She stands silently overlooking Forest Hills Gardens, a bucolic community designed by renowned architect/urban planner Grosvenor Atterbury. On her grounds, 60 U.S. Open Tennis Championships have been held. The color barrier was broken here when Althea Gibson became the first black player to play a Grand Slam event and eventually win a tournament. A little over a decade later, Arthur Ashe would be the first black man to win a Grand Slam tournament. It was also where male and female tennis pros would be awarded equal prize money for the first time.
Equally impressive are the array of artists who have performed here: the Beatles, Stones, Judy, Barbra even a Chairman of the Board have all graced her stage. She is Forest Hills Stadium and with summer 2015 looming, the old girl is poised to potentially recapture some of her storied history. That is if Madison House music promoter/booking agent Mike Luba can bring in national acts, flesh out ongoing renovations and maintain peace with residents of this exclusive neighborhood. Erected in 1923, the stadium has always been owned by The West Side Tennis Club, which itself was founded near Columbia University. In recent years, the arena has been deteriorating. By 1978, the U.S. Open had moved to Flushing Meadows and the last concerts were held in 1997. And while it lay silent until a 2013 Mumford and Sons concert, Forest Hills Stadium served as the site of countless legendary live music performances and the memories that came with them. (To see a list of artists who have played Forest Hills Stadium, click here.)
For Ellen Tashie Frisina, it was seeing her idols The Monkees in 1967 who came to town with quite the odd opening act.
“I won two tickets from a local radio station to the Monkees concert there—I was 12 years old and the Monkees were my favorite band. My parents drove me and my 10-year old sister to the show. I remember that an usher walked us to our seats—on the lawn,” she said. “They must have been press seats as we were about five rows from the stage. For years I told the story of that show with the opening act of Jimi Hendrix—and no one believed me until years and years later when someone wrote a book about the two bands and their tour together. All I remember about Hendrix is that he was booed off the stage (who wants Jimi when we were waiting for Davy?!). My sister and I screamed our heads off when the Monkees took the stage.”
For longtime Forest Hills resident Ida Langsam, it was seeing the Fab Four that indelibly marked her psyche.
“I lived in Washington Heights and never heard of Forest Hills. It was like a foreign country. There was a long line from the train and everyone was walking towards the stadium. It was very orderly, but there was a lot of excitement,” she recalled. “You just knew everyone was going there and talking about The Beatles. The ushers were amused, but I was so focused on seeing Paul [McCartney] I didn’t care. I couldn’t tell you what the show sounded like because of all the screaming, my own included. It was quite a moment.” (To read about more Forest Hills Stadium music moments or add your own, click here.)
Since those glory days, the West Side Tennis Club has been approached three separate times by developers wanting to raze it in favor of condominiums with the club’s board rejecting overtures ranging between $15 and $20 million. It just so happened after that last proposal Luba called inquiring about its availability as a concert venue.
“The way I connected back with Forest Hills has to do with the fact that I scout weird nontraditional sites for bands to play. I literally cold-called the pro shop and head pro Bob Ingersole picked up the phone and told me the story of the board meeting the night before,” Luba recalled over a beer at local watering hole The Station House. “He asked me to come over and tell him what I had and he said they had no plan, no money and no mechanism to do anything.”
Luba, whose parents went on a date to see Simon & Garfunkel and The Doors back in the ‘60s, made it his mission to bring that glory back to the stadium. Numerous meetings were taken with the club board and he even went so far as to go member to member, eventually getting enough critical mass to put something together. A visit with a structural engineer revealed that the venue’s infrastructure was solid having been built by one of the founders of U.S. Steel (“the engineer said if someone was going to drop a bomb, this is where he would hide,” Luba shared).
With six-foot trees growing out of various compost piles, original seating that desperately needed to be torn out and concrete work needing hefty man-hours of hand-patching, financing the project was the next hurdle, a hefty task heightened by the fact that the tennis club didn’t have any money to contribute and Luba was investing in a project he had no ownership ties to. That is until he turned to longtime high school friends who he’d played alongside on the Wheatley High School tennis team.
