1976: More than just the Bicentennial Year to me

Since this blog is all about blasts from the past triggered by a photo or media, I couldn’t resist sharing this recent walk of mine down Memory Lane, featuring my father.

My little nostalgia trip started with seeing an ad in the newspaper that reminded me of a real trip I once took.

Pippin

Yes, Pippin is coming back to Broadway after last being seen there in the early 1970s. (Of course, Pippin never really went away—it’s been one of the most produced shows in schools and theaters around the world for decades.)

Pippin has loomed large in my mind for a long time. You see, it was the first Broadway show I saw, way back in 1976. I remember the year exactly because this was the show we picked to see when my father brought me to NYC from Michigan for my 16th birthday. I have no idea why we chose Pippin—I didn’t know Ben Vereen, Betty Buckley or Michael Rupert from a hole in the wall—but since it was a Tony-winner with an amazing score by Stephen Schwartz and directed by Maestro Bob Fosse himself at the classic Imperial Theater, it was a helluva way to kick off my lifelong love affair with Broadway theater.

But back to the rest of my NYC nostalgia trip

My father was a young lawyer in downtown Manhattan, living in a little apartment a ferry ride away on Staten Island when I was born there in August 1960. My mother later said those years in New York were the happiest of her life and it certainly sounds like the two of them enjoyed their time there—even on a modest budget, they had a bunch of fun friends, and were able to dine out and see an amazing series of classic late-1950s musicals on Broadway, when they had the time and (later) babysitters to do it.

Soon, though, my father grew restless being a tiny cog in a giant NY law firm. By the time my brother David came along 22 months after me, my father had taken a bigger and better job in Detroit, and our family was renting a house in the east-side suburbs of the city. So my first stint as a New Yorker ended before I even realized it had happened.

Memories of a faraway time and place

You can’t imagine how thrilled I was to come to New York in 1976. Nowadays, 5-year-olds routinely dine with their parents in nice restaurants and fly all over the world. But back then, this Michigan suburban teenager hadn’t ventured much further than Ohio.

I’d watched every classic New York–based movie and TV show known to mankind, and I knew “all about” Greenwich Village, Tin Pan Alley, and Broadway. Yeah, I had the typical totally unrealistic vision of New York (and the whole East Coast).

The best part about this trip, though, was that I was going to have my dad all to myself for three whole days!

On the way into landing at LaGuardia Airport I glimpsed my first view of the magnificent skyscraper skyline, and only got more excited as a big yellow taxi whisked us to our hotel in midtown Manhattan. I still recall how surprisingly tiny the hotel rooms were, typical for the Big Apple in those pre-refurbished days, but the opposite of what I’d expected (from all the Thin Man movies).

My father had ambitious plans for this weekend and we taxied and rode the subway all over uptown, downtown, and midtown.

I wish I could say I had iron clad memories of exactly what we did those 3 days, but it’s sort of a blur. Here’s what my 16-year-old brain still does remember (probably not in the most accurate way) from that trip.

I remember we went for a drink at the Peacock Alley at the Waldorf-Astoria. I felt very sophisticated sipping my soft drink and watching all the 1970s characters with their piles of luggage swanning through the lobby. To my disappointment, no real peacocks were spotted.

I remember my father took me to a very nice department store (Bonwit Teller? Altman’s? Bloomingdale’s?) and told me I could pick out a dress for my birthday. Excited but clueless, I had no idea how to pick out a dress; very few high school girls wore dresses in 1976, and I was especially unfamiliar with shopping sprees. I remember being absolutely shocked by the prices, as I kept pulling out and putting back dresses on the rack.

Finally a saleslady strong-armed me into trying on a navy blue dress with tiny sprigs of pink flowers sprinkled haphazardly all over it. I put it on in the dressing room, thought, “Hey, this looks cool!” and stepped outside to show my father.

I will never forget the look of dismay that came over his face.

“What?” I asked.

“It’s nice, but…” he said.

“But what?”

“It makes you look pregnant!” he blurted out.

It was the year of the peasant smock dress and this one, with its high empire waist and sash at the back, did indeed have that unfortunate enceinte effect.

I dug in my heels and bought it. And, of course, wore my New York dress proudly to Pippin, feeling very cool, if slightly self-conscious about looking like a child bride.

