NEW YORK — Over the last decade, the Lehman Center for the Performing Arts has served the Latino population in the Bronx by hosting stars including José Feliciano, Gilberto Santa Rosa and La India, while attracting a wider audience with acts like Patti LaBelle and Smokey Robinson.
Now, the newly renovated theater located on the CUNY’s Lehman College campus is celebrating its 41st season, after having to cancel the 40th due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Its eclectic Spring program begins Sunday with the Polish Wieniawski Philharmonic Orchestra, followed by the Ballet Folklórico de México on February 20.
One of the Bronx’s largest cultural institutions, the Lehman Center reopened its doors last October after a 19-month hiatus with a show headlined by Andy Montañez, aka “El Godfather de la Salsa,” with The Mambo Legends Orchestra and Patty Padilla.
“Reopening was amazing. People really enjoyed it,” executive director Eva Bornstein says of that first performance. “We have all these stipulations that everybody has to be vaccinated, wear a mask and all that. After we got through all this and people came in, artists performed. It was magic.”
For Bornstein, who has seen the 2,276-seat theater packed many times since becoming director in 2005, that success was especially meaningful. The theater’s pandemic closure had come just months after the completion of a costly renovation.
“We’ve put $15.4 million into the center and then the pandemic said, ‘Uh-uh, stay home people’,” she says. “It was terrifying. We lost 90% of the income. We were saying, ‘How we’re gonna survive this? How do we plan? What do we do?'”
The help eventually came in the form of a $1 million federal Shuttered Venue Operators Grant — a program created after leaders of arts venues around the country reached out to politicians saying they couldn’t survive without help.
“It was difficult because it was a new grant, so they were constantly revising which paperwork to submit, doing Zoom meetings day and night. Some people just gave up, but I stayed with it and, fortunately, the federal government came through,” Bornstein says.
Serving the Latino community in the Bronx, the only New York City borough with a majority Hispanic population, has been pivotal for the Lehman Center. But it wasn’t part of the job when Bornstein joined in.
“The audience in the Bronx changed. From Riverdale crowd, it became Latino,” she said, referencing a neighborhood in the Bronx with a large Jewish population.
“I drove around the Bronx and I listened to the music people listened to in their cars. I was watching everyday people listening to music and I noticed that they were doing a lot of salsa and merengue,” Bornstein said.
Originally from Poland, Bornstein had a background in classical music, theater and ballet, but she says she took a big chance and revamped the center’s programming.
“I had to do a 100% mental switch. I started really researching who are the big stars in Puerto Rico, who are the big stars in the Dominican Republic and how can we bring them here, and also who are the big stars for our African American community. I did a complete switch-over,” she says. “And everybody said, ‘You’re crazy! Nobody from the Bronx can afford these tickets.’ But I took a chance to make it drastically different.”
This spring, a March 5 concert, entitled “Palladium in the New Millennium,” reminisces on the 1950’s and 60s Palladium Ballroom at 53rd and Broadway, where Machito, Tito Puente and Tito Rodríguez headlined as “The Big Three.” The show features the sons of the three legends — Tito Rodríguez Jr., Mario “Machito” Grillo and Tito Puente Jr. — carrying the torch as “The Big 3 Palladium Orchestra.”
With tickets ranging from $25 to $100, people can enjoy a high quality performance for a fraction of what bigger venues in Manhattan charge. Last December, it hosted the Westchester Ballet “Nutcracker.”
“For many people, this may be the only opportunity to see ‘Nutcracker’ because going to ABT (American Ballet Theater) costs a fortune,” Bornstein notes.
Opened in 1980 with a performance by the New York Philharmonic, the Lehman Center for the Performing Arts was designed by Jan Hird Pokorny and David F.M. Todd & Associates.
The recent renovation included new seats, a new wing with new bathrooms and elevators to improve accessibility. It preserved acoustics that Bornstein called “perfect.”
Salsa legend Willie Colón, who was born in the Bronx, said in a 2020 video promoting the venue during its closure that it has been a source of pride for the borough.
“I love performing here because the energy makes me feel at home,” he said.
Another salsa star, José Alberto “El Canario,” said in another video that the Lehman Center is one of his favorite venues.
“Is in the heart of the salsa county, the Bronx, and I feel at home. Even if I’m Dominican, the audience makes me feel that way,” he said.
This spring’s program includes the dance and music production Tango Argentina (April 3); “Motown with a Twist,” with stars from “Dancing With The Stars,” “So You Think You Can Dance,” “American Idol” and “The Voice” (May 7); Puerto Rican salsa band La Sonora Ponceña (May 14), Dominican singer Manny Cruz in his US debut (May 21), The Purple Xperience Tribute to Prince (May 28) and merengue singer Manny Manuel’s “Lleno de Vida” concert (June 4), among others.