In Chatham, Judy Grunberg is a Force of Culture
Growing up in Manhattan, Judy Grunberg and her friends used to wait outside the big Broadway theaters at dawn to make sure they got the one-dollar standing-room-only tickets when the box office opened. “As a young girl, I saw so many of the famous Broadway musicals with their original casts, and all the famous dancers of the forties and fifties—[Martha] Graham, [Alicia] Markova, Anton Dolin,” recalls Grunberg, who has lived in Columbia County for more than 40 years. “My parents were amateur musicians, and their friends were professional musicians. I feel that everybody should have what I had, that exposure [to the arts]. It becomes a part of you, like osmosis.”
When she headed north in the mid-1960s for a bucolic life upstate with her young family, Grunberg thought she’d left all that behind. Instead, she ended up bringing a hefty slice of city culture with her.
As founder of PS21 (short for Performance Spaces for the 21st Century), Chatham’s intimate summer performance venue; owner of the village’s Blue Plate restaurant (a perfect spot for pre- or post-performance cocktails or dinner); a key player in the establishment of the Chatham’s co-op market; an instrumental member of the team that saved the town’s beloved vintage movie house, the Crandell Theatre; and now the force behind the new Necessary Lines Gallery on Main Street, Grunberg has helped Chatham strike the perfect balance between country and cosmopolitan. Warm, enthusiastic, and generous with her time and energy, Grunberg has matched her passion for the arts with her dedicated involvement in the life of the community and the stewardship of the county’s natural resources.
Grunberg got involved in the local arts scene almost as soon as she and her husband, Paul, a founder and director of the tax preparation service Jackson Hewitt, Inc., settled in the Chatham area. She was the first artistic director of the Columbia Council on the Arts, which was founded in 1965 as a presenting organization. The Council brought a number of well-known dance companies, including Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and choreographer Alwin Nikolais’ troupe, to perform in various venues across Columbia County. (In one dance, the flesh-colored leotards worn by Nikolais’ dancers made them appear almost nude, stirring up a bit of a controversy, recalls Grunberg.)
Over the next two decades, as other arts presenters proliferated and the Council shifted direction, Grunberg left the organization to focus on her three sons and stepson, becoming active in the Chatham school system. In 2000, she joined the Board of Trustees of the Columbia Land Conservancy (CLC), inspired by CLC’s mission to preserve the county’s rural nature and connect people to the land. After having served on the board for 12 years, she stepped down this past spring.
Grunberg’s husband, Paul, died in 1997 after a long illness; a memorial concert in his honor is held each year at PS21. The theater is located on a 107-acre parcel of land off Route 66, a mile north of Chatham village, encompassing farmland, an apple orchard, and open meadows. (Grunberg holds apple-picking days for PS21 members, and is developing an educational program for local students to learn about orchard maintenance.) After five years of planning, PS21 opened for its first season in 2006, with a 24-by-32-foot stage and 150 seats housed beneath a 24-foot-high tent among the apple trees. It was the realization of Grunberg’s vision of a not-for-profit venue for music and dance—with the addition of theater, which she added into the mix when an opportunity arose to partner with Columbia County’s Walking the dog Theater.
PS21 landed with a splash, in the form of the world-renowned Parsons Dance troupe. David Parsons, who first gained fame as a member of dance legend Paul Taylor’s company, has choreographed productions around the world, including the turn-of-the-millennium festivities in Times Square in 2000. Why would he bring his company to a relatively tiny venue in rural Columbia County? The link: Yehuda Hanani, the internationally acclaimed cellist who is a Columbia County resident and a friend of Grunberg’s. (He’s also the director of Close Encounters with Music, a local concert series of which Grunberg is a supporter.) Hanani had collaborated with Parsons and suggested that Judy call him. “It wouldn’t have occurred to me that we could have someone of that stature in our first season,” Grunberg says.
But Grunberg called, and Parsons came—and also agreed to join her advisory board. The company has returned every summer since, including this year’s season-ending engagement on August 31 and September 1. “Now they’re like family,” Grunberg says of Parsons’ company. (She’s pictured here with two Parsons dancers, Sarah Braverman and Miguel Quinones.)
“I like the idea that those who live here get to know the dancers as people”—through master classes and workshops, mingling with audience members after shows, and hanging out in the village. One summer, she took the members of the Canadian company Rubberbandance to Our Daily Bread bakery on Main Street for lunch; a couple of drummers were playing outside the bakery, and the dancers started improvising on the pavement. “It was like this ‘happening’ in downtown Chatham,” Grunberg recalls with delight.
Through the years, Grunberg also pursued her passion for making art. “I always did my own artwork, even if it was just a woodcut for a Christmas card,” she says, “or staying up late in the darkroom, working on my black-and-white photographs.” She also sketched portraits while attending meetings around the county; a selection of these are on view in Across the Table, the inaugural show at the Necessary Lines Gallery at 12 Main St. in Chatham, which Grunberg opened in May. While she’s still working out the details, she plans to make the space available to other local artists show their work there. It’s just down the street from the Blue Plate, which Grunberg bought in 1997, and ReWraps, the resale clothing store she created in 2005 to help finance PS21 and give the summer venue visibility during the winter months.
PS21 is now midway through its seventh season, a schedule that included classical, klezmer, and Arab music; Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard; performances by five dance companies, including Parsons Dance; and workshops and classes for community members of all ages. In the venue’s six-season history, only one performance has been cancelled due to weather, thanks to Hurricane Irene last year.
The outdoor setting has provided some serendipitous accompaniment, such as the thunder that rolled through during a particularly dramatic passage of Verdi’s Requiem, or the whistling train that trundled through Chatham just as the Stage Manager in Our Town made reference to the “Boston train.” The tent has also proved an ideal setting for movie nights, “summer sings” for the public, and swing dancing, with live music and professional instruction, on Friday nights. “There’s a real sense of community,” Grunberg says of PS21. “People love being there.” —Tresca Weinstein