Friday, February 22

Thursday in the Park with Diana

Did I tell you about the time I turned in an expense account for $500 labeled “Bribe Money” and got reimbursed? Actually, I think I had requisitioned $800 in “baksheesh” and wound up turning three hundred-dollar bills back in.

OK, it’s not quite that simple. I had prior approval.

Prior approval for a BRIBE? Here’s the story.

In the summer of 1983, Diana Ross announced a huge free concert on the Great Lawn in Central Park. The concert was free, but she sold the TV rights with a promise to donate the proceeds to create the “Diana Ross Playground” in the park, across Central Park West from her apartment in the Beresford, at 81st Street. When it was announced that the concert would start in the late afternoon—news time!—we at WABC shifted into high gear. We asked for and received permission to cut live for extended periods throughout our dinner-hour newscasts. The trick was to handle the technology and the logistics to get us on the air and make our live shots live up to Eyewitness News standards.

I did the site survey. 25 years later I’m looking for a way to describe the venue to you, and the best way is to ask you to think of a baseball field, greatly enlarged. Picture a stage set up on home plate: a huge stage, hundreds of feet high, wide and deep. On the pitcher’s mound, picture a camera, light and sound tower three stories high. But instead of being a little over sixty feet to the stage, make it about sixty yards! Instead of ninety-foot baselines, picture them running 90-100 yards. And on the first base line and the third base line, put 12-foot high fences. To continue this stupid analogy, the audience is allowed on the field--and only on the field. Outside the fence--where the grandstand would be--was the work area.

See what I’m driving at? A big wedge shaped area for the crowd in front of the stage—sweeping back onto the Great Lawn. Behind the walls and behind the stage; trailers, tents, TV production trucks—all the behind-the-scenes “stuff” it would take to put on a live show for 800,000 people and a TV show for millions.

And to me, it looked simple: have a camera crew and a live camera on the tower, and another on top of a live truck butted right next to the fence along the third-base side. Stand on the truck and you could not only get a perfect shot of the stage and the crowd, but also have a place for a reporter (the late Roger Sharp) to stand and go live.

Only one problem: trucks aren’t allowed to drive on the Great Lawn grass.

What? Truck, tents, trailers, mobile units, port-a-potties, cop cars, ambulances, limos, catering vehicles, production trucks: how were they going to get into place?????

Wellllllll…they were going to drive over sheets of plywood. Park regulations. For something the size of a pickup truck, say, they’d lay down two lines of plywood (one for each tire track) stretching about 40 feet. Drive forward—pick up the plywood from behind and lay it in front—drive forward—pick up—lay down—drive forward—pick up—lay down. For a tractor-trailer, a whole army of workers and huge stacks of plywood were necessary.

For a WABC live van, not that many: but still a good hour’s work for six or eight guys to lay a path from the nearest roadway to our position at the wall. And the site foreman said he just couldn’t spare the manpower.

Back at the station I talked it over with my boss, and he approved the “gratuity.” I took my wallet full of hundreds back to the park, went to the foreman, and said, “You would be doing WABC a huge favor if you could help us park our truck, and we’d be very grateful.” I pulled out five bills, he took them—and thirty minutes later our truck was parked.

We were ready for anything—anything but torrential rains, gale-force winds, lightning and thunder. That’s right, the show started under threatening skies and then God decided to punish someone. I don’t know if it was Diana Ross in the crosshairs, but it felt like me.

I was in our microwave feed area talking to the crews when the guys on the tower told me it was starting to look bad. I couldn’t see what they saw, but I had to take their word for it. I told them that the second they felt it was starting to be dangerous they'd have to pull down off the tower. I told the live truck crew that they’d have to lower the mast and get off the roof. I told the producer that he’d have to get ready to fill 40% of his news hole—the 40% we’d planned to devote to the concert.

The rest is soggy history. The concert had to be halted because of the fear of electrocution. Water puddled six inches deep in some places on the Great Lawn. Drenched concert-goers clogged the subways. Eyewitness News that night was the drowned rat of TV newscasts. I was despondent.

Here’s the way Diana Ross’s Central Park concert ended on Thursday, July 21, 1983. This is concert footage from the production truck. The Eyewitness News audience never saw any of this. Our crews had (rightly) taken cover by the time it got this bad.

About two minutes in, it cuts to the dramatic start of the next night’s return.

Can’t beat this for entertainment.

One other concert clip, just for fun. When Dreamgirls debuted on Broadway at the end of 1981, everyone assumed—knew—that it was the story of Diana Ross and the Supremes. Word was that she hated it, despised it.

But here, 19 months later, she’s on stage in the “Big Apple,” singing “Family” from Dreamgirls.

I wish I could say the story had a completely happy ending. It didn’t. As the crowd left the Friday night concert there were reports of gang muggings. Because the concert was held twice it actually lost money for the broadcasters, and there wasn’t enough profit for the Diana Ross Playground. She donated $275,000 of her own money to the project, helping the city to rebuild an existing playground. Groundbreaking took place in September 1986. Ross reportedly called the event "one of the most fulfilling aspects of [her] life and career.