When he started at Brooklyn College in the late 70s, Jimmy Smits was an education major, but by the time he graduated in 1980, he had switched to theatre. When he wasn't in class or rehearsing, one of his favorite pastimes was waiting in line at the TKTS booth in Times Square, hoping to score discount tickets to a show.
Thanks to TKTS, Smits got tickets to see famous Hispanic performers like Raúl Juliá and Priscilla Lopez. They inspired him as an actor and activist who identifies strongly with his Puerto Rican roots, and he hoped that one day he could be like them.
He succeeded. Smits rocketed to fame on TV series like L.A. Law and NYPD Blue, and he earned 12 Emmy nominations along the way. He even co-starred with Lopez in an off-Broadway play in 1983 and again in Broadway's Anna in the Tropics in 2003.
Smits' successful journey was highlighted last week, when Lopez introduced him at the gala to benefit Theatre Development Fund's successful new partnership with the City University of New York.
Smits was honored along with CUNY chancellor Matthew Goldstein, and everyone celebrated BEAT (Bridging Education and Theatre), a TDF-CUNY initiative designed to introduce the CUNY community to New York City's performing arts.
As he spoke to a roomful of theatre and education professionals at CUNY's graduate center, Smits recalled how the theatre impacted his student years. "Theatre Development Fund and the TKTS booth on one side, and CUNY on the other side have been really formative in me being what I am," he said. "I'm your poster boy."
The BEAT program is designed to create "poster children" for years to come. During the 2010-2011 school year, TDF partnered with CUNY to provide special courses, panel discussions with theatre professionals, internship opportunities, and discounted tickets to students at four CUNY campuses: Baruch College, Brooklyn College, LaGuardia Community College and Lehman College. Building audiences is a top priority for TDF, so a relationship with CUNY students makes sense---eighty percent of them remain in the tri-state area following graduation.
This year, BEAT is offered on eight CUNY campuses, and the eventual goal is to reach all 24. "The challenge is to try and figure out how to have programs that have some economy of scale and are easy to plan. At the same time you want to address the particular needs of each school," said Victoria Bailey, TDF's executive director.
When he spoke at the gala---which also featured entertainment from Broadway vets Billy Porter, Julie Halston, and Eden Espinosa---Chancellor Goldstein recalled his first experience at the Metropolitan Opera when he was a student at City College. Seeing Tosca was a treat for the mathematics major, even though he could barely see or hear the actors from his nosebleed seats.
"When you think about New York City, what makes this a great place to live are the cultural institutions," he said. "Why I'm so excited about the TDF relationship is that it will give students opportunities to introduce themselves to the fabulous theatre offerings that we have here."
Laura Hedli is a writer and critic based in New York City