Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Central Park Concert: An Illustrious History

  New York City is forever a big-event kind of town. It has hosted 216 parades down the Canyon Of Heroes, 40 Macy’s July Fourth Fireworks spectaculars, 89 Thanksgiving Parades, 5 Papal visits, 44 NY Marathons, 96 US Open Tennis Tournaments, 115 Times Square New Years Eve celebrations, 6 Presidential party conventions and 2 World Fairs. But in a city known for high-profile pageantry, there is nothing larger, or more spectacular than a free concert in Central Park.

When one thinks of the spectacle that is a Central Park concert, the first thing that probably comes to mind is the mammoth, unprecedented crush of cheering humanity. A free rock show in the Park on a warm evening has routinely drawn in the range of half a million spectators. Music fans from far and wide turn out just to say that they were a part of something extraordinary. Its one of those rare extravaganzas never to be missed. Or at least it once was.
Massive Crowds For Paul Simon's 1991 Central Park Concert

The other main ingredient is of course is the headliner. Only an artist of legendary proportions has the ability to attract the masses on New York City’s largest (if most improbable) concert venue. A flimsy crowd on such a huge chunk of real estate would prove an utter embarrassment to the performer… not to mention a colossal waste of resources by the city. Those rarefied entertainers who have played (and packed) the park include such icons as The Beach Boys, Garth Brooks, Luciano Pavarotti, Diana Ross, Simon & Garfunkel and Bon Jovi.
In my novel, Poet Of The Wrong Generation, the story both opens and closes at a pair of concerts on the Great Lawn in Central Park: One real (Paul Simon in 1991) and one fictional. These disparate bookend events express reverence toward the remarkable connection between spectator and performer at such over-sized, dreamlike musical celebrations. Civic gatherings that stretch back more than a century on this hallowed oasis, smack in the center of mid-town Manhattan.
          The origins of live music in a New York City park may surprise you. If someone asked: “Who was the first performer to headline a park concert in Manhattan?” you might be inclined to say Barbra Streisand in 1967. And in fact, Ms. Streisand was the first pop music headliner to play for the masses in Central Park during the past half-century. However, the park music spectacle in NYC dates all the way back to 1850. That’s when legendary circus promoter P.T. Barnum staged an epic concert at Castle Garden (now Castle Clinton) in Battery Park featuring Jenny Lind, the “Swedish Nightingale” and the biggest opera star of her day. Over 40,000 New Yorkers lined Canal Street to greet her arrival by boat from Sweden due to massive hype, though only 5,500 were able to view her American debut concert due to seating capacity.
          The first Central Park concerts were held in the spring and summer of 1859.  They were nothing like the mega-productions that we think of today. No stage. No lights. No amplification. Just musicians and instruments. These free Saturday afternoon shows were given by military bands. They took place in an area known as “The Ramble” (near the lake between 73rd and 78th Streets). The performances were attended by up to 600 locals. Gradually, the concerts moved to the area known as “The Mall,” a larger open space on the East-side of the park from 66th to 77th Streets. A cast-iron bandstand was built on the north end of this terrain. Up to 5,000 could now enjoy an afternoon of live classical, or opera music.
In 1910, the New York City Parks Department had built a band shell up at the north end of McGowan’s Pass (Fifth Avenue and 102nd’ Street), where they staged musical performances six days a week in the summer. Municipal appreciation of “good music” was seen as an essential cultural building block by the local government. In other words, music brought people together.
Opera Legend Enrico Caruso

So who was the first major headliner to perform a free concert in Central Park? That would be Italian opera star, Enrico Caruso in 1918. More than 50,000 New Yorkers turned out to hear the singer perform an English and French rendition of the popular, patriotic standard, Over There. At the time it was considered the largest single gathering in the park.

          During the ensuing decades, big-band shows became a popular park attraction. Edwin Franko Goldman's Concert Band began performing on the Mall in 1923 at the newly built Naumberg Bandshell. From 1934 until the early ‘60s, the finals of a citywide Barbershop Quartet contest were held with great fanfare on the Mall area. And in 1968, some 8,000 girl scouts assembled in Sheep Meadow to sing Happy Birthday to composer Irving Berlin on the occasion of his 80th birthday.
          Performances of classical symphonies by the NY Philharmonic have been a summertime staple going back to 1965. But the idea for these popular gigs actually came from the city of Milwaukee. In 1964, the Schlitz Brewing Company sponsored a free concert in an outdoor park, flying in the NY Philharmonic to Wisconsin. The show drew more than 30,000 music fans, prompting NYC to stage a similar event the following summer. The initial performance on Sheep Meadow in Central Park drew more than double the Milwaukee crowd. A new tradition was born.
          In 1966, famed conductor, Leonard  Bernstein led the NY Philharmonic in a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony # 3 for a then
Leonard Bernstein in Central Park - 1966
record crowd of 75,000. A milestone shattered in 1973 when he conducted an all-Tchaikovsky program in front of a mind-blowing 110,000. Now we’re talkin’ serious numbers.
          Jazz and Rock music soon followed the success of the classical shows in the park. It began with modest success under the banner of the Rheingold Music Festival at Wollman Rink in 1966. The outdoor ice-skating wintertime attraction was transformed into an unlikely concert venue in the summer months. These were ticketed events with the price starting at just $1. The venue held a capacity for a modest 6,000 attendees, but still managed to draw some of the biggest names in pop music history including Jimi Hendrix, Nina Simone, Benny Goodman, Ray Charles, BB King, The Who, Chuck Berry, Miles Davis, Led Zeppelin, Neil Young, The Supremes, The Everly Brothers, Fleetwood Mac, The Doors, Aerosmith and Ella Fitzgerald.
          The most notable of the Wollman Rink concerts occurred in 1975. Now under the sponsorship of Schaffer Beer, the opening show of the ‘75 season featured Bob Marley and the Wailers. More than 15,000 fans jammed into the bandstand near the Central Park Mall, while thousands more sprawled out on the grass and under the trees. It was an epic turnout for an artist in his prime, proving that the appetite for large-scale pop music shows was rapidly increasing.

