Ain't No Storm Big Enough
It was to be, indeed, a dark and stormy night. But that was only the first of the cliches that applied. The show must go on? I love New York? They were all apt.
When Diana Ross pranced onto a platform stage that seemed almost to float above the 350,000 people sweltering in 89° heat in Manhattan’s Central Park, she was embarking on what would be two melodramatic evenings of music and chaos, sun and lightning, selfishness and compassion, affection and violence, triumph and despair.
Atop four-story scaffolds were television cameras ready to record her performance for 15 million cable and commercial TV viewers, and four satellites would beam the show to 50 countries. For more than a year she had been arranging to give this free concert, titled For One and For All. For months she had been overseeing even minute details of the $1.4 million production. For hours she had been primping her wild hair, adjusting spangled, skintight costumes and applying touches of makeup to her angular features.
“Ain’t no mountain high enough, nothing can keep me, keep me from you,” Ross, 39, sang after making her entrance in a robe dotted with little multicolored pom-poms. But only 20 minutes later, stripped down to a sparkling tangerine body suit, she saw an obstacle on the horizon. A smoky black cloud was rushing in on 59 mph winds from the northwest, bringing sudden lightning that cracked the sky and released a pelting cold rain.
With her hair slicked back, her makeup dripping and her chiffon peignoir streaming back into the wind, Diana tried to brave it out. “It’s okay, we’re just going to get a little wet,” she said. “It took me a lifetime to get here, and I’m not going anywhere.”
But even with eight-foot grounding rods protecting the mountains of electrical equipment, there was danger from the storm. And the park’s 14.5 acre Great Lawn, dried rock-hard by a 10-day heat wave, quickly became a lake. The mood of the jam-packed audience, which had mixed New York in-group camaraderie with New York turf-protecting animosity, shifted to everyone-for-himself. A commanding Ross told them to go home. With a showman’s instincts (and suggestions from the New York Parks Commissioner Henry Stern that an abrupt end might touch off a panic), she kept singing.
She traded her mike for a less dangerous cordless one, directing the dispersing crowds long after her band disappeared. Paramount Studios boss Barry Diller, who produced the show with Diana, attempted at least half a dozen times to make her take shelter, finally convincing her 20 minutes after the unrelenting storm began. Before she left the stage, Lady Di yelled through the rain, “Do you love me?” “Yes,” the remainder of the crowd cheered back. She returned, “Then get out of the goddamn park!”
New York Mayor Ed Koch, under umbrellas and plastic garbage bags supplied by security forces, stayed until the end. So did Andy Warhol. Fran Leibowitz, author of 1978’s wry bestseller Metropolitan Life, felt less courageous. She ran into a VIP tent near the stage and stayed there, afraid to mingle with the exiting crowds. As for Ross’ heroics, Leibowitz was unfazed. “People like Diana Ross get enormous credit for doing what everyone else does,” she said. “I don’t think she behaved badly, but what did she do that was so great? So she got wet? So who didn’t? She had a TV contract. That’s a dream situation for that kind of person, to show what a trouper she is. Being a major star is a good gig. She doesn’t want to give it up.” However, a less cynical scriptwriter, Kenny (The Carol Burnett Show) Solms, raved: “The performance was electric. She almost stopped the rain. Now there are five elements: Earth, Wind, Fire, Air—and Diana.”
Part of the strange alchemy that caused Ross to face the elements must have come from the effort—and cost—that put her in the park in the first place. The concert, which Ross sold to Paramount for an undisclosed amount, is expected to bring in $1.5 to $2 million from worldwide licensing. The performance was insured, but Ross had a lot to lose—for instance, promotion of her new LP, Ross, and publicity for her upcoming 34-city tour—from a washout.
To say nothing of the energy already expended. The set by Academy Award winner Tony Walton, made of multicolored sails, flags and kites, took six days to build. The sound system of 140 speakers was joined by 20 miles of cable. Two mammoth 34′ x 24′ TV screens magnified her image across the open field. Other needs and amenities required an army of 275 stagehands.
Then there was the expense. Her Anaid (that’s Diana spelled backward) Production Company invested a reported million dollars in the spectacle. Instead of the originally estimated $60,000 for preparing the park, the city spent closer to $650,000 before it was over. The first night the city paid 800 cops (some on overtime) and 175 park rangers to control the crowd. Diana posted a $20,000 bond to pay for resodding the Great Lawn and promised an additional $60,000 in profits from T-shirt and poster sales and 7.5 percent of the video deal toward refurbishing a playground in the park. If the concert fell through, the park would likely lose the $650,000 Diana Ross playground, not to mention having to cover the hefty costs of preparing for the concert.
