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In the Spotlight

Incensed by inequality in all its forms, Westporter Harold Levine has a history of creating opportunities for arts instruction available to all

David Labianca

photographs by david labianca

Harold Levine, a longtime Westport resident and champion of public schools and the arts, has community activism in his blood. His support for the Music and Arts Center for Humanity (MACH) is just one small expression of it, but it’s an important one. The multifaceted program, which is in the process of changing its name to Neighborhood Studios, is a local treasure, having enriched the lives of thousands of disadvantaged and disabled children and adults over the past three decades. In its year-round arts program and four summer camps, MACH offers instruction in painting, sculpture, theater, dance, and professional skills, and, ultimately, it gives its underserved participants something even more valuable: self-esteem.

Levine’s activism was forged when he was a youngster, growing up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side during the 1930s. The octogenarian recalls lively conversations around the Friday night dinner table about Hitler, European Jewry, Southern blacks and other politically charged issues. His older brother mentored him in these issues. His uncle, a prominent rabbi who ran the Institutional Synagogue in Harlem, served as a role model for fostering a sense of community involvement. And his Orthodox grandmother always had a tzedakah, or charity, box in her house. “Our family conversations were more influential and educational to me than school,” says Levine.

Years later, he and his wife, Sue, moved to Freeport, Long Island, where they sent their children to public schools and Levine’s seeds of activism began to sprout. Even while commuting to the city as an ad man (not a Mad Man—“I didn’t drink, smoke, or fool around,” he says), he found time to get involved in the local public schools, eventually becoming chairman of the school board. Freeport, with its small black community, was going through a significant civil rights movement. Levine, a determined antisegregationist, says one of his proudest accomplishments was closing the all-black schools and moving kids into schools around town. Those shuttered schools were reborn as integrated early-childhood centers. He also established an arts council.

“My community involvement really helped my career,” says Levine, who has a knack for turning casual meetings into enduring relationships. “When I got involved with the school board, I insisted we have a good lawyer for race issues. One night that lawyer called and asked if Sue and I played bridge. We didn’t, but when the lawyer said that [newsman] Chet and Tippy Huntley did and were over and would we like to meet them, we raced over.” The result of that meeting: the founding, in 1970, of the Levine, Huntley and Schmidt ad agency.

The following year Levine was asked to serve on the board of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Though flattered, he demurred, assuming the invitation came with the expectation of a large contribution. “I’d just started my own agency and couldn’t afford that, but they said they just wanted my marketing expertise.” So he agreed, on the condition that there was synergy between himself and the founder. “A meeting was scheduled, but I was told that Alvin was very private and would only give me ten minutes,” Levine recalls forty years later. “So I met Mr. Ailey—a big, burly guy—and he said, ‘I’m glad to meet you, but we’re in rehearsals….” An hour later, I came out. It was a love affair. Alvin was brilliant, creative, empathetic. He saw the problems of the black community, especially in the arts.”

Levine was no dyed-in-the-wool dance fan. “I had seen the company, I liked the performance—and I don’t particularly like ballet, but there’s something very exciting about modern dance—and I liked the social message of a dance company that had blacks and Hispanics, Asians and Caucasians dancing together.” So for eleven years, Levine served as an active board member, five of them as its chairman.

Word about the company’s initiatives spread. One day Levine took a call from the mayor of Kansas City, who was reaching out for help when his city was experiencing serious race problems. The company went on to “adopt” Kansas City as an Alvin Ailey “second city” and even wrote and performed a ballet about its legendary blues musicians. “The troupe were role models,” Levine says. “I had a theory: Whenever the Ailey troupe was on tour, they’d visit prisons or schools.” Out of this community outreach, the Bridgeport Ailey Camp was conceived.

Harold wasn’t the only Levine with good friendship karma. When they had first moved to Westport, in 1978, Sue was disappointed that they weren’t greeted with open arms. “It was a big change from Freeport, and Sue got a little depressed,” he recalls. “So she started her own public service PR firm and sent letters to 200 nonprofits. Exactly one replied, a lady named Pat Hart, who asked, ‘Where have you been?’ ”

Hart was a gifted musician who was losing her sight. That loss gave her the great impetus to create a music program for the visually impaired. With an initial $25,000 grant, she established a program at the University of Bridgeport, and over the years, it blossomed into MACH. Today, the program comprises a year-round arts program and four summer camps: the Ailey dance camp; Conservatory; and Summer Institute for Blind Musicians; and Camp Hart, for differently abled young people. “Hart camp is very important,” says its namesake, “because so many parents have told me there’s no appropriate day camp to send their disabled kids to.”

The Bridgeport/Westport Connection

MACH serves more than a small minority of disadvantaged kids in Bridgeport. “Twenty to twenty-five percent of the general population has some of kind ‘disability,’ explains Pat Hart. “It’s important for Westport to support this because their children could use it, too. ‘Disabled’ doesn’t mean ‘disadvantaged.’ With [the rebranding of] Neighborhood Studios, there’s no reason there can’t be studios in Westport, Stamford, and Greenwich. Also, a place like Bridgeport doesn’t have the funds available. Many of those children would never get to play an instrument or dance or have art instruction if it weren’t for our support.”

In MACH’s early days, Harold Levine paid a visit to the Bridgeport schools. “I knew Westport kids were getting a good education,” he says, “but the kids in Bridgeport were getting short-changed. I told the principal that he needed something like an Ailey program, and he said, ‘Harold, if you could bring that, it would be a blessing!’”

Between Levine’s connections to Ailey and Sue’s to MACH, he did just that, and the Ailey summer dance camp was born. “Alvin already had a New Visions program in Manhattan for blind adults, and when he learned public schools weren’t providing physical education to the handicapped kids, he brought the program into schools. From there, we started the camp, and Joanne Woodward and Ann Sheffer helped raise the money,” he says.

One of MACH’s long-standing sculpture teachers, Steffi Friedman, is a fixture on the Westport arts scene. She funds her program herself, at a cost of $6,000 a year. “The children in Westport get everything they want and need—arts, education, theater, everything,” she says. “Our neighbors in Bridgeport don’t get it in their schools or home. It is our responsibility that the poor and underprivileged get that same opportunity, and one way to get it is through the arts.” Friedman, whose family escaped Nazi Germany two weeks before deadly Kristallnacht, talks about the positive effect arts instruction has on these kids, all of whom have some kind of problem or issue. One of her young students is living in his ninth foster home. Another, with a mentally ill mother, homeschooled herself. There are two sisters so terrified of the drugs and gang violence in the hallways of school that they are moving in with a relative in another school district.

This past summer the camps’ theme was something close to Friedman’s heart, The Diary of Anne Frank. (Her family spent a brief period in hiding, down the block from the Franks.) The arts students built a replica of the hiding place. It was displayed in the lobby of the Westport Country Playhouse, which staged the play this fall. Over the next few years, the replica will move around to local churches and synagogues. Also, the Jazz Ensemble performed period music at the reception of the October 5 performance, hosted as Neighborhood Studios Night.

“Exposure to the arts gives children a chance to think creatively,” says Friedman. “A lot of sculpture is based on engineering—good training in thinking from a learning point of view. Sculpture helps one’s self-image, showing them that they can do almost anything if they learn to think. They’re really excited about Anne Frank, they relate. They’ve all had negative experiences.”

Most important about the Neighborhood Studios program, says Pat Hart, is that “it opens the door for people to explore the arts, to find their inner voice for self-expression, which gives them the confidence to accomplish other things in life.”