“I have a crew of friends from high school and we’ve all stayed in touch and meet with each other once a year. What happened after that visit with the engineer is that night, my buddies and I got together. Everyone went around the circle saying what they were up to. This one dude was Obama’s first staffer when he started to run for president and is now a Dean at Yale Law School. Another dude is a preeminent antitrust lawyer in England and the third dude, who’s the best tennis player in the bunch, runs a giant hedge fund,” he explained.
“When they asked what I was doing, I said I wanted to bring the Forest Hills Stadium back. And my buddy who runs the hedge fund said, ‘he loves tennis and loves music and that he would fund it.’ We were pretty hammered so I said he should probably go home and talk to his wife about it and call me tomorrow. Sure enough, he called me the next day and said he’d really thought about it and thought it was important that we do this. My buddies from the Wheatley Tennis team went out and put up the bread to this day.”
While Luba declined to name his benefactors, he did hint that the startup costs between renovations and purchasing a permanent stage are around $3 to $4 million. Following the 2013 Mumford show, the concert/venue promoter and his partner Jon McMillan launched a more extensive concert series featuring shows by the Zac Brown Band, Drake and Lil’ Wayne, Phil Lesh & Friends, Modest Mouse and The Replacements, preceded by two months of seven-day-a-week renovating that involved installing new seating and handrails, widening the aisles and installing a new, permanent stage.
While a number of residents may be unhappy about the return of live music to the Forest Hills Stadium stage, there are a number of younger residents with families who are embracing these concerts. Sue Dutton has lived about two blocks from the stadium since 2001.
“It’s been great. It was really sad for many years how the stadium was falling into disrepair. It’s such a cultural icon for the city and for the neighborhood,” she said. “We were thrilled when they announced the new concert series. And even living here, the experience has been great. They’ve done a really great job with crowd control. It’s not that often that they have the concerts. The nights when they do have the concerts, it brings a fun, new vibe to the neighborhood. And it’s wonderful to see that the improvements that they’ve made to the stadium have really fixed it up so it’s usable again. I’m thrilled.” (To see the 2015 lineup of shows playing Forest Hills Stadium, click here.)
Luba is cognizant and sensitive to the affect noise and increased foot traffic might have on the local neighborhood. In addition to attending town hall meetings to answer concerns and complaints by residents, he’s not only rerouted the flow of concert-goers so that they wind up walking along the part of Burns Street that abuts the Long Island Rail Road, but he’s also investing money in addressing decibel issues that includes installing special sound-absorbing material along the fence lining the perimeter of the stadium’s property, adding stairway enclosures to muffle leaking sound and noise-proofing the side and rear portions of the permanent stage. With plans to eventually bring tournaments back to Forest Hills Stadium along with more live shows, the lifelong music and tennis buff understands working with the community will be the key to the stadium’s success and failure. Particularly when he’s fighting bad experiences from the late ‘90s when those particular shows were staged by a different promoter who was seemingly indifferent to incidents with unruly concert-goers getting drunk, littering, publicly urinating and making life miserable for local residents.
“We’re going to have a couple of shows with the New York Pops. Most of those tickets are going to be $10 or less and it’s a real give-back to the community,”Luba said. “If we get the word out and the shows do well, I think we’ll be back on the map. But it’s hard because we’re fighting 30 or 40 years of [bad precedent]. We weren’t even going from zero but more like less than zero. The bands all had bad experiences at the time, fans had mostly bad experiences and the neighborhood hated it. It was all this lack of communication. At least now, it feels like the intent of everyone is good and unified. There [are people] that just don’t want to see the stadium die because it was so important to Queens, Forest Hills and New York.”
To find out more information about Forest Hills Stadium, visit www.foresthillsstadium.com.