Diana Ross' 1983 Concert in Central Park
Welcome back loyal listeners! You’re in for a treat today. The subject matter before us is indeed a hybrid of sociology, history, pop culture, leadership and even science!
It’s an event developed for television yet was hardly viewed by anyone – worldwide – when it aired in 1983 and has sat in the film can until 2012, when it was released on DVD.
Most importantly, this IS TV herstory. So it doesn’t matter if you were alive or old enough to watch the news, or had the paid subscription to Showtime when it first set out to compete with HBO. Listen up. And if you already have an opinion of Diana Ross, whose brilliant career in show business has exceeded 50 years, suspend it for the length of this podcast.
I want to talk to you about one event, one woman, one team of technical personnel and the miracle that eight hundred thousand concert-goers filed into and out of New York’s Central Park largely without incident. And that egress part, it was in the dark and pouring rain. Oh and there was a second miracle - it just happened to be captured on film.
The performance took place on July 21st, 1983 and again on July 22nd. Torrential rain brought an early end to the first concert. Ross was perhaps at the pinnacle of her solo career. Her start with the Supremes, her work in the movies and a string of pop hits had kept her in the public eye, at this point, for roughly 20 years. Talk about reinvention.
And with every reinvention, she set records, she broke race barriers, she was often the only woman in the room, or for certain, the most powerful woman in the room.
I give Diana Ross an incredible amount of credit for drive and determination. That’s why I look to this concert footage, which I encourage you to buy – it’s available on DVD from the great people at The Shout Factory – for a consummate lesson in professionalism and leadership.
How much of a lesson? I am not venturing into hyperbole when I make this comparison. In the undergraduate class I taught last year, we discussed at length the famous airplane landing in the Hudson River.
You remember it well, of course, because it was so well documented on TV, and because even in 2009, people’s cell phones had video capability. So think back to January 2009, a calm and collected veteran pilot named Chesley Sullenberger and his crew made an emergency water landing in the Hudson River off Manhattan, New York City. A flock of geese had gotten mangled in the engines upon take off. All of the 155 passengers and crew exited the plane safely.
Does this concert performed in the rain compare, in terms of risk, execution and leadership to a safe water landing? Absolutely!
Okay, so Diana Ross near the top of her career, agrees to do a concert in Central Park in 1983. It would be simulcast worldwide on Showtime, which was new to the pay cable channel market. It was packaged as a TV concert, so the lighting, sound, and cameras were state of the art. Given the choreography of her patter, Diana and her orchestra must have recently concluded a tour.
Let’s understand just how significant this concert was. It was a free concert, performed as a fundraiser for the park’s improvement campaign. Held in the middle of a steamy July in 1983, a little more than three and a half years after the sold out concert for the The Who, held at Riverfront Coliseum in Cincinnati, resulted in the deaths of 11 attendees. The cause? Stampeding concert-goers who were scrambling to grab one of the 14,000 plus unassigned, general admission seats.
If you want to know why so few concerts today are general admission, the answer is, The Who, 1979. Steve Binder, who directed the performance for TV, provides a commentary on the DVD – Love, love, love those bonus features! His insight extends not just from his role as director of this concert, but his own – then – 20 year business relationship with Diana Ross. Here he shares his memory of concerns about the size and potential behavior of the crowd.
There seems to be a difference in reporting of the actual crowd size. As you heard Binder say, he estimated the two days of audience to be near 1.3 million. News reports included on the DVD indicate an estimate of 800,000 for the first night. The DVD package cites “over 400,000.” When you watch the video, you see that it’s truly standing room only on the Great Lawn of Central Park. It’s a huge space in a huge park.
So, because home movie cameras in the day were big VHS units that required battery packs slung from your shoulder, it’s unlikely much footage was shot from the crowd. Binder talks about the importance of Shout Factory bringing the concert to DVD.
I arrived at this podcasting endeavor via a career in public relations. It’s included crisis communications, messaging, event management, executive handholding and strategizing at every turn. This is a piece of history that shows us how to prevent chaos and how important it is to trust a team of professionals. In a few minutes, we’ll hear how Ross managed the crowd from the stage, keeping them calm while they were assembled and directing them with exit information. As much as audio tells the story, it really is a video moment – a great gift for any Ross fan or event coordinator in your life.
The video shows the luck and character that presses on in order to entertain the crowd that turned out to see her.
With such a long tenure with Ross, Binder commented some on a piece of video that shows a close up of Ross. Soaked to the bone due to the 20 minutes or so of driving rain, Ross bridges her list of hits with audience chatter. Binder offered his two cents…
Reading a mind
Binder admits everything we see on the video, he saw from the control truck. My read on what Ross was thinking and was she was looking at in the audience, is a bit more built out. First, she’s been performing live for more than 20 years. The audience before her is very diverse, but there is a strong police presence. Before the rain started, she in fact thanks the police – “my guys in blue” as she calls them. Later, as the rain starts, she asks them to not get too rough with members of the audience. But I am guessing there were key uniforms on both sides of the stage whom she monitored.
She was likely watching the scaffolding that framed the remaining spotlights – was it swaying in the wind? The cordless microphone Binder mentions is just that, a handheld wireless microphone. She didn’t have an ear piece at all to communicate with anyone off stage. Twice her wardrobe person assisted her on stage and twice a soaking wet Barry Diller, who has since gone on to lead major motion picture studios and TV networks, came out to relay information from police.
How did she do it? How did she remain calm and keep her crowd of 800,000 under control. Well first, there was her friendly, somewhat campy, somewhat flirty patter, well-honed through the years. This clip was from an early number of the set list – before the rain.
