Town Hall: venue for free speech

Built by a group of suffragettes in 1921, Town Hall’s original goal was to make educated and politically sophisticated voters out of New York’s men and women. Its roots go back to 1894, when six prominent women established the League of Political Education after the state’s constitutional convention refused to give women the vote.

In its first 10 years, a series of lectures offered at its office on 44th Street focused on topics such as reform politics, racism, poverty and immigration. The second decade included lectures by Theodore Roosevelt, Samuel Gompers and nationally known suffragist Emmeline Gould Pankhurst. To expand its membership, it also featured poets such as William Yeats and John Masefield, as well as other interesting speakers.

The success of the League forced it to consider building its own auditorium, with a groundbreaking held in 1920. That same year, women won the vote when the 19th Amendment to the Constitution took effect on Aug. 26.

Town Hall’s founders intended it to be a symbol of women winning the vote as well as a spark for a new social climate. The democratic principles of the League were evident in the design of the auditorium, which did away with boxes and had only seats with unobstructed views.

On Nov. 13, 1921, birth control advocate Margaret Sanger came to speak. A police officer walked to the stage during her talk and blocked her completely from the eyes and ears of the audience. Still, she completed the speech before the officer escorted her to the precinct, followed by many from the audience. She was interrogated and released, but the press made much of the incident as an unwarranted and unconstitutional act.

On Aug. 23, 1929, the hall held the second anniversary memorial of the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, after Boston’s Fanueil Hall refused to allow the event. Sacco and Vanzetti were two immigrant peddlers, framed and executed for murder in Massachusetts in a case that drew international protests. Police officers mingled with the audience and harassed the speakers.

In 1935 the hall’s new assistant director, believing that democracy is ineffective, even dangerous, unless voters are fully informed about all viewpoints, came up with the idea of hosting a town meeting, a radio program in which four speakers discussed a predetermined question. Each speaker would summarize his or her view and take questions from the audience. The first Town Meeting, airing on NBC on Memorial Day 1935, addressed the topics of communism, fascism, and democracy.

The Town Meeting broadcasts became a symbol of the free exchange of ideas. Television, though, was the death knell for the Town Meeting.

Today, Town Hall is host to films, concerts, forums, and children’s events. Ticket prices are purposely kept affordable.

In 1998 Town Hall created its Lab in Technical Theater and Stagecraft, a program for high school students who don’t plan to go on to college. It provides training in theater crafts such as lighting and set construction, as well as basic employment skills.

Thus, the dream of the six women in 1894 has come full circle: as a school for individuals whose studies will hopefully turn them into the intelligent voters of tomorrow that the League of Political Education originally intended, more than a century ago. (Town Hall, 123 W. 43 St.; 212-997-1003; www.the-townhall-nyc.org.)

— Carolyn Rummel