To understand Sandra Robbins at age 81 (and the values behind the Shadow Box Theater she created) is to understand several key layers of the history of the twentieth century in New York City and America.
First, Sandy was born in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, in 1933 to two European-Jewish immigrants. Her father sold coats at a department store, but lost his job during the Great Depression and became a taxi driver. He worked the night shift while Sandy's mother worked as a typist during the day. The family lived in an apartment with two small bedrooms which housed Sandy, her parents, her sister, her grandmother and often an aunt, uncle or cousin who needed a home. Growing up in the Depression gave Sandy a lifelong understanding and empathy for those living in poverty, abhorrence for excess and a distrust of relying on credit - of spending more than she's had – personally and for the theater.
Secondly, Sandy became a teenager in the 1940s as women were first going to college en masse and working outside the home in professions like nursing, teaching and office administration. As a child, Sandy was a strong student. Finding the right career drove her. She eventually chose to audition for and join what would be the second graduating class of the High School of Performing Arts (the model for the movie “Fame,” and now a part of LaGuardia High School). This was a heart-wrenching decision for someone who was raised with dreams of financial practicality and success. After high school, while still dancing, Sandy became licensed as a preschool teacher at her parents' urging to provide her a way to make a living.
Thirdly, Sandy was married in 1953, at age 19, to Arthur Robbins, whom she met at summer camp. Their marriage was less traditional and more equitable than most of their peers. While Sandy has lived much of her life in the supporting role of wife and gatekeeper to a well-known psychotherapist, Art has kept The Shadow Box Theatre and his wife's opportunity to have a meaningful career alive, even when money was tight and the needs of three young children high. Sandy had financial security to not take a salary from the theater because of his success and the theater and its staff work out of their home.
And finally, Sandy found her identity in the 1960s, the years when the air in the street felt most in sync. The country and city were alive with fights against injustice and hopes for peace. Art as creative expression and political statement became popular culture. Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, and the country watched it on home television sets. All seemed possible. For Sandy, a dreamer, a dancer, a teacher and a humanist, this was an open door to create.
On February 8, 2015, Manhattan celebrated, by proclamation: “Sandra Robbins Appreciation Day.” The honor was conceived and orchestrated by The Shadow Box Theater's staff and board. The theater would have a special weekend performance of “The African Drum” and invite elected officials, former staff and supporters to celebrate Sandy, the theater's founder and director, and the longevity and impact of the theater citywide.
Sandy had mixed feelings about the celebration. Did she deserve this honor? Were people trying to use this as a goodbye when she wasn't ready to say goodbye?
When the day arrived, former dancers, musicians and performers filled a rows of chairs at the National Theater of Harlem. Sandy's daughter, son-in-law, granddaughter and husband Art sat in the front. And, at the feet of all of these “grown-ups” was an oversized rug, filled with children, many lying on their bellies, as if they were watching a live show unfold in their living room.
Before the performance began, Letitia James, the New York City Public Advocate, came to hug Sandy and throw her support behind the organization. The theater used to be housed in the Brooklyn YWCA in James's city council district, and she had been a funder and occasional audience member to their shows.
“Sandy is someone who has taught me a lot about serving children and providing art in the lives of children,” she said. “I remember seeing the light in the eyes of the children because it was so mesmerizing.”
“I wanted to take time out of my day to say I love you. I adore you. Congratulations.”
The proclamation, signed by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, recognized Sandy for “realizing her vision for an interracial and multicultural theater for New York City's young audiences” and for having “trained hundreds of performers from all ethnic and artistic backgrounds and influenced the creative lives of millions of children.”
There were flowers, hugs and tears. Sandy was touched, overwhelmed and pleased.
The Shadow Box Theatre not only has grass root beginnings, it literally began in the grass. In 1967, in the middle of the civil rights movement, Sandy and a group of stay-at-home mothers pressured the city to reopen Riverside Park at 103rd St., where it had been closed over safety concerns.
As a part of the park reopening, the mothers began a program for children and their families in the summer.
“Here we were, a group of college graduates without work, and looking for something important to give the city and something to do.”
Because of her background as a dancer and preschool teacher, Sandy took the lead, directing the program for younger children. Her daughter Laura, then one year old, was in a carriage beside her, her daughter Melissa, 4, and Michael, 7, were enrolled in the program.
One of the mothers' motivations was to have parents and children of different races and economic backgrounds interact with each other.
“We were do-gooders. We wanted to make this a community where our children as well as ourselves could break the barriers that came from lack of knowledge of each other,” Sandy said.
“I would make up stories and I would make up songs. I'd have kids be active in creating and making the story. At story time, suddenly there were people from all over coming. I'd have huge circles around when I told a story. 60, 70, 80 gathered. It got bigger and bigger.”
Story time in the park evolved into a traveling grant-funded music, art and puppet show program on a bus called “The Children's Caravan” that Sandy and a few other activist-artists would drive from park to park.
