Friday, July 14, 2017

New York Blackout: 1977

Forty years ago, on July 13, 1977, I was at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, watching Threepenny Opera starring Ellen Greene, Philip Bosco, Caroline Kava, and Tony Azito. I was standing on the side with some friends who were ushers, while my sister Holly and friend Roger were in the audience, bored out of their minds. B.O.R.E.D. (I loved the show but completely understood that Richard Foreman's direction was not for everyone.)

Ellen Greene, Raul Julie
in Threepenny Opera

Ellen Greene was singing "Pirate Jenny."

The lights went out. The amplification went out.

And Greene didn't miss a beat. She filled the large, roofless, dark Delacorte with her amazing voice, bringing shivers and goosebumps to the crowd. When Greene finished, we exploded with applause and cheers. (Years later, I discussed that night with someone who had been in the cast, and she said, "It sounded like World War II had ended.")

The show was stopped. The orchestra played for a while. Some of the performers danced on stage. And then the announcement came: This was a city-wide blackout. They sent us home.

No subways. No streetlights. Dark buildings. Six or seven of us walked the three-plus miles to my buddy Dennis's apartment. Strangers were friendly. Ice cream trucks sold liquid (but still cold) ice cream without charging exorbitant prices. The mood was festive. We had great fun, except for poor Holly, who had to pee the whole way. (That was back before Starbucks and Barnes & Nobles, back before hotels allowed nonguests to use the bathroom. And, anyway, bathrooms in blackouts are far from appealing.)

As we walked, we sang, we chatted, we laughed. We strolled through Times Square, which was eerie, to be sure, yet somehow nicer than usual.

(I read the next day and many times since that Times Square was chaotic and filled with violence during the blackout, but that wasn't our experience.)

Eventually, we got to Dennis's. We lit candles. We hung out. We had fun. At some point, Holly and I went to my apartment, about half a mile away.

Although we sweated uncomfortably without fans and AC, it was incredible to hear so much of the city without its usual cacophony. I remember someone playing "Summertime" on the saxophone and someone else, somewhere else, joining in on clarinet.

The next day, the Upper East Side got their electricity back. Down in the Village, we did not. Holly and I wandered around. At night we played Scrabble by candlelight. Finally, the electricity came back on, in time for the Irene Dunne double feature playing at the Theatre 80 St. Marks.

To be honest, I'm not sure how much of my memory to trust. The "Summertime" anecdote is a little too perfect, don't you think? But I'm certain of the magic of Ellen Greene, mesmerizing us with unparalleled talent and projection. For me, the blackout was lovely.

Wendy Caster

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