Today In Gay History: Diana Ross in Central Park

7.19.2013

By Dustin Fitzharris

Despite a heatwave in New York City, record numbers turned up 30 years ago to experience the once-in-a-lifetime free concert

“It was a once in a lifetime experience. That night in July in 1983, I would say Central Park was the most exciting place in the world to be.”

Thirty years later, that is how Dennis Rosenblatt recalls Diana Ross’s free concert in New York’s Central Park. Today he is the director behind “Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve,” but at the time he served as the associate director for the concert that would go down in entertainment history.

While Rosenblatt and the 450,000 people who attended Ross’ show were in heaven, New York was in hell. In 1983, unemployment was at an all-time high in the city; a record that stood until 2009. A staggering 1,622 homicides went on record, compared to 419 in 2012, and landlords were evicting people with AIDS. Life has always been rough in the city; filled with social and economical diversity, and all of these obstacles manifested inside Central Park on July 21, 1983 when Diana Ross took the stage.

The day was a suffocating 95 degrees. It was the ninth day of 90-degree weather in the past 10 days, but that did not stop New Yorkers and others around the world from coming to the park.

Bill Kenny, who was living in New Jersey and working at NBC, was one of those who stood shoulder to shoulder in the sea of humanity.

“There was never a doubt in my mind that I was going to go,” Kenny said. “I was 24 and nothing—hell or high water—was going to keep me away from that!”

Little did he know, his words would come to life. Along with his best friend and the guy he was dating at the time, Kenny arrived at the park around 2:00 p.m. for the 6:00 show and found a spot on the Great Lawn about 100 feet from the stage.

The mission for the concert was to build a children’s playground in Central Park. It would be the third free concert to benefit the park. Elton John performed in 1980 and Simon & Garfunkel reunited in 1981. However, unlike those acts and others who played Central Park before, Ross’ success as a crossover artist—an African American who appealed to a white demographic—attracted an audience that fused all cultures and classes together. 
That was something Donnie Conner, who came from Richmond, Va., observed. Today he still refers to the concert as “the tribal dance” of his life.

Watch: Diana Ross: Live In Central Park - "Reach Out and Touch (Somebody's Hand)"

“It wasn’t like it is today. All of those different minorities were blending together,” Conner said. “It was like this huge tribe and the connecting force was Diana Ross. She brought all of these people with different paths, different stories and different histories together—and it worked.”

To Conner’s point, Ross titled the show “For One and For All.”

As the afternoon heat dragged on in Central Park, tempers grew thin. Kirk Bonin flew in from San Francisco with a friend and met up with five others for the show. When they arrived at the park around 12:30 p.m., hordes of people had already claimed their spot, and he quickly realized this was going to be unlike any other concert. He witnessed two women fighting to bloodshed and remembered a man unleashing a bullwhip to clear a path. This surprised Bonin who had always described previous Ross concerts as “love-ins.”

“There was a New York edge. I saw New York in a way I had never seen it before,” Bonin recalled. Of course if this is going to be a concert and it’s Diana Ross, and it’s hot as hell, and it’s free, it’s going to be an event. And that’s what it felt like.”

Around 5:30 p.m., clouds rolled in and the wind began to intensify. Then African drums began to play and Ross hit the stage dressed in a multi-colored Issey Miyaki coat with her mane of hair blowing the now whipping winds.

Not even a half hour into the show, the skies turned ominous and rain belted Central Park. At first Ross said, “It’s OK; we’re going to get wet.” Then she noticed concert-goers growing irritable and screamed, “Stop it! Don’t push!” Ross didn’t give in and neither did the audience. Was it that toughness that New Yorkers had become conditioned to? Some took Ross’s advice to leave, but others just saw it as an opportunity to move closer to the stage.

Behind the scenes, director Steve Binder was in the control room in a mobile truck behind the stage improvising the shooting script that he had maliciously planned right down to the very word Ross was going to sing.

“It was just great to sit in that chair and say, ‘I’m a part of this; I’m watching history being made in front of our eyes,’” Binder said.

It soon became apparent to Ross that the show had to stop for everyone’s safety. On the spur of the moment, without any consultation, she said to the audience, “We’ll do it again tomorrow.”

“We were all like, “Really?” She had decided this for herself,” Rosenblatt said with a laugh. “I think the fact that she announced it probably put a little more pressure on the city’s departments to go along with her desire. If you know anything about her, you know she’s a very strong and determined woman. She wasn’t about to see her dream partially squelched because of rain.”

To her credit, she stayed on stage long after she told the crowd to leave the park; knowing that if she left, the lights would go out and the darkness would pose even greater danger.

That night 2.26 inches of rain fell, two-thirds of the month's total precipitation. Winds as strong as 50 m.p.h. were reported and electrical power was disrupted for about 40,000 homes throughout the metropolitan area. Throughout the day, the police reported about 100 people were treated by emergency service medical teams, most for heat exhaustion.

Bill Kenny returned for take two, but noticed the mood was different. He said there was an energy in the air that “just didn’t feel safe.” As the show concluded, hundreds of roving youths attacked and harassed concert-goers. Chains were ripped right off people’s necks. Others had a good go at Tavern on the Green, climbing onto the roof and then descending upon and assaulting diners seated in the patio. The New York Times reported a total of 171 people filed complaints, more than 80 were arrested, and at least 40 were injured.

It’s difficult to comprehend these events since New York is a different place today. Even the concerts in Central Park have changed. The City suspended future concerts in Central Park after Ross’ extravaganza. The next big free concert in Central Park didn’t occur until July 5, 1986 for the Celebration of the Restoration of the Statue of Liberty. The act: the New York Philharmonic. Furthermore, parameters are now in place. Tickets for New York City Parks concerts are still available free of charge, except for benefit concerts, but tickets are distributed is based on the capacity of the venue. For the Great Lawn, where Ross performed for well over 450,000 people on the first evening, the capacity is now limited to 60,000, which was the case for Mariah Carey’s recent concert. Interestingly, to avoid the issue Ross faced, The Black Eyed Peas cancelled its free June 2011 concert due to threatening weather even before it began.

In spite of the obstacles, the Diana Ross Playground was built on West 81st and Central Park West. It remains a symbol for resilience and the ability to survive.

When Ross told the rain-soaked audience: “It took me a lifetime to get here, and I’m not going anywhere,” she meant it. Thirty yeas later, she’s not only inspiring a whole new generation, she’s still going. She launched a summer tour in South America that will hit the States in August and her career and image is honored on Broadway in “Motown: The Musical.” In fact, Valisia LeKae earned a Tony nomination for Best Actress in a Musical for her portrayal of Ross.

Looking back, Kirk Bonin says the concert also remains a testament to who Ross is as a performer, saying, “It solidified the largeness for her appeal. She did transcend the ’60s and the ‘70s and went into the ‘80s with this even bigger persona that was as personality-driven as it was musical.”

For information on Diana Ross’ upcoming concerts, visit DianaRoss.com

WATCH the trailer of the concert DVD below:

Diana Ross: Live in Central Park is available on DVD from Shout Factory. For the complete interviews with John Capek, Diana Eden, Joe Guercio, Gary Katz, Uwe Ommer, Dennis Rosenblatt, and Michele Saunders, visit DustinFitzharris.wordpress.com.

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