by David Cruz
When Eva Bornstein was asked to describe the atmosphere at Lehman Center for the Performing Arts prior to becoming its executive director, she turned to her secretary who knew the history beforehand. “Very dead, very sparse,” the secretary said bluntly. “We had no movement.”
That was nearly 10 years ago. These days, Bornstein has inspired the borough’s cultural jewel to get its second wind, showcasing some big names in its theater while also shattering borough stereotypes. Not bad, considering performers often prefer to showcase their talents at Madison Square Garden or Radio City rather than a venue 11 miles away.
“But the competition is very stiff at times,” said Bornstein.
Still, her headliners have included some big names from all spheres of the entertainment world, including the New York Philharmonic, Patti
LaBelle, and Jerry Seinfeld, who performed at Lehman over a year ago. Seinfeld, who refused to take pictures with fans, was happy enough to take one with Bornstein.
It’s her charm, utilizing her soft-spoken Polish accent to attract established artists to the Lehman stage. This year, her crown jewel of a headliner is Michael Bolton, the R&B jazz performer expected to lend his musical voice on June 7. Aside from Bolton’s performance in Yankee Stadium in 2001, it’s his first show in the Bronx.
“That’s going to be our spring gala event,” said Bornstein. “I’m working on details as we speak. I’m working on getting sponsors so we can have a fabulous dinner after the show and have several sponsors.”
Other names in the spring lineup include famed guitarist Sharon Isbin (March 23), the King of Blues BB King (April 19), and Latin sensation Jose Feliciano (May 10), who has become a staple at any venue Bornstein leads. “He knows whenever I get a job he’s on the roster. Somehow he ends up to be,” she said.
Perhaps it’s her natural charm that’s led to nearly 40 years of success as a power broker for world performers, using that charm to convince artists of the exposure they’ll receive at Lehman Center. The 2300-seat theater has bolstered its prominence, thanks to the recent addition of big screen TVs aimed at capturing onstage performances.
Bolton certainly sees it. Through a spokeswoman, Bolton labeled Bornstein a “real visionary” and “risk taker in her mission to bring an array of artistic and cultural experiences to her venue and make them accessible to everyone.”
She’s done quite well over the span of her career, traveling around the world for each theater job she’s taken. She’s made stops in Canada, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Connecticut before settling in the Bronx.
Bornstein’s personal story begins with theater in Krakow, Poland during the era of Communism. When she was 17, she went to drama school, studying Constantin Stanislavski’s Method Acting. But her dreams of stardom mixed with feelings of escape from the oppressive region. “You couldn’t just easily leave,” recalled Bornstein. “You either had to escape or you had to find a way to do it. So my way was a movie that I did in Paris because then I got a visa out of Poland to go to France.” Her option was easier than “being shot on a border.”
“…[L]eaving your country you have to be brave because you know you can’t return, so it’s a big decision you’re making,” she said.
From France, Bornstein bounced off to London. After hearing the Canadian government’s attempts at luring more Europeans to its country through incentives, Bornstein hopped on a ship and sailed to Toronto. Her first job was quite daunting—leading a network of theaters as cultural director for York University.
She soon married an American, and was off to Chicago following a 12-year tenure at the liberal arts school. Several other stops included stints in Connecticut and back to Toronto where she became an international scout, globetrotting to find undiscovered talents. She returned to the states, settling in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, working for a re-booted theater company. Dabbling in startups certainly gave Bornstein a sense of pride. “I love startup situations because you’re not walking into someone’s mess. You can create your own mess from zero,” she laughed.
Bornstein arrived to the Lehman Center as its executive director following five interviews with the City University of New York’s Board of Directors. By then she had already established herself as a leading lady of theater management. From there, she went to work recapturing the potential the theater experience presented.
But the list of names serves as a catalyst to draw out-of-towners who may not know much about a borough still burdened by the nagging “Bronx is burning” mold. Bornstein, seizing upon the wealthy demographic who visit Lehman, sees the need to shatter stereotypes as a way to ensure Lehman stays packed.
During a performance by Johnny Mathis, Bornstein struck up a conversation with one diehard Mathis fan from Manhattan. It was the fan’s first time in the Bronx, taken aback by “how calm it is.”
Bornstein, who commutes from Manhattan via the 4 train line to the Bedford Park Station, found the comment “very odd.” “In a way I feel safer in the Bronx than in Manhattan, to be honest with you,” she said.
Lehman Center hosts performances year round. For the latest lineup, go to www.lehmancenter.org.