Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Magical Memories Of Paul Simon’s Concert In The Park

It’s one of those days that you never forget. August 15, 1991. I was twenty, having just wrapped up a pair of classes at Adelphi University. All summer long I had this date marked on my calendar. Paul Simon’s epic free concert on the Great Lawn in Central Park. And then the day finally arrived. My excitement was in overdrive.

It was warm and sunny when I awoke early that morning. Hastily I packed a bag with a few essentials, grabbed some cash, an umbrella (in the event of forecasted rain) and a pair of sunglasses, then hurried to catch a train to Manhattan and meet up with a trio of friends.

The Central Park concert: The ultimate gig for any musician. I had seen a handful of them on television in years past. There was the big Simon & Garfunkel reunion back in 1981 which drew half a million people. A show so legendary that it was that it still being rebroadcast on PBS stations a decade later. Elton John had packed the Great Lawn one September earlier for a massive freebie extravaganza. Diana Ross got her showcase in July of 1983, although her initial attempt was curtailed by a severe rainstorm. Her make-up show the next evening enjoyed good weather, but was marred by a crime spree that resulted in Central Park concerts being off-limits for the next seven years – the Philharmonic notwithstanding.

My novel, Poet Of The Wrong Generation opens with our protagonist, Johnny Elias, and his friends rushing into Central Park to grab a prime viewing location for Paul Simon’s 1991 concert in the park.  Chapter one gives readers a glimpse into the lives of our four main characters, while spotlighting what was to be the best day of their young lives. All the sights, sounds and aromas are carefully reconstructed through the perspective of Johnny Elias. I guess one could say that having experienced that monumental episode in person, it wasn’t too difficult to transfer my experiences into fiction.

The concert that evening by Paul Simon was quite the spectacle. Long before he and his band took the stage was a full-day of unforgettable memories. First was the quest to get somewhere in the vicinity of the stage. When I arrived with my friends in the park that late morning there were already thousands of people camped out on the Great Lawn. I would soon learn that some of them had been holding down spots for two days or more. A handful had even brought sleeping bags!

My comrades and I navigated the crowded lawn for close to an hour in search of the best possible sightline. Several seemingly unoccupied spots quickly became a point of contention when others in the vicinity claimed to be “holding it” for invisible friends who would soon return. Eventually, we settled on a patch of lawn that was approximately 30 rows (if there were actual rows) from the stage area, just right of center. We spread out a blanket and put down our bags and a cooler.

All around us were scores of music fans of varying ages filled with anticipation. Many of them were New Yorkers who had taken a day from work to attend. Some had driven in from Jersey, Long Island, Philly, DC and even as far as Montreal. There were countless twenty-somethings like us, but also plenty of folks old enough to remember seeing Simon and Garfunkel at Forest Hill Tennis Stadium back in 1970. The t-shirts worn by many that afternoon were a visual history of Paul Simon’s concert tours through the decades.

Boom boxes situated on beach blankets in all directions blared competing music, mostly the classic rock stations of that era: 92.3 K-Rock and 102.7 WNEW. Rather than annoying, the blend of music created a symphony of sounds that would provide a unique soundtrack for the balance of the afternoon. Footballs and Frisbees were being tossed in all directions. My friends and I joined in on a few games of catch, yet always with at least one of us on the blanket at all times to ensure that our prime real-estate wasn’t claimed by late-comers.

          By mid-day, the summer sunshine had become rather oppressive. The high temperature that day was 91 in the shade. On the Great Lawn – with no shade in sight – the weather was downright steamy. At least the dreaded forecast of rain was thankfully incorrect. My friends and I took turns making runs through the crowd to the vending carts on 5th Avenue to purchase frozen lemonade. But as the massive crowd swelled by 3pm, we were pretty well locked in place. A huge police presence began to gather and instructed all to stay in their roped-off sections. It's a minor miracle that a few unauthorized t-shirt vendors managed to sneak through, displaying mostly professional-looking apparel that fans grabbed for $10 a piece.

          I recall snippets of many conversations that I enjoyed with random strangers that afternoon. The majority of these centered on classic rock bands, concerts of yesteryear and rumored special guests for the show that evening. If social media had been around in 1991, the word “Garfunkel” would have been hash-tagged and seriously trending. Fans on all corners of the Great Lawn were buzzing with curiosity as to whether Paul Simon’s estranged musical partner might turn up on stage. It would prove to be wishful thinking.