I remember my father taking me for a very tasty “real” Reuben sandwich at a deli called Reuben’s on Madison Avenue. We also had “real” New York cheesecake somewhere else, which was a big step up from the frozen Sara Lee’s I was used to. And another meal I remember is a strange but delicious cream-cheese-on-cinnamon-bread sandwich at a tiny Chock Full o’ Nuts hole in the wall. Dad went on and on about how great the coffee was there, just like he remembered it.

I remember being stunned by the throngs of people on the streets and by how fast everyone walked. To keep me close by and in sight, my father would propel me in front him, his index finger ushering me forward—’til in one irritated moment I swatted away his hand and told him to walk in front of me and see how he liked parting the crowds.

And I remember our wonderful tour of Wall Street (his old stomping grounds) and the ferry ride over to find the little courtyard apartment on Staten Island where I’d spent my first oblivious year.

The place was just a short walk up the hill from the ferry. My dad pointed to an apartment window that overlooked a dingy 1970s courtyard and we hovered quietly in front of the building’s banged-up front door; there was no way to get buzzed inside. Sad to say, I got bored with all of this pretty quickly. But I could tell my father was on his own nostalgia trip, remembering his days in the late 1950s as a young lawyer just starting out, with a new wife and baby at home… and maybe comparing it wonderingly to his 1976 life as a beleaguered breadwinner with four teenagers in a Detroit suburb—and we stood there a long while before turning around and heading back down to the ferry.

From 1960–>1976–>2013

The Pippin poster has been just the latest thing to trigger wonderfully nostalgic thoughts about my dad, because he turned 80 on March 28—and while none of us can believe it, especially him, it’s prompted us to take a moment to celebrate him. Messages for my dad have come in from friends and family near and far, and many of them say the one thing you’d want to hear at 80: “You? Eighty? You look the exactly the same, Larry. You never seem to age!”

For my part in celebrating my father, I will share this essay with him as a way to thank him for creating such wonderful memories around showing his eldest daughter her birthplace. I didn’t know it at the time, but that 1976 trip was the first step on my path back to New York. It took me a little while to edge my way over to Manhattan from the midwest—another 9 years after that 16th b’day—but I’ve been a New Yorker ever since, albeit one with the world’s strongest midwestern accent, I’m told. (I comfort myself by thinking even that’s probably preferable to the Staten Island accent I might have had.)

And, in case you’re wondering, of course I already have tickets to Pippin circa 2013. It won’t be the same—no Ben Vereen, to start with—but I think before the show I’ll stop in for a drink at the Waldorf and raise a glass to my dad on his 80th and to my 16-year-old self.

A visit home for Christmas the year I moved to New York. I can’t imagine why my father and I are doing the can-can in this photo.

A visit home for Christmas the year I moved to New York. I can’t imagine why my father and I are doing the can-can in this photo.

About Laura Kelly

Laura is Kevin Walsh’s second cousin on his father’s side. When she first moved to New York, she worked for CBS and at a variety of magazines as managing editor. Later, Laura was VP, Global Editor-in-Chief of Reader’s Digest books series. She now helps creative artists (such as authors, actors, photographers, and print designers) with all things digital; one of her main clients is her husband, author Warren Berger. You can learn more about Laura's business at Laura-e-Kelly.com, and follow her on Twitter @LectriceUSA, Facebook, and Google+.
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5 Responses to 1976: More than just the Bicentennial Year to me

  1. Irene says:

    What a wonderful essay! Only outshined by the photo–
    happy birthday!

  2. Elinor says:

    Your fabulous essay makes me want to see Pippin and have a drink in Peacock Alley (but NOT wear the pink flowered dress!). What fun for your Dad to read this!!

  3. Laura Kelly says:

    Thanks for the comments! That trip to NYC meant so much to me–will see my father tonight and see what HE remembers from that long-ago visit.

  4. Kevin Walsh says:

    Great memories, Laura. Happy Birthday to your dad. I hope you have a great Easter weekend together!

  5. Today, to my delight, I received an email from my dad about HIS reminiscences sparked by the above “Pippin” essay. His memories are from an earlier era—the late 1950s, when young Wall Street lawyers were paid a pittance and had to live on Staten Island. Seems hard to believe these days, but my father outlines what happened to change things…. 

    http://happytoshare.tumblr.com/post/48616448645/when-young-wall-st-lawyers-ended-up-in-low-rent-staten