Barbra Streisand performs in Central Park - 1967

So what was the first major free pop music extravaganza? In June of 1967, A Happening In Central Park was a CBS TV special, a live album, and oh yes, a mega concert given by Barbara Streisand in her vocal prime. More than 130,000 turned out on Sheep Meadow for this pioneer spectacle, initiated by then Mayor, John Lindsay and his “Urban Revival” campaign. Streisand had taken a break from filming the movie Funny Girl to fly back to NY and give this two hour performance. Many who arrived early were treated to a mid-afternoon sound-check rehearsal by the headliner herself. The epic show was a high-point in Streisand’s career, and opened the door to what has become the ultimate concert showcase for music legends.

The next big name to get their Central Park close-up were stars in their time, though not nearly as iconic as the other park headliners. Jefferson Starship (previously Jefferson Airplane) performed at Sheep Meadow on May 12th, 1975 to an estimated 100,000 rock music fans. The 95 minute show featured both classic songs from the band’s early days and tracks from their album Red Octopus, which had not yet been released. Of note from this show was that many trees in the park were damaged that day from fans climbing up to get a better view.

On September 1, 1977, The Beach Boys brought the California sound and surf to Central Park to celebrate a pair of milestones:  1) The band’s 15th anniversary, and 2) Surpassing the mark of 30 million records sold. More than 150,000 jammed the park for this summertime spectacular – the first ever on the Great Lawn. The band’s full original lineup performed 26 songs over 80-minutes in the late afternoon sunshine. Some fans climbed up trees and baseball backstops to catch a glimpse of the hit-fueled show.


In 1979 it was James Taylor who would get to play the next and final concert on Sheep Meadow. The popular folk rocker’s show was actually intended to be a benefit to help restore Sheep Meadow to its former glory after falling into a state of disrepair. An estimated 250,000 packed the park to enjoy the 90-minute performance, which included several songs off Taylor’s new album, Flag. The crowd was deemed a new Central Park attendance record, and sponsorship money allowed Sheep Meadow to be re-sodded the following spring.

One year later, it was Elton John who re initiated the Great Lawn with a free mega concert. An estimated 400,000 (another new attendance record) turned out to sing along with the Rocket Man and his band, who at the time were the world’s undisputed most popular touring attraction. This Saturday daytime show on September 13th, 1980 featured a mixture of his classic hits from the 70s, plus a smattering of songs off his latest album, 21 At 33. Most memorably from this concert was Elton’s outrageous head-to-toe Donald Duck costume which he donned for the encore. He even played piano with fully webbed feet and tail feathers shaking. This show would be the first to be filmed for cable TV by HBO.

Few music fans thought they would see a reunion of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel after their bitter breakup in 1970. But the celebrated electric folk duo from Queens, NY chose to set aside hostilities for a blockbuster show on the Great Lawn in September of 1981. The free concert was billed as a benefit to help restore the park. An estimated 500,000 were said to have attended despite cool temperatures and rain, which only let up at showtime. Millions more got to watch it on HBO, and hear the popular live album which provided the revenue for the City. Twenty-one songs were played over 90 harmonious minutes. And the record-setting crowd relished every moment.

   The No Nukes rally on June 12, 1982 can’t be classified as solely a concert event. Nor can the attendance estimates of 750,000 to over one million be trusted at face value. But this largest ever political demonstration (which began with a march down 5th Avenue) did culminate with a series of superstar musical performances from a stage on the Great Lawn. Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, Joan Baez, Linda Ronstadt and Gary U.S. Bonds headlined this musical and political protest against the threat of nuclear weapons.

