stage. The original stage was actually built a good distance away from the park, on the Main Street campus of UB. It was constructed and designed by Gary Casarella. He marked all of the pieces that made up the platform, and then took it apart. At that point it was transported over to Delaware Park and reassembled. 

The young college students that took to this newly constructed stage performed the Winter's Tale. Saul explained, "25 years later, we're going to play it again."

Shakespeare in Delaware Park revisits the same production that was performed 25 years ago, and some of the original cast will also be returning this year. "The king was way too young at that point, so we're going to bring him back now that he's right for the part," Dr. Elkin Commented
The king will be played by Jerry Finnegan. Other Shake-speare in Delaware Park alumni will include, Eileen Dugan, Tom Martin, and Phil Knowerzer. 

Twenty-five years of Shakespeare in Buffalo really just goes to show the nature of this City. There are 60 Shakespeare Festivals in the United States. It is a truly monumental accomplishment to know that of all of them, Shakespeare in Delaware Park has the second highest attendance.
Part of this success stems from the fact that the performances are free. Saul Elkin explained, "I always wanted it to be free." He continued, "I wanted it for the people who couldn't afford theater or didn't attend the theater."

Yet, as any economist will tell you, there really is no free lunch. Therefore over the years Shakespeare in Delaware Park has relied heavily on the generous contributions of various corporations and its audience. The hat that is passed around in the audience at each performance brings in a hefty $50,000 annually. However, they still rely on funding from M&T Bank, The Buffalo News, The City of Buffalo, Erie County, and the New York State Arts Council to cover a lot of the operating costs. 

Even the actors lend a hand in keeping the performances free. Saul Elkin explained that, "All of the excellent people who have acted are willing to work for less." 

Although Dr. Elkin is never sure whether or not the festival is going to continue from year to year, he has some high hopes for Shakespeare in Delaware Park's future. This spring the series has been extended for an extra run of Hamlet, which will close on May 14. For the first time, the theatre company is holding performances inside. They take place at the Pfeifer theater, where Shakespeare in Delaware Park's offices are located.
In this spirit, Dr. Elkin also has plans for the company to run performances year 'round at local schools. The program would be similar to the way that Theatre of Youth works. 

Dr. Elkin basically summed it up when he concluded the Elmwood Kiwanis meeting by saying, "So come and see us this year!" 


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