July 13, 2020: Theatre Yesterday and Today
This is an update to a column from three years ago.
This is a true story which might reveal more about me as an avid theatregoer than I care to admit. But I’m left with no choice, what with today marking the 43rd anniversary of an extraordinary night spent in New York City, (along with millions of others), when I found myself plunged into total darkness during a city-wide electrical blackout. On a nasty hot and muggy summer night, at a time when severe budgetary restraints dramatically curtailed many of the city’s most vital services, New Yorkers were already hot and bothered by things that had nothing to do with the weather. So it wasn’t altogether surprising when anger boiled into rage shortly after 9:30 p.m. when a series of lightning strikes caused a massive power failure through almost every stretch of the five boroughs. As Time Magazine reported: “Air conditioners, elevators, subways, lights, water pumps — all the electric sinews of a great modern city — had stopped.” LaGuardia and Kennedy airports were closed down, automobile tunnels were closed because of lack of ventilation, and 4,000 people had to be evacuated from the subway system. And with power not fully restored until twenty-five hours later, a surge of unrest resulted in more than 1,000 fires being set, with looters ransacking 1,600 stores.
And where was I at 9:34 p.m. on June 13, 1977? At the Winter Garden Theatre attempting to second act a Broadway musical.
And what is “second acting?” Though hardly an expert on the topic, my longtime experience attending Broadway shows allowed for my being interviewed last year in a New York Times article that attempted to bring up-to-date this decades-old, somewhat underground tradition. In “A Lost Art on Broadway: Sneaking In for Act 2,” I describe the ease with which in the early 1970s, I regularly saw Broadway shows as a teenager. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/25/nyregion/a-lost-art-on-broadway-sneaking-in-for-act-2.html I was often seated in the last row for as little as $2, and how “if I didn’t like the show, I would just leave the theater and go second-act something else.” Having heard the stories of how so many of the great Broadway stars in their youth had done the exact same thing (mostly out of their inability to pay even when the last row was as cheap as $1), I saw no harm in it.
Now here I was on the night of the blackout, twenty years old, working a day job and looking for cheap ways to fill my nights during the summer between my sophomore and junior year of college. I was living couch to couch at the mercy of friends, and on this particular week, I had a whole apartment to myself courtesy of someone who had gone out of town (lucky them, as it turned out). I remember sitting around with nothing to do (there wasn’t even a TV in the apartment), so I walked the twenty blocks or so out of Chelsea up to the theatre district and did the best math I could in trying to figure out which Broadway show I had the best chance of sneaking into. Anything sold out was out of the question, which meant that the hits I would most like to have seen such as Annie (then only three months into its nearly six-year run) or Side By Side By Sondheim, a musical revue that had garnered great notices and introduced Broadway to a thirty year old producer named Cameron Mackintosh.
What I chose was something I really didn’t have all that much interest in. But I knew there would be plenty of seats, and had no trouble mingling with the crowd outside at intermission around 9:20, casually wandering in and comfortably situating myself in nice orchestra seat. The show was Beatlemania, a collection of Beatles songs led by a tribute band performing as John, Paul, George and Ringo. One bit of curiosity I possessed aided me in the choice, which was a personal connection by way of my older brother, Allen, who had gone to high school with the actor/musician cast as Paul McCartney. At the crazy heights of the Beatles’ fame, Mitch bore a striking resemblance to Paul, so it was perhaps fated he would wind up playing him one day.
Leafing through the Playbill, waiting for Act II to start, probably about one minute before the end of the fifteen-minute intermission, at 9:34 — suddenly a BOOM! — and total darkness. I knew something was up immediately and wandered outside the theatre to a sight I’d never before witnessed: not a single light on Broadway. Here’s a photo from just about my exact vantage point outside the Winter Garden — 50th and Broadway.
Like many others, I figured the lights would come right back on. But after ten minutes or more, there was definitely cause for concern. I was overhearing conversations from commuters on how they would get home if the subways or trains were shut down. Of course in a time before the internet and cell phones, many of us were in the dark in more ways than one. I watched as patrons abandoned the thought of seeing the second act of Beatlemania, and began the futile task of finding cabs or beginning a long walk home.
And what did I do? Well, here comes the funny part, folks: I walked two blocks over to the Alvin Theatre (now the Neil Simon) and plunked myself down in a seat about 5th row center in the hopes that the lights would come back on and I’d get a chance to see Annie — or at least the second act. Only it was not to be, and after about a half-hour of sitting in the near-dark, I decided it was about time I started the twenty-five block walk home in the dark.
Not fun. I passed by stores with their windows smashed and alarms blaring. It was so freaking hot that more than any imminent danger I might have been in, what I recall most is the sweat running down my back. To play it safe, I jogged most of the way. Yeah, I was scared … but I was always a fast runner, and I figured if I could just make it back to 24th Street, I’d be good.
I made it, then climbed the three flights up the darkened stairwell, clutching onto the handrail in the total and complete darkness. No cell phone flashlight to aid me, of course, but I was okay. That is, until I got to the front door of the apartment and for whatever reason couldn’t get the key to work. I was locked out. And that’s when a bit of panic set in. Where was I going to sleep if I couldn’t get inside? And I mean, it was now about a thousand degrees (or so it seemed). I was boiling hot, boiling mad and scared.
To the rescue came someone in the building who was also groping their way up the stairs. This total stranger took a credit card out of his wallet and slid it into the slot where the tumbler met the lock and within thirty seconds opened the door for me. A bit disturbing to know that it was that easy to break in, but that was my friend’s problem, not mine. All I knew was that I was going to run a cold bath immediately (which I did), as a hot one was not only undesirable, but impossible. With no electricity, there was no way to heat the water even I had wanted to.
It was a long and uncomfortable night, and the next day was the weirdest one I ever spent in New York. No commuters had come in for work and all businesses, offices and stores were closed. It was so hot inside my non-air conditioned apartment, that I spent the day outside in the park until word began to spread that lights were coming back on mid-day in certain areas of the city.
When I later read reports of the widespread rioting, it was sad to see my beloved city fall apart in such a way. But there were also stories of people being great in the crisis, such as the doctors and nurses out all night performing surgeries in the parking lot of Brooklyn Jewish Hospital (where I was born), under high-intensity spotlights powered by fire department equipment.
Knowing I was one of thousands who were stranded at Broadway theatres that night, I was delighted to read a story published in the New York Times on the subject of the blackout’s 40th anniversary. It was about one Lucille Shanahan, then age seventy, who recalled where she was in the theatre that night (around the corner from me, as it turned out): “We attended a performance of a revival of The King and I with Yul Brynner. The blackout interrupted the performance. The cast (including Brynner) came out in rehearsal clothes and sat on the edge of the stage. Several cast members had transistor radios which they held up for the audience to hear as borough after borough shut down. The orchestra continued to play songs like ‘Dancing in the Dark’ and Glow Little Glowworm.’”
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also sign up to follow me here, and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.