“In that period of the 60s and 70s, you could do anything,” she said.
The original program evolved into the Bloomingdale Family Program, a still thriving early childhood education program in the neighborhood. And The Shadow Box Theatre was founded by Sandy and a group of mothers who were artists of different types – including the Broadway actor Roberta Streicher and Hazel Froud, a woman who had been trained in shadow puppetry in England. She introduced the art to Sandy.
“The first time I saw shadow puppets, it just touched me,” Sandy said. “I thought that's what I should do, I should make puppets dance.”
Puppetry for children – just not shadow puppetry - was the way of the day, with Howdy Doody and Shari Lewis and Lamb Chop at the center of children's lives. “Sesame Street” still wouldn't debut until two years after the theater began.
In 1968, a major teacher strike – sparked by racial tensions -- paralyzed the city. School was closed for the first two months of the school year. The Shadow Box Theatre took on a critical role during this time – housing and performing for thousands of kids the first time inside at Ansche Chesed, a synagogue on W. 100th St which gave them free space.
The Shadow Box Theatre later moved to performing at P.S. 75, then Riverside Church and a series of other locations. They were the children's theater at the Brooklyn YWCA for many years, while maintaining their office and connections on the West side of Manhattan.
Over several decades, the theater has grown to serving about 30,000 children a year. The theater is now housed at P.S. 3 in Bedford-Stuyvesant Brooklyn in exchange for giving free performances to the children of that school. Schools from all boroughs bring classes of kids to see their shows. The theater also brings traveling puppet shows and puppet-making workshops to schools around the city.
On February 9, the day after “Sandra Robbins Appreciation Day,” the month turned sour in the Robbins household.
The congratulatory flowers were still alive and blooming. The freshly framed proclamation was on display in the Robbins' living room. And Sandy stood in her kitchen before dinnertime, talking on the house phone. She was talking to Carol Prud'homme Davis, the theater's managing director, who helped orchestrate the activities the previous day. While talking, Sandy fell squarely over Art's walker flat on to her belly and her face. She was lying on the floor of the kitchen, with Art unable to help her up. The office staff ran in.
From the floor, Sandy called her daughter Laura, who happened to be nearby and raced over. Laura, a pediatrician, assessed that Sandy didn't break her ribs. Sandy slowly stood up. At the doctor a day later, Sandy, used to pushing through sickness and injury, was cautioned that she had a long recovery ahead.
Her pain – more than she said she could have ever imagined from bruised ribs – forced her to focus on resting and caring for herself. There were days at a time when she was stuck inside. This brought to the surface several issues that had been festering. First, could the theater survive without her close involvement? Secondly, could she and Art remain independent when they were collectively so dependent on Sandy's strength? And perhaps most disturbing, was this a vision of what the future would look like for both of them?
One evening, about a week after Sandy's fall, Art and Sandy sat in their living room, energy lower than usual. Art ran a therapy group earlier in the day, still on full-time oxygen, but with a sharp mind. He fell asleep for one of the first times during a session this week and the embarrassment was still stinging.
Sandy tried to avoid turning her head side to side and winced getting out of her chair. This made it challenging for her to give direction to Marcus Turnage, one of The Shadow Box Theatre actors, who was being paid to shop and cook dinner for the evening, as he has regularly for the past year to supplement his actor's wages. Cooking in the Robbins household is a complicated, often frustrating task because of Art's no-salt diet. Marcus had just gone to the store on a quest for no-salt tomato sauce, but returned with “low sodium” canned tomatoes that are still too salty for Art to eat.
“There is a real awareness of what I do for him that I can't do. It is very anxiety producing,” Sandy said.
“If we both don't get sick at the same time then we're fine,” Art said. “If we're sick at the same time, we've got troubles.”
Sandy is in so much pain that she has been sleeping sitting up in one of the chairs in Art's office. She is unable to help him during the night as she usually does, and neither of them are sure who could possibly fill that role.
While Sandy is in pain and they are both tired, Art's mind is on something bigger. In the deep, cold days of late February, he is mourning their days of travel. He wants to plan a vacation and doesn't know how that will be possible. Even their house upstate – their refuge on a lake in the woods – has been off limits because of the cold and ice. He is feeling trapped, his wanderlust still strong at 85.
Neither Art nor Sandy like cruise ships or large resorts. They tend to rent apartments or houses when they travel but imagine that they will need greater supports. From their living room, at the end of a challenging day, Art reminisces about their trips to Mexico, their family trips to Cape Cod, their trips across Europe, their time living in Japan when he was in the service.
Sandy is ready to skip dinner, take Rosie their dog outside and go to sleep.
“No one is talking about a vacation now,” she said. “Let's get through this first.”
This series is a production of the Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center at Columbia's Mailman School of Public Health. It is led by Dorian Block and Ruth Finkelstein. It is funded by the New York Community Trust. To find all of the interviews and more, go to www.exceedingexpectations.ny
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