Joe Rosenberg

Architecture and Theatre Historian
After receiving his Ph.D. in Medical Biochemistry from the Fels Cancer Research Institute, Joe took a post-doctoral research fellowship in New York, thus beginning a life-long love of New York City and its rich arts and historic regions. He worked with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis on the Committee to Save Grand Central Terminal and as co-founder of “The Showpeople’s Committee to Save Radio City Music Hall,” Joe was responsible for the landmark designation of Radio City Music Hall, thus saving it from demolition. He is also largely responsible for the landmark designations of 35 Broadway Theatres, 7 theatres on 42nd Street (including the New Amsterdam and New Victory Theatres), the Beacon Theatre, and New York’s Town Hall. He has worked to preserve the arts and historic regions in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and the United Kingdom. In Hollywood, Joe received The League of Historic American Theatre’s “2006 Lifetime Achievement Award” for his contributions to the U.S. preservation theatre movement.

Q: Your degree is in medical biochemistry. How did you become interested in saving historic buildings in New York City?
A: For as long as I can remember, I have been interested in ornate motion picture palaces, but it was not until I moved to New York that I became interested in architectural preservation and theatre. When it was announced that Radio City Music Hall was scheduled for demolition, I formed a "Showpeople's Committee to Save Radio City." After the Music Hall was saved, I was asked to help with the landmark designation of the threatened New Amsterdam Theatre (one of the most beautiful theatres in the world, now beautifully renovated by Disney and home to Mary Poppins). After the landmark designation of the New Amsterdam, I started—in conjunction with Actor's Equity—an organization called Save The Theatres, which tried unsuccessfully to save several other historic theaters from demolition. However, eventually we were able to get 35 remaining Broadway theatres designated as landmarks. As time went on, I was asked to consult with preservation organizations in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and the UK—mostly to save old theatres, but occasionally for designating historic districts.
Q: What do you consider your greatest success story in your long career of saving historic theaters?
A: Because I pass them every day of my life, I am most proud of being a part of saving Radio City Music Hall, the New Amsterdam, and 35 of the 40 operating Broadway Theatres.
Q: You now dedicate your time leading architecture and theater tours in New York City. Are you still saving endangered buildings in your spare time?
A: Unfortunately I don't have the spare time to become actively involved in saving endangered buildings. However, I have remained very active with the League of Historic American Theatres and once a year, I help organize a conference which brings together Executive Directors of historic theatres from across the U.S. and Canada.
Q: What are the first steps you take to rescue a theater? Who do you call first?
A: Becoming a member of the League of Historic American Theatres and meeting people who have already gone through the saving/restoration process, is the best way to get started. Before saving a building, theatre or non-theatre, it is important to make sure there will be a use for the building after it is saved. Saving a building from demolition is sometimes the easiest part – finding a financially successful way of using the building is often harder. The hardest thing to do is come to the conclusion that there will be no future for a building if it is saved – and then letting go of it.
Q: We are seeing many historic theaters on our Smithsonian Backstage on Broadway tour. Which do you consider the most significant?
A: We will be visiting the legendary Apollo Theatre in Harlem, which was one of the best known theatres in the world. We'll also be visiting the New Amsterdam Theatre which is the most beautiful Art Nouveau Theatre ever built. During the New York Theatre Tour, we will be seeing three hit Broadway musicals, each of which will probably be in one of the 35 theatres which were designated as a result of our organization "Save The Theatres."