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Isaiah Sheffer was a beloved cultural figure in New York City for decades before his death in 2012 at the age of 76. The co-founder and artistic director of Symphony Space, he made an indelible mark on the city he called home. His story deserves to be told, and it’s done lovingly in Catherine Tambini’s documentary Art and Heart: The World of Isaiah Sheffer, which recently received its world premiere at the New York Jewish Film Festival.
Although he had a successful if scattered career as an actor, playwright and director, it wasn’t until he and his artistic partner Allan Miller organized a 1978 marathon Bach concert at a rundown, abandoned Upper West Side movie theater that Sheffer truly made a name for himself. The event was such a success that the two men embarked on a years-long project to procure the funds to restore the venue, which involved a lawsuit that took 11 years to settle.
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Symphony Space was eventually refurbished into a two-theater complex that included the old Thalia movie theater, rechristened the Leonard Nimoy Thalia in recognition of the actor’s significant financial support.
The documentary includes vintage interviews with Sheffer as he amusingly recalls the creation of his signature projects, which included Bloomsday on Broadway, an annual marathon reading of James Joyce’s Ulysses; Selected Shorts, featuring well-known authors and performers reading celebrated short stories; and the Thalia Follies, a political cabaret series. His ebullient personality shines through, especially in a television show segment in which he expertly demonstrates how to make the perfect egg cream.
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Several of the celebrities with whom he’s worked offer effusive praise, including a worshipful Stephen Colbert, who says, “His voice sounded like your favorite book”; Morgan Freeman, who early in his career was persuaded by Sheffer to leave the hit Broadway musical Hello, Dolly! to appear in one of the impresario’s low-paying productions (“I couldn’t believe he talked me out of a hit show,” the actor says, shaking his head); and such others as the late Leonard Nimoy and Stephen Lang.
“I think he bordered on genius,” declares Freeman, and after watching this documentary account of Sheffer’s wide-ranging achievements, viewers are likely to agree.
Venue: New York Jewish Film Festival
Director-producer: Catherine Tambini
Executive producers: Gina Leonetti Boonshoft, Ethel Sheffer
Director of photography: Matt Porwoll
Editor: Lenny Friedman
Not rated, 52 minutes
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