Mae West patter
Her audience loved it when she played with them. Relating to an audience (or your followers) is an art-form and requires people skills that don’t necessarily come with your professional training. She was – and is - a consummate public relations expert. The same skills that guided her to maintain a gentle hold on the audience led her to realize that – with each passing minute of deluge – the world was watching and you just can’t PAY for this kind of publicity. As long as it’s not screwed up. Here’s Binder’s take.
Binder on history
So remember, this was a telecast that included technology in the sky – satellites and such – that was promised to subscribers around the world. Who was calling shots on the ground, literally, in Central Park? What was the network saying? In hindsight, the contingency plan seems so lame it’s no wonder those on the ground pressed on…
Let’s tally up all the risk involved. Electricity, concentrated most intensively around the stage. Rain creating puddles of water that appeared instantly. Because the skies got so dark so quickly, much of the audience was in darkness. Central Park is intentionally only lit along the walkways to begin with and who knows what it was like in 1983? That was probably one of the things they had hoped to buy with the proceeds from this concert!
Electricity. Water. Darkness. Thunder and a crowd just short of a million people who are being held together by one woman. Hmmm, where WERE the lawyers? Here is the first time Ross provides direction to the crowd, done during a song she had sung so many times that it came naturally..
First crowd dispersal
Automatic pilot, as it were, enabling her to think and process on her feet – which, by the way, she wore 3 inch heels the entire time. So yeah, add to the list of real risks Diana wiping out onstage due to a heel gliding across a wet stage. About 10 more minutes later, it’s raining harder. Her bright red sparkly body suit is soaked through and through.
Calling audibles and ratcheting down the energy for two reasons. By shifting to Endless Love, she calmed people down. The musicians were able to accompany her on Endless Love because those required for the song still had functional microphones. This clip gives you the vibe that there was a lot of improvising, a lot of mind-reading going on. At one point, Diana’s costume supervisor, Diana Eden, offers her a plastic clear rain poncho. She declines it.
As much as I feel like I am spoiling the video for you, believe me. Only the DVD tells the full story, certainly not the skimpy compilation some folks have posted on You Tube. It’s like riding shotgun on someone’s hardest day at work. But you’re amazed that through it all, she’s still smiling and the crew that is still hooked up to electricity is on post.
With more information relayed from the soaked Barry Diller (otherwise known as Mr. Diane Von Furstenberg), Ross tells everyone she’s calling it for the night. Without any assurances from Showtime, the Central Park people or her technical folks, she puts forth the notion that maybe they will be able to perform the concert tomorrow.
At that moment, in telling the audience to calmly proceed to the exits, she had held out as long as she could. Up until the rain began, the show had been tightly scripted and the camera direction a masterful moment of Binder’s own career.
Tech ad lib
They threw out the book that contained camera cues and cuts. They improvised, following Diana Ross’ lead on song selection. Little did any of the technical people know that it too would become an evening that has served as a highlight to their careers.
Sound & lighting
Task your people to deliver their very best, for a world-wide audience and take them to the brink, fueled only by adrenaline generated by the fact that about half of the 800,000 people were still hanging around, sharing the moment.
That’s a Type A personality or a whole bunch of them. There’s ego there. But people who want to achieve and push themselves are attracted to that environment and they’re willing to push to deliver something extraordinary. Binder marveled at what the entire team behind the event accomplished.
Binder knows leadership and his commentary speaks volumes to the success he has had. If the event had looked good on the surface but been a disaster behind the scenes, I can’t imagine they could have paid him enough to do this commentary. Rather, we learn that since 1983, he and Ross have collaborated on all sorts of projects. With regard to how Ross handled herself that night, all I hear in his voice is sincerity and respect.
Beyond guiding the audience to a safe landing, of sorts, that night, Binder also reflected on Ross’ leadership of her staffs over the years.
DR team lead
You heard director Steve Binder touch on all the extensive crew that was assembled to work on this project. Who are they and where are they now, I wondered. Did they share Binder’s enthusiasm for the collegiality.
There is much to be learned and celebrated from becoming more educated on this important , though rather unknown event. That’s why the DVD and Binder’s commentary represents the first building block to understanding and seeing what happened.
In 1983, an African American woman who had pioneered her own place in American music held court in an iconic American location. New York was on the upswing, but still pretty gritty, worn and in need of some TLC. Long before walk-through metal detectors and cops in military style riot gear, 800,000 people, of all colors and ages, peacefully filed into the park, enjoyed the event and left.
For so many reasons, this will never happen again. That fact alone makes for incredible viewing.
Audio clips from this installment of Advanced TV Herstory come from the Shout Factory DVD, which contains the rained out concert on the 21st and the full – dry concert – performed on the 22nd. It also includes the Steve Binder commentary.
Thanks for listening to this installment. It’s been a real pleasure to elevate this story to your attention. It’s worthy of so much more, so please, share with your friends. If you have memories of the concert or attended it, please send them along via email to firstname.lastname@example.org or post them as a comment at iTunes or my hosting site libsyn.
Follow the podcast on Twitter, our handle is @TVHerstory. Whether it’s leadership or tales of courage, I can bring TV Herstory to life for your organization, training or conference. Shoot me a line and let’s figure out how to customize a session that fits your event goals. At my website, cynthiabemisabrams.com, you’ll find this script and those from past shows.
You’ve been a terrific audience and I’m glad we’ve both stayed dry throughout. Thanks for listening. I’m your host, Cynthia Bemis Abrams.