          The other aspect of the day that clings to my memory is how friendly and communal the atmosphere was.  So long as you didn’t infringe on someone else’s “reserved” space, the surrounding masses were delightful to be with. There were guys with guitars leading joyful sing-alongs, sun-bathing women sharing tubes of sun-block, and even good-natured police officers offering directions to the nearest porta potty. Some groups engaged in elaborate wine and cheese picnics. Others kept cool by consuming whatever cold beverage they could get their hands on.

          A trivial fact from that glorious afternoon was that Paul Simon had a spectacular, unofficial opening act – albeit pre-recorded. Somewhere around 2:00 the sound engineers decided to test the audio system by blaring the greatest hits album of Credence Clearwater Revival. Within mere seconds of the opening chords of Up And Around The Bend, thousands of sun worshipers were up on their feet, singing dancing and clapping along with the music. And with each CCR hit that followed, the sing-along grew louder and more passionate. It was rock & roll nirvana, only a lot more tuneful than Kurt Cobain.

          Estimates on the size of the crowd that day ranged anywhere from half-a-million to 750,000. I’m not sure whose job it was to count that day, but overhead images and video sure make it look like the largest audience ever assembled at a New York City concert. It was a startling mass of humanity. Giant video projection screens and dozens of speaker-towers were assembled at the halfway point of the jam-packed lawn to enable scores of attendees to see and hear the performance. Anyone who dared to enter the park after 5pm was relegated to experiencing the show via audio/video technology.

          It was somewhere around 7:30pm when the other opening act took center stage. A parade of New York politicians were introduced to the mammoth crowd, who responded with a chorus of boos. It wasn’t politically motivated – just a bunch of overheated music fans waiting to be entertained by one of their great generational heroes. Speeches and photo-ops by elected officials were sorely out of place. The harshest reception was reserved for Mayor David Dinkins. New York City’s 106th head-honcho was soundly jeered when he stepped up to the microphone. But he exited to thunderous cheers after enthusiastically introducing the star attraction.

          More than half a million people all rose to their collective feet. The roar of the crowd was ear-splitting. The opening song was Paul Simon’s latest radio single, The Obvious Child. It featured a row of ten Brazilian percussionists with tri-colored drums standing elevated behind the eight piece band. Quite the colorful spectacle.

          The balance of the show was a blend of 23 songs cherry-picked from Mr. Simon’s immense catalog of classics. Several were from his Graceland album, most memorably You Can Call Me Al (featuring a guest dance appearance by Chevy Chase). Early solo hits included Slip Sliding Away, Late In The Evening, and Kodachrome. And of course there was his legendary Simon & Garfunkel nuggets, Bridge Over Troubled Water, America, Cecilia and The Boxer. Though many of these timeless tunes had been released in the decade before I was born, I had been fortunately raised on them by my Mom. She and I used to harmonize with these songs in our living room when she played them on her stereo record player. They’ve fondly stayed with me ever since. 

          A big personal highlight that night was the performance of Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard. This up-tempo acoustic tune had the masses up and dancing around. One could hear the song perfectly, although our view of the stage was now obscured. Many of the men in front of us began hoisting their female companions up on their shoulders. Spontaneously, I bent down and offered to lift my friend Kenny up above the crowd. I didn't think he would take me up on it. The man is approximately six foot two and weighed around 200 pounds back in the day. He looked terrified when I suggested the idea. But after a shrug and a moment to think it over, he leaped up on my back, swung his legs over my shoulders and steadied himself. Adrenaline enabled me to keep him there for the duration of the song. Given our proximity to the stage one can actually catch a quick glimpse of his dark curly hair high above the masses in some of the audience shots from the HBO broadcast. Our shining moment of concert immortality, or so we boasted for the past 26 years.

          My novel’s protagonist, Johnny Elias, likened his attendance at Paul Simon’s Central Park concert as the next closest thing to being at Woodstock for those who were too young to attend. No, it did not own the cultural impact of that 1969 music festival in upstate New York. But for the more than half a million people who took part in this one day musical love-fest on the Great Lawn that perfect summer afternoon, they all share in the memory of something truly magical.

 Poet Of The Wrong Generation by Lonnie Ostrow is now available in paperback and eBook format.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Christopher Reeve And The Irony Of Celebrity

It was October of 1978. I was a third grader, infatuated with super heroes, comic books and afternoon cartoons. My friends and I split our playtime between baseball cards, superhero action figures and our Star Wars play-sets. Then came one of childhood's most memorable moments. The "big reveal."

