Kurt Vonnegut once commented, in an interview with Joseph Heller, that the best audience he had ever encountered was at the 92nd Street Y in New York. “Those people know everything. They are wide awake and responsive.”
Located at the corner of 92nd Street and Lexington Avenue, the 92Y has a venerable history of public performance, conversation, poetry and beyond. Vonnegut himself appeared at the 92Y seven times to read aloud from his own work. (Including this reading from Breakfast of Champions three years before the book was published.)
Cultural programming has been a focus at the 92Y since it opened in 1874. Originally, it served mostly German-Jewish men (note, it isn’t a YMCA, but a YM-YWHA—Young Men’s and Women’s Hebrew Association). But the Kaufmann Concert Hall opened in 1930, and that’s where a veritable Who’s Who of noted entertainment, politics, sports, and science figures have appeared over the years, speaking to that “wide awake and responsive” audience.
Lucky for the rest of us, the 92Y recorded the vast majority of those performances. And now 1,000 recordings appear on a new site, 92Y On Demand. It’s a fantastic archive of audio and video files, searchable by topic, year or performer name.
It’s all there: Yogi Berra looking back on his life and career. A 1961 reading by a young Nadine Gordimer. Harold Pinter reading his own short stories and weighing in on the Beatles vs. the Rolling Stones. Andrés Segovia playing a classical guitar recital. Lou Reed speaking on the eve of his live performance of Berlin (top). Billy Crystal (below) on roasting Muhammad Ali.
92Y is home to the Unterberg Poetry Center, so the new archive abounds with poetry readings. Dylan Thomas read there in 1953. Two years earlier playwright Thornton Wilder appeared and read from Emily Dickinson’s work. And closer to our own time, Paul McCartney recently read from his own poetry.