Wouldn’t You Like To Be A Pepper Too?

When I saw Hall and Oates in Central Park in 1980, I was wearing only black bikini briefs and an orange hard hat. Nothing else. Really. It’s a long story…

From 1966 to 1980, there was a star-studded summer concert series at the Wollman Rink in New York City’s Central Park. (This was before Trump and HRH Construction modernilinezed and monotonized it, there was a ‘misunderstanding’ between them, and Trump monetized the place. But that’s a whole other story.) The rink was actually called “The Wollman Skating Rink and Theater” back then. The series started out as The Rheingold Central Park Music Festival in the summer of 1966 and became the Schaefer Music Festival in 1968. It ultimately became the Dr. Pepper Music Festival in 1977 and ran through the summer of 1980.

The venue was gorgeous in a quintessentially New York way. All it really was was an oblong skating rink ringed by bleachers on the side that faced the corner of 5th Avenue and 59th Street. But from those bleachers, you could see, behind the stage and above the many treetops, a bit of the green roof of the Plaza Hotel, with the black window wall of the Avon Building behind it. To your right, you saw the jagged skyline of the pricey apartments of Central Park South, with the neon Essex House hotel sign, shining red, topping them all. To your left, you saw an endless expanse of elms. And behind you, looming above the bleachers, were enormous outcroppings of mica-flecked Manhattan Schist. That stone was always covered with picnickers and partiers taking in the concert for free. We called that “sitting on the rocks.” The rocks had their own special, sweet smell. In the air. Away from the police.

We called that ‘sitting on the rocks.’

The Allmans, The Beach Boys, The Dead, The Doors, Bob Marley, Springsteen, The Who, Zeppelin

Superstars played the Central Park concerts every year. The Allmans, The Beach Boys, The Dead, The Doors, Bob Marley, Springsteen, The Who, Zeppelin…so many more. There was a show almost every night. They were three hours long, and there was almost always a pretty good warm-up act. Tickets were one dollar in the Summer of Love, and never rose above five bucks. Every concert-goer got a souvenir tin button showing that night’s act.

My friends and I started going to the Central Park concerts in 1977, so, for us, it was always the Dr. Pepper Music Festival. Back then, the better shows sold out the first day tickets were on sale, even though the lineup of acts wasn’t announced in advance. Tickets were sold at select record stores—for us the nearest was inside Korvette’s in Flushing—and music fans lined up early. The store owner would pass out sheets with the Festival lineup to everyone on line and you would hear guys yelling “Oh, man, The Cars! I’m psyched” and “No Dead. This blows!” And, yes, it was pretty much all guys, at least on the lines. My friends and I just about always got the tickets we wanted. And if we didn’t, hey, that’s what the rocks were for. Well, one of the things the rocks were for.


We had a routine: we met at the statue of Simon Bolivar, El Libertador, at 59th and Avenue of the Americas, at 6, an hour before show time, and entered the Artists’ Gate entrance to the Park. We each got a soda from a hot dog guy in the Park because it was cheaper than at the concession stand. Then we perched in the 5th or 6th row of the bleachers, right of center, to avoid the obstructed view created by aisle walkers, rail leaners and the sound guys’ tower at the center of the rink. When the show was over, we never left with the crowd, and, in fact, wouldn’t budge until the roadies began to remove the band’s equipment. That paid off once or twice. After the show, we all headed to Nathan‘s, which, at that time, was on 58th St., right next-door to FAO Schwartz, and across the street from the GM Building. It was kinda’ munchies-central for most of the folks from the rocks back then, and could be a show in and of itself.

I might have caught 50 Dr. Pepper concerts. I loved going to the Park, and I saw a lot of great shows. Here are some particularly memorable ones, including the long story of the Hall and Oates show.

Every concert-goer got a souvenier button showing that night’s act.

Dean Friedman

Nobody remembers this guy. But you never forget your first, and his show in August of ’77 was my first Dr. Pepper show. His big hit that year, “Ariel,” featured the odd and unforgettable lyric “She was a Jewish girl, I fell in love with her.” I was there with an Irish girl who I never fell in love with. She dug him, so I got the tickets. But I didn’t dig him at all: I spent the whole night looking at the trees and buildings. Then, at the end of the night, he did “Ariel.” I did like that song. And I’ll never forget the sound of a few thousand people singing along to the high pitched chorus: “A-A-riel. A-a-a-a-a-a-a-a.” A lot of bad falsetto from the guys. A lot of shrill soprano from the gals. Somehow it worked.


In January 1978, Terry Kath, the rockin’ soul of Chicago, died tragically in an accidental suicide with a semi-automatic pistol. But the band played on, and I saw them in August of that year. Chicago’s show always ended with an extended jam of “25 or 6 to 4,” with Terry showing off his guitar chops. We all wondered what they would do now: No one could fill Terry Kath’s shoes. And no one did. They finished the night without playing his signature song.


If you didn’t know that I was referring to Todd Rundgren and/or Utopia, maybe you should skip this vignette.

My friends and I went to see Todd every time he played nearby from 1977 until about 1985. We loved the guy, with or without his band, and we pretty much knew his setlist either way. In the summer of 1979, he played his usual great show and finished up with “Just One Victory,” as always. But a month earlier at Giants Stadium, inspired no doubt by England Dan and John Ford Coley having a number one hit with his song “Love Is The Answer,” he ended the show with THAT tune. So we were suspicious.

