Theatre Within's first Annual John Lennon Tribute took place just down the street from the Dakota, in jazz great Billie Holiday's former music studio, then home to an experimental theatre workshop called Theatre Within. A small group of performing artists and their friends were drawn together by the ex-Beatles' senseless murder.
"It was very emotional and sad," remembers Tribute co-creator Joe Raiola, "but it felt good to come together to remember John -- so we kept doing it."
Created in 1981 by Theatre Within Workshop founder, Alec Rubin, and his then student Joe Raiola, Theatre Within's Annual John Lennon Tribute is now a much-loved New York City tradition. Each year's Tribute brings together an acclaimed group of artists to celebrate Lennon's music, life and timeless message of peace and love.
Under Alec Rubin direction for 20 years, the Tribute was an evening of experimental theatre, dance and song in Lennon's memory. Raiola, a comedian and Senior Editor at Mad Magazine, assumed the role of producer and performed a Lennon-themed comedy set each year. Raiola recalls, "It wasn't what you'd except from a Lennon Tribute, but it reflected Alec's vision as an artist and it was very powerful."
In 2001 Rubin retired, handing off full creative control of the Tribute to Raiola. "I loved what we'd done, but I had a different vision for what it could be," he says. So that year he re-envisioned the Tribute, breaking away from its established format and turning it into an offbeat charity concert with dance and humor segments.
Yoko Ono first learned of the Tribute in 2004 and invited Raiola to contribute to her book, Memories of John Lennon. The following year, the Tribute's Silver Anniversary was held at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.
Over the next five years the Tribute grew in size and prominence, attracting such notable performers as Joan Osborne, David Bromberg and Bettye LaVette, while raising money to feed the hungry and build music schools in the Third World.
The 30th Annual John Lennon Tribute, a sell-out at the Beacon Theatre in November 2010, featured a star-studded line-up of artists, including Rock and Roll Hall of Famers Jackson Browne and Patti Smith, plus Taj Mahal, Aimee Mann, Cyndi Lauper, Shelby Lynne, Martin Sexton, Keb' Mo' and Alejandro Escovedo. An album featuring highlights from the Tribute was released in 2011.
Theatre Within's 32nd Annual John Lennon Tribute, a benefit for WhyHunger, will take place at Symphony Space on Friday, November 30 at 8pm. Artists scheduled to appear include the legendary Judy Collins, Shelby Lynne, Joan Osborne, Dar Williams, David Johansen, Dan Bern, Rich Pagano, and the Nutopians.