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


Anonymous said...

I can verify most of what you say. I was the Master Electrician at the Delacorte and we watched from the booth as the east side went out and then Central Park south. The A/C in the booth was grinding and then all went dark.
Ellen Greene continued as you said. The ushers pointed flashlights on the stage. I don't think she really like the directing style and this gave her the opportunity to belt it out, cabaret style. I think she really enjoyed it.
When it was over the house manager used a bull horn to announce how people should leave.

There were 3 women who were staying behind in the audience. One was sitting down and the other 2 said she did not want to leave because she had waited all day in the sun for those seats and no one was guaranteeing her a rain check.
I tried to explain what I thought would happen but there were no guarantees. She was so mad she questioned whether this was really a blackout!
Being 26 I ensured her that as the Master Electrician I knew there was a blackout.
"So it's your fault!" She swung her pocket book at my face, felt better and left!

hywel dda said...

July 14, 2019
On this anniversary blackout day, I can also confirm your experience. Charlie and I were in the audience when the lights failed and Ms. Greene finished her song in the dark - to a great ovation as I recall. We thought it was a theater glitch (someone tripped over the wrong cable?) but when I turned around and looked at the Westside skyline, it was ALL dark.
We were with good friends so we walked through Central Park in the dark (in 1977!) to their apt. on the East Side, climbed their stairs and continued our evening with drinks, candles, and good company. When it became obvious the power was not coming back on soon, Charlie and I walked home to the lower East Side. The streets were relatively calm. My memories are now a little spotty (I was 30 then - you can do the math) but it remains as a memorable evening - a true New York moment.