William Lockwood ’59 began booking artists at McCarter Theatre 50 years ago

Pianist Lang Lang, left, performed in October at McCarter Theatre to honor half a century of service by William Lockwood ’59, right.
Pianist Lang Lang, left, performed in October at McCarter Theatre to honor half a century of service by William Lockwood ’59, right.
Courtesy McCarter Theatre

The concert was a smash. The morning after was grim.

On Nov. 1, 1978, Bruce Springsteen thrilled an audience of 7,500 in a performance in Princeton’s Jadwin Gym sponsored by McCarter Theatre Center. On Nov. 2, dismayed University officials summoned McCarter’s special programming director, William W. Lockwood Jr. ’59, to Jadwin’s basketball court, newly pockmarked with hundreds of tiny circles: Dancing on their seats, Springsteen’s fans had ground the tips of their chair legs into the floor. “That was a dark day for McCarter and me,” Lockwood remembers. “Needless to say, that was the end of [public] rock concerts at Jadwin.”

But such disasters have been few in a career now marking a milestone — it was 50 years ago that Lockwood, then a senior English major, booked his first acts into McCarter. He’s worked there almost ever since, programming everything but the plays, and the walls of his paper-cluttered office hold the evidence: signed photographs of luminaries from Arlo Guthrie to Itzhak Perlman to Alvin Ailey.  

Lockwood attends every performance he books, pacing in the back, a “human thermometer” assessing audience reaction. He also spends a night or two each week in New York, scouting new talent at theaters, concert halls, and jazz clubs.   Even while booking major stars like Chinese pianist Lang Lang (who performed at a special tribute to Lockwood’s 50th anniversary in October), Lockwood also nurtures up-and-comers, like Armenian violinist Sergey Khachatryan. “You need to keep introducing them,” says Lockwood. “This is one of the responsibilities, I think, of people in my profession.”

Most arts presenters specialize in a single field, but Lockwood’s expertise — and omnivorous enthusiasm — encompasses everything from jazz to dance. He’ll go anywhere for a Mahler symphony, keeps 2,000 pop songs on his iPod, treats himself to Metropolitan Opera performances of Wagner’s Ring cycle, and owns tie-dyed T-shirts from 100 Grateful Dead concerts.

Lockwood’s career has tracked McCarter’s evolution from white elephant to vibrant arts center. By the late 1950s, when Lockwood and two friends decided to try their hands at presenting, McCarter was little used. They rented the theater — for Hal Holbrook’s one-man Mark Twain show, for a Carl Sandburg poetry reading, and for a performance by the Flamenco guitarist Carlos Montoya — and caught the eye of legendary impresario Sol Hurok, who promised to send his best clients to San Francisco if the Princetonians would set up shop there. Lockwood and Tom Sternberg ’59 spent three years in the Bay Area. But Lockwood returned to McCarter in 1963 to build a program that now includes some 50 music and dance performances annually.  

At 71, Lockwood has no plans to retire: He’s still passionate about discovering new talent. “Tomorrow’s another day,” he says. “There’s always somebody else.”

Deborah Yaffe is a writer in Princeton Junction, N.J.