Every Tuesday, our 3rd grade teacher, Mrs. Meshenberg would hand out our Scholastic Weekly Reader newsletter. And in this particular issue, we were going to find out who was picked to play the title role of Superman in the upcoming big screen blockbuster. My friends and I had heard that more than 200 actors had been auditioned for the part. Some of us sat in the playground at recess guessing as to whether the man they picked would look like our comic book hero. And then finally, the moment arrived. Mrs. Meshenberg opened the package of the folded newsletter and handed out a stack to the first person in each row. As the Weekly Readers made their way back, you could hear the turn of the page and the oohs and ahhs of our classmates. The name Christopher Reeve had been purely anonymous to us up to this moment. But that muscular man in the blue spandex and red cape flying over the NY skyline pictured in the center-spread of our newsletter was absolutely perfect. He had the hair, the face, those blue eyes. We were mesmerized.

I carefully packed up my Scholastic newsletter and brought it home for the first and only time. That night I grabbed a scotch tape dispenser from my Dad's desk, unfolded the 2-page spread and carefully hung the mini-poster on my bedroom wall, opposite my bed and just beneath my window. It would hang there for more than a decade, one of the proudest souvenirs of my childhood.

A few months later, my parents took me to see the first Superman movie. My heart was beating out of my chest with anticipation. The movie was loaded with award winning actors including Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman and Ned Beatty. None of them meant anything to me at the time, although Hackman was convincing and excellent as the wicked Lex Luther. But from that day forward, Christopher Reeve became permanently heroic in my life. There would be an excellent sequel a few years later, followed by a watered-down third film and then a train-wreck 4th one. I pretty much lost track after that, though I never stopped rooting for Christopher Reeve to remain a success... even when he seemed to have vanished from the public eye.

Flash forward to the spring of 1992. I was a senior, majoring in Communications at Adelphi University in Garden City, NY. This was one morning in March. A memo had been sent from the Theater department to the Communications students, inviting us to join the Theater-Arts majors at a special assembly that afternoon in the Olmstead Theater. It happened that I would be free during that hour, though I was reluctant to give up my study-time for some random, unknown presentation. It was only at the urging of one of my favorite teachers, Professor Helen Stritzler, that I elected to pop in. Suffice to say, it is an hour I will never forget.

Christopher Reeve in 1992
Just after 1pm the overhead lights were dimmed, the stage lights went on and out to the podium walked my boyhood idol, Christopher Reeve. There were some audible gasps from the audience as he approached the microphone. Here was one of the most famous faces of our lifetime, standing just a few feet away, looking every bit as tall, robust and handsome as we remembered him from the big screen. And then he uttered the opening line that stunned the room: "Superman was the greatest thing to ever happen to me. But as an aspiring serious actor, it was also the worst."

He paused for dramatic effect and watched as jaws dropped collectively around the half-full theater. "I'm here to talk to you today about the subject of typecasting. It is one in which probably no one else is better versed."

Yes, Christopher Reeve, Superman, the face whose likeness had been turned into a million action figures, made an untold fortune and whose face stared at me from my bedroom wall for a decade was now right in front of me, explaining his "Superman curse." It was a shocking revelation that required clarification, which would soon be forthcoming.

Mr. Reeve told us that the first Superman movie turned him from acting obscurity into an overnight superstar. He talked about the perks of fame, of being recognized on the street, signing autographs wherever he went and getting comped for meals at restaurants. "I was only paid $250,000 combined for those first two Superman movies. Didn't make me rich, but it sure put me on the map. I went from being an actor in training at Julliard to local theater to one of the biggest roles in movie history. It all happened so fast. Doesn't usually happen that way," he said matter-of-factly.

For continuity purposes, the first two Superman films were
shot consecutively, leaving Reeve little time to pursue other acting roles. But after the release of Superman II, he found that other parts were oddly hard to find. "My agent would send me to auditions and casting directors. And everywhere I heard the same thing. You're too clean, too perfect, too heroic to play this part. No one will buy into it with you being a superhero."

Christopher Reeve & Jane Seymour
He went on to explain how he tried to land roles that would enable him to distance himself from the ultra-good guy. A role in a low-budget romantic fantasy film, Somewhere In Time opposite Jane Seymour seemed to be the departure he was seeking. But an actor's union strike prevented him from promoting the film and it was in and out of the theaters in only 3 weeks. When other lead roles in movies eluded him, Reeve left Hollywood and moved to Boston, where he starred in a theatrical play. This led him to a role on Broadway in a production called The Fifth Of July. Reviewers praised his performance. For his next film role, Reeve managed to land the part of a homicidal playwright in the film, Death Trap. He said of that turn: "I wanted to play a morally ambiguous character who was neither clearly good nor clearly bad, someone to whom life is much more complex than the characters I've played previously." He earned praise for his portrayal, though again the movie proved another box office failure. And with few viable options for his next big opportunity, Reeve agreed to again don the spandex for another turn as the man of steel in Superman III.

