Do you remember the Central Park Schaefer Music Festival? If you do, you are probably old enough to remember that Schaefer was a beer brewed in Williamsburg. The festival was held at the Wollman skating rink, and at the time, the $5 tickets were too expensive, so everyone I knew sat out on the big rock outside and listened for free. The experience of being in Central Park after dark was exciting, and a little scary in the 1970s, but it was fun.
The festival eventually changed sponsors, Schaefer left New York, the festival moved to a West Side pier, and as they say, that was that. I never went to the pier, as I guess the main attraction was really Central Park. I loved the music and went to hundreds of shows (ok, the mermaid will tell you that I exaggerate, and I didn’t go to “hundreds” of shows, and she’s probably right). But at some point, I got a job, I started to like certain bands and music; and I was able to afford tickets, better seats, and became choosy.
So about fifteen years ago, when a friend asked if I’d like to go see Levon Helm in Central Park, I said sure. And that was my initial introduction to Summer Stage. I had no idea that this area in Central Park existed right off 72nd Street and nestled behind the clam shell at the end of the Mall. We sat down for the beginning of the show in an open area but were free to walk about and enjoy the show. I thought it was a one-time event, but later found out it was part of a summer series. It was like I was let in on a secret New York experience, and every year after I looked for shows that I might go to. But living in Rockaway made for a long trip in, so I didn’t just go to any show. It had to be a musician I really wanted to see.
About four years ago, the mermaid and I wandered in for a free show and it was lightly attended, proving my tastes are not mainstream and seldom appreciated. But as we walked by a special seating area, one of the attendants asked if we would like to sit there, and we nonchalantly said sure. There was a bar in this section, so being Rockawayites, I went and got the mermaid and me some libations. When I tried to pay, they told me that people in this section don’t pay. I thought, really! Then I went to the bathroom, and this experience was definitely one of Call-A-Head's top of the line powder rooms. I asked afterwards, “How does one do this all the time,” and the reply was become a member of Summer Stage.
Well, the following year, I became a member, got the schedule and was happily surprised to see many shows that my kids and friends would like and decided to invite them to various shows. Needless to say, free alcohol and nice bathrooms go really well with great music outdoors in Central Park after dark. Each year, I upped the level of the membership and with it came increased benefits, like free shirts, early ticket opportunities, extra tickets for friends. I was sold.
This past year, the City Parks Foundation, the 1989 not-for-profit created to run the concert series in Central Park and all the other boroughs, in addition to all sorts of cultural experiences for park-goers, significantly upgraded the Central Park facility. Quite honestly, I liked the old design, but as the mermaid likes to point out, I am getting cranky in my old age. When the 2019 schedule came out, I got more cranky because I was looking for those musicians that I really wanted to see, but I just couldn’t find them.
But one of the amazing things about the people who work for the Foundation and run the concert series is that they are very high touch. By that, I mean they are humans! Not machines, not social media obsessed, not a computer or voicemails. They respond, they reach out, they ask how you are doing, can they do better. So, a recent rainy Monday night found me at the ancient Arsenal in Central Park to participate in a focus group on how 2020 could be better. Running membership organizations can be a thankless job, trust me, I ran a very large one in lower Manhattan populated by about 3,000 maniacal members. Members are never satisfied. But this focus group was different. The staff truly cared and, surprisingly, so did all the members participating. There was a terrific dialogue, and I truly believe changes will be implemented as a result.
If you have never been to a Summer Stage show, I highly recommend you go. The crowds are friendly, and almost like a small community. The staff is super friendly and helpful. Central Park after dark is beautiful. Most shows are free. If you want the free alcohol and nice bathroom experience that also come with free tickets to benefit shows, then dip your toe in the water and get a membership.
The more expensive ones come with the benefits above, but you can get a less expensive one that gives you upgrades. Plus, it includes all five boroughs, including Coney Island. If you remember the Schaefer festivals, then by now you probably have the cash to do it, and you probably love music, and you probably would love reliving the sitting on the rock experience, but only this time being a little more pampered. Trust me, it is well worth it and a quintessential New York insider thing to do.