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May 27, 2004

Ralph Lauren Redesigns Jackson Hts. Theater

From: Forest Hills Ledger, NY - May 27, 2004

By James DeWeese

When Headmaster Oscar Cohen decided to step down a few years ago after more than three decades at the helm of the Lexington School for the Deaf, he wanted to leave the Jackson Heights institution with a parting gift.

Cohen, a Bronx native, noticed that stage curtains in the school's auditorium were torn and ripped and decided they needed to be replaced, John Collins, Lexington's media specialist, recalled.

Looking for funding, Cohen turned to childhood friend Ralph Lifshitz, who is better known as Ralph Lauren.

"Ralph said, 'I can do a whole lot better,'" said Collins, a Lexington middle school teacher-turned-performing arts center manager.

Lauren, the fabled fashion and home-furnishings designer, and his wife had the auditorium, which had been built at the same time as the rest of the school in the 1960s, gutted and reconstructed the theater from the ground up.

The $2 million renovation to what is now called the Ralph and Ricky Lauren Center for the Performing Arts left the students and the surrounding community with one of the most high-tech theaters in the borough. It is arguably one of the finest and most accessible in the city.

The 427-seat performing arts center, which opened in December after 2 1/2 years of construction, boasts the latest in technology and is color-coordinated to Ralph Lauren's signature lines of clothing.

The carpet and curtains for the new theater were sent to China to be dyed official Ralph Lauren blue before being installed, Collins said.

Four plasma-screen televisions hang from the walls in strategic locations to transmit simultaneous interpretation or closed captioning of the on-stage action for the audience. Three cameras mounted throughout the center can channel shots of everything on stage and in the gallery to the plasma screens.

The control booth, once more akin to a concrete pill box with two porthole-sized windows, now offers a panoramic view of the action below. The booth comes stacked with computerized controls and switches for video and audio input as well as lighting.

It's where "all my toys" are, Collins said.

A simultaneous interpretation room sits next to the control booth. From there, audio interpretation for many of the more than 28 languages spoken by Lexington's students from pre-K to high school and their family members can be beamed to infrared-equipped headsets in the gallery.

But there's more, Collins said.

Every technical station, behind the stage and in the control booth, is networked with a unique set of closed-circuit televisions and cameras. The technology allows stagehands to use sign-language to communicate instead of the traditional walkie-talkie and opens the behind-the-scenes production process to the school's deaf students.

"That's the thing that makes the place really unique," Collins said. "I don't believe there's any other theater that has that."

David Tein, Lexington's development director, said Lauren had "recognized the power of the performing arts in the deaf community."

But, he and Collins added, the center is really for the community as a whole. Throughout the planning and construction phases, school officials consulted with neighbors, Collins said.

Just two blocks from the Grand Central Parkway and close to LaGuardia Airport, the Ralph and Ricky Lauren Center for the Performing Arts is ideally located to attract some major talent, executives said.

So far, orchestral groups, the city Department of Education and an affiliate of the Italian cable and satellite broadcaster RAI have used the center, Tein said.

A rock concert with special lighting effects for deaf audience members took place last week, and a touring deaf theater group from Hong Kong will hit the center in June.

"Everything is included here," Collins said. "Just add talent and we provide everything else."

Reach reporter James DeWeese by e-mail at, or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 157.

©Times Ledger 2004