All the major concert events held in Central Park through 1982 were blessed with mostly ideal weather and model behavior by the throng of spectators. Then came Diana Ross and her Great Lawn concert. An estimated 800,000 (another park record) turned out on the evening of July 21, 1983 to hear the “Supreme Lady” perform her vast catalog of hits. The show was also to be a Showtime TV special and a benefit to build a new park playground. But only two songs into the set, torrential rain began falling on the crowd and stage. Ms. Ross defiantly declared that the show would go on. And for 35 minutes she sung in a downpour, fighting wind gusts and sheets of drenching rain. Then came the lightning. A decision was made to curtail the show and reattempt it the very next night (at enormous expense to the city). The weather was a non-issue for the 2nd night’s performance. An impressive 350,000 came back to enjoy the music. But the evening was marred by a string of incidents perpetrated by rampaging teenage gangs, who harassed, attacked and robbed concert-goers. In all, 83 people were arrested, 37 of them for assault or robbery. These negative incidents and resulting publicity convinced the City to put a halt on future concerts for nearly a decade.

          From 1983 – 1991, only the NY Philharmonic was given clearance to perform in Central Park. The mild-mannered classical music fans were obviously no threat to rowdy behavior, or a need for a mass police presence. It wasn’t until 1991 that the NYC Parks Department relented on their ban of pop music shows.
          On August 15th of ‘91, Paul Simon became the first and only musician to get an encore performance on New York’s biggest stage. Perhaps given the mostly middle-age demographic of Simon’s still-strong fan base, the city deemed him to be a safe bet for a large, well-behaved crowd. And what a crowd they got! The original estimate for this show was announced at 750,000 (later modified to 600,000). Simon was riding the wave of popularity with a pair of highly successful solo albums. His show did not feature an appearance by his estranged partner, Art Garfunkel, but it did include a healthy dose of Simon & Garfunkel songs, along with many of his solo hits. The live broadcast on HBO showcased the most idyllic New York City musical celebration ever held. The only downside was the damage to the lawn itself, which would have to be repaired at the expense of Simon’s record company.
In June of 1993, legendary tenor, Lucinao Pavoratti, became the first opera star to headline Central Park in 75 years. He had been slated to perform there back in 1991, but that show was rained out. His ’93 performance on the Great Lawn was backed by the NY Philharmonic orchestra and drew an estimated 500,000 spectators. Millions more watched at home on the PBS cable network.

          So what has been the largest attended event in Central Park’s history? That took place on the evening of August 7, 1997. Country music superstar, Garth Brooks performed to crowds that estimate anywhere from 750,000 to 980,000. This show was the first to be held on the area called North Meadow. It featured a spectacular 360 foot circular stage to provide the audience with an optimal view. Special guests included American Pie singer, Don McClean and NY’s hometown favorite, Billy Joel. Some 14.6 million tuned into the live HBO broadcast. Brooks performed 19 songs during the 95 minute show, which was nicknamed “Garthstock” by his rabid fans. Sadly, it would also be the last of the truly mega-shows in New York City.

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 forever changed our way of life in America. Heightened security at all large gatherings prompted the implementation of strict new measures. Metal detectors and security wands at the entrance of entertainment events have become commonplace. And knowing that the threat of another incident is always lurking, New York City has been extra cautious on limiting the numbers of attendees at any singular event.

          The concert by Dave Matthews Band on September 24, 2003 was the first to be held in the park post 9/11. In an attempt to control who, and how many would attend this free show, the city distributed tickets at various locations in the week before the concert. This process resulted in a much smaller audience than previous shows. 85,000 fans turned out on the Great Lawn for the three hour performance, which was a benefit for NYC public schools. Other restrictions on the size of coolers and blankets were strictly enforced, marking a notable change from relaxed rules of the past.

          Five years later, New Jersey rockers, Bon Jovi headlined Central Park. This concert was organized by Major League Baseball as part of the festivities for the All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium. It took place on July 12, 2008. Like the Dave Matthews show, this event was also ticketed to keep down the numbers. 67,500 wristbands were distributed around the city, with only the first 50,000 being allowed on the Great Lawn. Many of the wristbands ended up being acquired and resold by ticket scalpers to the chagrin of true music fans. Still, the show was considered a triumph for the band and the lucky handful of loyal fans who managed to attend.

          The most recent headliner to play Central Park was Opera sensation, Andrea Bocelli. His show on the Great Lawn took place on September 15, 2011. Bocelli was backed by the NY Philharmonic, and was joined on stage by such guest stars as Tony Bennett and Celine Dion. 70,000 attended this ticketed show, which took place under a light summer rain. The event was broadcast nationally by PBS. A live album of the concert reached # 4 on the Billboard chart a few months later.
          On September 29th, 2012, The Global Citizen Festival was launched on the Great Lawn. The non-profit organization behind the event elected to utilize the glamour of a Central Park concert to raise awareness for global poverty and inequality. Foo Fighters, Neil Young and the Black Keys headlined the inaugural show before a ticketed crowd of 60,000.The most recent concert featured Coldplay, Beyonce, Pearl Jam and Ed Sheeran in 2015. If not the magical, carefree outdoor musical celebration of yesteryear, this seemingly annual event is probably the closest we’ll likely come to recapturing the spectacle of what a Central Park concert used to be. But for those of us lucky enough to have participated in the extravaganza of these open-air performances from the past, there will never be anything quite like the sights and sounds of half-a-million or more, all gathered in one hallowed venue, unified by music.   
Poet Of The Wrong Generation by Lonnie Ostrow is now available in paperback and eBook format.