Theatre yesterday and today

 

 

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BLACKOUT!

This is a totally 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 40th 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.

A scene not to be repeated if a blackout occurred today: people waiting to use phone booths.

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.

Perhaps I need to jump back a bit here and describe what "second acting is?" 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, often seated in the last row for as little as $2, and how "if 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.