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Liberty Weekend : Battery Park Hosts Show Of Its Own

July 07, 1986|JAY SHARBUTT | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — A lot of beer was drunk. There were almost no fights the night of July 4 down at Battery Park. This is partly because there was almost no room in which to fight.

Thousands of New Yorkers and tourists stood jammed shoulder-to-shoulder at the small, tree-filled park that overlooks New York Harbor from Manhattan's southern tip.

Their general patience, courtesy, and good nature was more than remarkable for New York. So was something else.

The tired, sweating, foot-sore members of this human gridlock could have watched the night's bodacious, half-hour fireworks show in the comfort of their homes, courtesy of ABC-TV.

But they didn't. Neither did the far smaller crowd that gathered Thursday at Battery Park to see the daytime parade of windjammers and warships and the evening's colorful re-lighting of the Statue of Liberty.

Not for them the $14-million Roone Arledge-David Wolper Liberty Weekend mega-spectacular on ABC. They came to see, hear and participate in the celebration of the nation's birthday the old-fashioned way--in person.

Although they didn't have to sit through commercials, there were some drawbacks.

On Thursday night, they didn't get to see Frank Sinatra sing "Tenement Symphony" or any other part of the lavish entertainment afoot across the harbor on Governor's Island. That was just for the national TV audience and the swells in $5,000-a-chair seats at the song-and-dance display. All the gang at Battery Park could see of it were brilliant white and purple lights flashing in the distance.

And on Thursday and Friday nights, there were mystifying, seemingly interminable waits for the main events: President Reagan's re-lighting of Ms. Liberty, and the next night's thunderous fireworks display that shook the ground and sent reporters scurrying for superlatives.

Local newspapers had reported the scheduled start of each event. But ABC controlled the schedule. There were delays; alas, few on Battery Park knew why. No TV, you understand.

But no matter. Before the main events the pleasant old park offered a sprightly show of its own, day and night, a show far more varied and full of humanity than anything ABC and Wolper might have concocted.

For starters, it had its own resident band, albeit a band of one.

Newton Grant, an old man in a red cowboy hat, played the park's No. 1 hit--"God Bless America"--on a battered trumpet with one hand. He accompanied himself on accordion with the other hand, and kept time with his feet on a weary-looking bass drum.

A few yards away, an open-air Polaroid photo studio offered two choices of poses for posterity at $6 a pop. You could have your picture taken alongside a life-size photograph of President Reagan.

Or you could stick your head through a hole and become the "face" of a green plastic replica of the Statue of Liberty. Business was brisk here.

The usual vendors hawked the usual Liberty commemorative trinkets, T-shirts, caps, cups and buttons. But the hottest item was a green foam-rubber Ms. Liberty crown. Even white-haired ancients wore it, and their smiles were just as silly as those of the children.

Spiritual matters were not ignored, though. Amid a wide array of alfresco commerce stood a man whose blue T-shirt said "Jesus Saves." He held a yellow banner that bore a warning:

"Revelations Six. Great Tribulation Is at Hand. All Mankind Should Repent!"

This undoubtedly was missed by TV crews and still photographers on the five blimps and as many helicopters that circled over the parade of ships in the harbor.

Down at the promenade near the water, Peggy Smith and her 7-year-old daughter, Jennifer, tried to figure out which ships were passing by. The Smiths and 126 others had just flown in by chartered jet from Indianapolis.

All were on a truly whirlwind visit--12 hours. Their plane was due to leave at 9:30 p.m. It meant they wouldn't get to see Reagan's relighting of the Statue of Liberty that night.

"Obviously, I'm disappointed," Smith said. But she was glad she and her daughter at least could see the refurbished Statue of Liberty and witness in person a brief part of this mammoth celebration of her country's birthday.

"I really am thrilled to see all the patriotism coming back," she said. "It wasn't too popular a couple of years ago."

ABC's Liberty Weekend shows generally were devoted to costly spectacle and big, big names. But the little things out in the real world of Battery Park sometimes were more interesting in their own way.

There was an almost absence of pot-smoking, for example. True, at Battery Park Friday afternoon, a youth was seen to crouch down and try to fire up a hash pipe. But a companion leaned over and told him, "Man, knock it off. Everybody's watching."

It was a small but historic moment. You kind of wished TV had been there.

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