The band left the stage, but the equipment lights did not go off. After a short time, the arena lights went on, and everyone streamed out. But not us, and a few hundred other hardy souls. After 10 minutes, Todd came back on stage, walked up to the mic, and said “Hey where did everyone go? Some friends dropped by that I had to say hello to. But we’re not done.” He then introduced Daryl Hall, John Oates, and Chaka Khan. They all played another 20 minutes, with full arena lights on, and less than 500 people still in the stands. People who had exited tried to get back in, and were stopped by the guards. Todd ended the night, of course, with “Love Is The Answer,” which Todd and Chaka made memorable with powerful improvisations over the chanted ending.

And that’s why we never bolted when a show ended. This type of thing happened in the 70s!

Kenny Rankin

For some reason, the promoter paired Kenny Rankin’s warm singing and soft, nylon-stringed jazz guitar with the raucous R&B party music of The Pointer Sisters. At that point, the Pointers had not crossed over to pop at all, and had only one top 40 hit to their credit, “Yes We Can Can.” The fan base for these two acts couldn’t have been more different. Kenny Rankin attracted faculty from NYU and Columbia.The Pointers attracted inner-city party people.

And then there was my friend Charlie-Boy and me.

Things were different in 1979. There was a lot of racial tension in New York City. I was pretty alarmed. Even Charlie, a bouncer by profession, was uncomfortable. There was a lot of trash talk in the stands before the show, kinda’ one-sided and hard to ignore. We just shut up and sat there. Then the Pointers started singing, and that was all put aside instantly. The rink surface transformed into a dance floor. So did the stairs and aisles of the bleachers. There was joyous pandemonium, and I dug watching it.

When the Pointers finished, I expected the crowd to thin out. But no one left. Then Kenny Rankin started playing, and loud and threatening heckling started almost immediately.

“Get off the stage honky MF!”

“Stop that weak ass shit and git the Pointers back”

“Where the Pointers be at? Git me the Pointers!”

Kenny took it in stride. He politely asked the crowd to settle down. That went very, very poorly. Now chairs started being kicked.

“You know, I’m from uptown,” Kenny said. And it’s true: he was from Washington Heights. But the crowd didn’t care.

Then Kenny struck back. “Folks, let’s not reinforce stereotypes here tonight.” No response. No change in the crowd’s behavior. A new wave kinda’ guy behind us leaned forward and whispered to us “And so there goes your proof.” I remember thinking he was an asshole, Joe Jackson literacy notwithstanding, and I was very afraid that he may have been overheard.

Eventually, the crowd caught on that the Pointer Sisters weren’t coming back, and left. Kenny played the entire Silver Morning album over the course of what remained of the night. It was absolutely sublime.

The Cars

I saw The Cars from the rocks. Frankly, I can’t remember anything about the show, other than the mannequin-like stillness of Ric Ocasek. If that even really happened. The rocks were not a good place for me.

Hall and Oates

It was a very, very hot Saturday. I was a longshoreman on the Brooklyn Piers that summer and pretty much broke my back in that heat all day. Then I was told to do overtime. I had intended on going home early, washing and changing, and then meeting my friends beside El Libertador. But now that couldn’t happen. So I formed a new plan: Wash up in the men’s room, drive a few blocks to the R train, and subway it over to the park. I could come back for the car later.

I did just that. But all I had in my locker was a clean tee shirt, no other clothes. That meant I would be attending the concert in steel-toed work boots and Levi’s on a 90° night. Well, ok.

These hard hats didn’t fit in our tiny lockers, so we always carried them to our cars with us.

When I parked, it occurred to me that I couldn’t leave anything in the car: In those days your windows would be broken and ANYTHING in the car would be stolen. This included my shiny hard hat. These hard hats didn’t fit in our tiny lockers, so we always carried them to our cars with us. That night, I tucked mine under my arm and headed for the concert.

I knew exactly where to go inside the rink/theater, and met my friends right before the lights went down. That’s when all the ribbing started.

“Hey, Village People rule,” some guy yelled out. I just defiantly put my hard hat on my head. And left it there.

My God, it was so hot! I just couldn’t keep the work boots on. I took them off and tucked them under the bleacher I sat on. That’s when I realized my socks were soaking wet. That was really uncomfortable. So I took them off and I laid them over my boots. As the night when on, most guys took off their shirts. Me too. Hey, why not? Twenty-year-old longshoremen are in great shape.

Those Levi’s were so hot! I kept tugging at them to air out. That’s when my friends started daring me to take THEM off too. And then betting me $10 that I wouldn’t. When the pot got to a hundred bucks, it was time to act. The pants came off.

I knew I was wearing black bikini briefs that looked like a Speedo. Think Travolta chanting “Al Pacino” in Saturday Night Fever. I somehow thought that because they didn’t really look like underwear, it was OK.

But I still had the hard hat on. People all around us started whooping and pointing. I just ignored them and watched the rest of the show.

When the lights went up, we, of course, stayed. I saw a girl I knew from school, and went over to say hi.

“What’s with the get up?” She asked.

“Eh, it’s an easy way to make a hundred bucks,” I replied.

She looked puzzled and horrified. There are a lot of ways that line can be taken, so I explained. She cracked up and told me to go put my pants on. I did, and we went to Nathan’s together.

That Nathan’s is gone now. So are the Dr. Pepper concerts. Come to think of it, so are the piers! El Libertador remains, sitting there on his horse, greeting visitors to the Park. My nephews ask me all the time what the Central Park concerts were like. I tell them, and they always say they wish they could have been there.

So…wouldn’t you like to be a Pepper, too?