Originally, Warren Hirsh of Jesse Jeans had offered Ross $125,000 for expenses, including the creation of her slinky Issey Miyake costumes. In return he wanted “sponsor” credit. But when Ross upped her demands to $250,000, he backed off. “I wish her well but we had a deal and the decision was made that we would rather not participate at the price,” says Hirsh. Diana responded, “It was no disagreement about anything, except he didn’t have enough money for what we wanted to do.” Says one Paramount exec, “She is the boss—no one else. That may be why she has a reputation as a tough lady to work for. Well, she is, but if I were her, I’d do the same thing.”
Even Ross has to admit to some fallibility. “One thing you cannot control is nature,” she said after the rainout, insisting that she’d try again the next day. That is, if the Parks Department could clear the field of garbage and water. “It was like Pompeii; people left without picking up their possessions,” said Stern. Hundreds of blankets and cast-off clothes were collected after the rainout by 500 workers brought in for a night of cleanup.
Carried away from the scene on piggyback by a security guard after waiting in her trailer for more than an hour, Ross did not have to wade through the sometimes calf-high streams. At the party Paramount threw at the Top of the Park restaurant, she mingled until nearly midnight, once fighting back tears as she watched a videotape of the evening’s fiasco.
Back in her midtown hotel room just south of the park, Diana wrapped a towel around her throat to protect her voice and flicked on the news. Along with reports of three concertgoers going into labor came more disturbing word of assaults in the park and near-riots as drenched crowds pushed into the subways.
The next morning Ross arrived at an editing studio at 8 to create a film montage of the rained-out concert, which would show on the lawn’s giant TV screens if her concert came to pass that night. Then Ross was driven to the park for a 1 p.m. press conference. The show would take place; the washout had been salvaged for little more than $100,000 of Ross/ Paramount funding, most of which went to extra staff pay. “Tony Walton’s set was a little tie-dyed,” Diana announced, then gleefully cried, “If only two people appear tonight, I’m gonna do a show!”
At first it looked like more than two but far less than the previous night’s crowd were present. But at 6 p.m. on the second evening the half-empty park suddenly filled. The stage lights flicked on, the 15-piece band began to play and Diana appeared, this time in a purple sequined body suit. For two hours she danced and sang. At one moment, as an impish Peter Pan in a red body stocking with fringes, she danced to the Flashdance hit Maniac. Then, stripping from a long parachute-style cape into a revealing silver teddy, she became a vixen for her Jackson-penned hit, Muscles. (Despite the crowd’s high expectations, Michael never appeared; see story below.) “Take that shirt off and show me what you got,” she ordered nearby male fans. Having already repeated a string of Mae West one-liners from the previous night—”Is that a pistol in your pocket or are you glad to see me?”—Ross proved that every gesture and word were as calculated as her concert budget. A movement of the hips added emphasis to It’s My House; a hand dragged through the hair was a sign of sadness on Endless Love.
Ross carried another message. Addressing the mixed black and white crowd as a sort of high priestess of interracial goodwill, she exhorted them to love one another and read peaceful words from a Kahlil Gibran book her youngest daughter, Chudney, brought onstage: “Love one another but make not a bond of love.” “You’ve shown me nothing but magnificence today,” she told the crowd. “I’m glad to be with every one of you. You’ve been good to me all my life. I thank you.”
As it later developed, her optimism was premature. Worn-out by the two-day ordeal and jostled by hawkers selling food, marijuana, straw hats or “sexy pictures for you,” pockets of the audience got ornery. Pranksters incited mini-stampedes away from the stage (rumors of gunfire were rampant). Fistfights broke out. About 1,000 cops encircled the audience, standing behind protective barriers. Some of the 400 Guardian Angels present milled through the crowd. After the concert, the violence increased. Hundreds of youths roamed the streets near the park, yanking gold chains from necks, slashing and beating anyone in their way. The evening brought 200 official complaints of violence and 83 postconcert arrests.
Such ugly moments may force the banning of “superstar” pop concerts in Central Park, Stern said later. But onstage Ross was all enthusiasm. At one point a string of multicolored balloons rose from the wings. They spiraled in a faint breeze to the east, compliments of Diana Ross, a floating rainbow. And as she stood in the spotlight at the evening’s end, she oozed gratitude. She thanked her children for “letting me spend so much time with you.” (Rhonda, Tracee and Chudney were all present.) She thanked the police. She thanked Koch. She stood for five minutes basking in, almost demanding, her ovation. “Calmly and quietly leave the park,” she said finally. “I love you. See you next time.”