Christopher Reeve and Richard Pryor in Superman III
"This time, the money was there. Well over a million dollars, plus merchandising royalties. It wasn't a great film, but it made me wealthy beyond my dreams. If I didn't still consider myself a serious actor, seeking a lead role in a big award caliber film, I probably could have quit right there and lived happily off the Superman money."

A number of smaller film roles kept him busy in the late 1980s, but none that earned him more than minor acclaim, and little financial reward. "I found most of the scripts they were sending me were poorly constructed heroic characters, and I felt the starring roles could easily be played by anyone with a strong physique. They didn't need me specifically, aside from my Superman persona." In an attempt to further distance himself from the hero role, Reeve accepted a shocking part, playing a vicious child molester in the TV movie, A Bump In The Night. He said of this performance: "I was sure that this one would finally drive the wedge between me and the Superman character. And critics thought I was great at it. Well, all except for TV Guide. The week that the movie aired, they ran this dreadful review saying: Who would ever believe that Superman could hurt a child? Purely sacrilegious and painful to watch. Can you imagine?"

There was an audible laugh in the room as he completed this story, though the look on his face seemed to indicate that he was seeking sympathy and not chuckles.

Toward the end of the presentation, Mr Reeve recounted an incident that had happened to him and his then girlfriend, Dana, in New York City. They had been picnicking in Central Park on a beautiful Sunday afternoon with the two children from Reeve's first marriage. "And then suddenly, out of nowhere, I hear this commotion in this distance. And here comes this man running in our direction at top speed, being chased by this older woman. As they got closer, I heard someone shout that the man had snatched her purse. Well, there was no way this woman was going to catch the guy, and here he was, running almost in a straight line right at me. My instinct kicked in and I jumped up, stood in the guy's path and did my best to tackle him to the grass. And sure enough, he did have the woman's
pocketbook over his shoulder. So I pinned him down and waited for the police to come and sort out the whole mess. Some people were clapping. A few might have recognized me. But honestly, I was just being a good Samaritan, nothing more. Anyway, the woman got her purse back and the guy got arrested. Oh, and someone just happened to snap my picture. And the next day, would you believe there I am on the front page of the New York Post, the Daily News and probably The Daily Planet, all with the same headline: SUPERMAN SAVES THE DAY. Even doing a good deed that anyone would have done, I somehow get linked right back to being the guy I tried so hard to get away from."

Christopher Reeve ended his lecture by taking a few questions from the audience. He then graciously offered to sign autographs for the students, given that the crowd was less than a hundred people. For a moment, I thought to myself that it would have been truly fantastic if I had known in advance that Mr. Reeve was going to be the surprise presenter that day. For sure I would have taken down that 1978 Scholastic Superman poster from my old childhood bedroom wall and... and after that speech he just gave about Superman and typecasting, there was absolutely no way I would have had the courage to ask him to sign it. In my imagination, he might have seen this as some form of career-blocking Kryptonite. 

Sadly, we all know how this story ends. On May 25, 1995, some four years after he visited my college, Christopher Reeve suffered a devastating spinal injury during an equestrian event. It left him paralyzed from the neck down for the rest of his life. But life didn't immediately end for Reeve with this tragic episode. A complicated surgery and months of rehabilitation enabled the actor the ability to speak again. And not long thereafter, he became an activist for Spinal Chord research, and later launched a foundation to raise funds in an effort to find a cure for paralysis. His movie career didn't end with this tragedy either. In 1996 he narrated an HBO documentary called, Without Pity. A year later he got to direct an HBO film called, In The Gloaming. And in 1998, Reeve starred in a remake of the Alfred
Hitchcock classic, Rear Window, for which he won a SAG award for Best Actor. 

Most ironically, the respect that had long eluded Christopher Reeve throughout his career as a healthy man due to the bias of his seemingly unbreakable Superman persona had finally arrived. And yet, no matter how much frustration Christopher Reeve expressed that day at the Olmstead theater about the perils of typecasting, undoubtedly he would have traded in all his post paralysis acclaim in an eyeblink to have continued a normal, healthy, awardless life, forever in the shadow of the man with the long red cape.

Poet Of The Wrong Generation by Lonnie Ostrow is now available in paperback and eBook format. CLICK HERE TO ORDER YOUR COPY.