Try as I do with these columns to divert from the troubling headlines we are forced to confront upon waking up every morning, I felt compelled today to write about something with a connection to Broadway, but really about something else entirely in this edition of “Theatre Yesterday and Today.”
Today marks the anniversary of an event, that upon closer inspection, offers some eerie parallels to what’s going on right now. The year was 1969 and the war in Vietnam was literally tearing the country apart. Fifty-one years later, Americans are more divided than ever, possibly going even further back to when it was brother against brother during the Civil War. Today, everyone is digging in their heels over who is right… and who is left.
Protestors burning draft cards on Fifth Avenue at 81st Street (1969).
October 15, 1969 was a date set aside as “Vietnam Moratorium Day,” spearheaded by antiwar activists from the worlds of politics and the arts. The Broadway community became active participants by way of its more liberal leaning members who took a bold and dramatic stand. Leading the cause, was the late Harold Prince, one of its most respected members, who led the way by canceling the October 15th evening performance of his long-running Fiddler on the Roof. Other producers followed suit with one notable exception: David Merrick, Prince’s arch-rival, who threatened Woody Allen, the star and author of the hit comedy Play It Again, Sam, that in his power as producer he would sue the actor for breach of contract if he refused to go onstage. But with Merrick, it was always a toss-up whether his attention-getting ploys were out of a genuine conviction, or out of a chance at extra publicity (my research did not uncover whether the show went on with Woody Allen or not — though tellingly, according to the Playbill, he had no understudy).
With students being among the most participatory, tens of thousands refused to go to school throughout the city and on Long Island, both at the college level, as well as Junior High and High school. At twelve-years-old, even though I was still in elementary school, my parents gave me permission to take the day off and participate in protests, alongside my sixteen-year-old-brother, who was facing whether or not he would be drafted in two years. The war reached every family in America.
October 15, 1969: Moratorium Day in Washington Square Park, New York City.
Then-Mayor John V. Lindsay declared October 15th a day of mourning in New York City and, at the end of a peaceful parade, gave a rousing speech in Bryant Park. The march had begun at the United Nations (where the cast of Hair entertained a crowd estimated at 3,000) and Lindsay’s participation was a calculated political move. He was what is now an extinct species — a young Republican of the old liberal wing of the party — in a tight race for reelection hoping to solidify his liberal credentials in left-leaning New York. In the 1960s and ’70s, it was not uncommon for the likes of Governor Nelson Rockefeller and Senator Jacob Javits, to name two perennial New York politicians, to win the nominations of the Republican Party as well as have the full support and endorsements of the Liberal Party. To prove his left-leaning side, Lindsay shared the speaking platform on Moratorium Day with, among others, Democratic Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy, one of Congress’s most committed opponents to the war. Three weeks later, Lindsay managed the rare feat of winning reelection not on the Republican ticket (his progressive politics failed to earn him the nomination in a toughly fought primary), but by New Yorkers voting him on the Liberal line, where he served an additional four turbulent years.
On this same day, it just so happened that Game Four of the World Series was being played in the afternoon at Flushing, Queens. “The Amazing Mets” versus the Baltimore Orioles was a huge event, as the Mets (the worst team in all of baseball since their 1962 debut) had been in last place only weeks before the end of the regulation season, and had now, miraculously managed to secure a spot in the World Series. But prior to the start of the game, a political hornet’s nest broke loose when sides were taken over whether or not to raise the flag. Not dissimilar to the political football being tossed around so many Sundays the past two years with athletes taking a stand by bending a knee.
According to the New York Times, “The Mayor had directed that the flags on all city properties be flown at half-staff on 10/15. Shea Stadium is owned by the city. But just before the ceremony, the military color guard and 224 wounded Vietnam war veterans announced they would not participate unless the flag was flown full-staff.” The controversy ended with the Commissioner of Baseball ordering the flag to fly at full-staff. The Mets went on to win that game in the tenth inning, 2–1, taking the lead in the series 3–1. The following afternoon, they finished Baltimore off to win the World Series. It was such a far-fetched achievement, many believed that peace in Vietnam might be possible, too.
But back on Broadway, it was a surprise when the rock musical Hair chose not to shut down that night. Instead, a decision was voted by the cast that allowed for donating that evening’s ticket proceeds to a charity of their own choosing. Off-Broadway canceled shows left and right, and a few national tours, traveling through far less-liberal cites than New York, got in on the action. In Dallas, Texas, the star of Cabaret, Joel Grey, refused to go on, personally taking out a newspaper ad to explain his absence. I couldn’t locate that particular ad, but I did find these ones in the New York Times:
* Note the asterisk in the ad and the mention of 38,900 dead. This was October, 1969. By the time the war officially ended in April, 1975, that number had risen to more than 58,000.
Estimates of crowd size are always tough to get right — just ask our current President (on second thought, don’t). But photos of the event taken indicated that there were probably as many as 125,000 who gathered that day at the major event in New York City. Post- Bryant Park, it was reported that a crowd of 8,000 peacefully moved up the street eight blocks to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, holding candles and singing antiwar songs. It wasn’t all so peaceful. The Patrolman’s Benevolent Association overrode the Mayor’s orders for flags to be flown at half-staff, instructing policemen not to follow the edict. When a group of anti-antiwar protestors (many of them construction workers in hard hats) gathered on Wall Street, they successfully intimidated those gathered with their own signs and shouted slogans. Policeman did nothing to stop them.
Anti-antiwar protestors marched that day as well.
Not to end on the worst note possible, but I was stunned in my research into this day to read about a pair of New Jersey high school students who took their own lives in a double suicide in protest over the war. They were found dead in a locked car with two dozen suicide notes scattered about. One was the president of the Dramatic Society; the other was a cheerleader. They had driven six miles to attend a protest at Glassboro State College among 4,000 other students. When their notes were later read to the press by the county medical examiner, he revealed what drove them to such extremes: “They felt that by taking their own lives, people who lived after them would appreciate their own lives,” he said.
Offering his own take on their protest, the examiner speculated further: “They were somehow trying to prove that life is wonderful and meaningful — and they took their own lives to prove it.”
With “undecideds” still out there three weeks before this current Election Day — the most important and consequential one in my lifetime — it’s difficult to imagine the kind of commitment these two young people had, as wrong-headed as they may have been. In 2016, Americans participated in the lowest voter turnout for a Presidential election in twenty years. Of the eligible voting population, 92,671,979 (40 percent) did not vote. That’s over 90 million who stayed home, which sadly includes a number of whom that were turned away illegally at the polls. As of this writing, the data coming in on early voting at the moment show numbers that may will indicate the strongest turnout in decades. We’ll know soon enough what it all means.
Those who vote this November 3rd may do so with one specific goal in mind. I certainly know what I want the result to be… but I’m also going to be thinking about Craig Badiali and Joan Fox, those two high school students who gave their lives in protest to shock people into realizing how essential it is for everyone to work together to make the world a better place.
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. Follow me here and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.