Manhattan College: A Rock and Roll Retrospective (Part 1)

by JOE LIGGIO, Asst. News Editor

Note: This article is the first of two chronicling a history of concerts at both Manhattan College and Gaelic Park. The majority of information available on these shows was sourced from articles featured in The Quadrangle between 1969 and 1972, and is a testament to the excellent reporting done by student journalists at this college.

The annual selection of Manhattan’s Springfest artist generates buzz on campus every year, and as debates over popularity, relevance and budgeting arise, the hype generated prior to the announcement of the once-a-year concert headliner is often met with a sizeable degree of disappointment upon the reveal.

It is hard to imagine that in decades past, Manhattan sponsored and provided venue for multiple concerts a year, both on and off campus, with some of the biggest names in the annals of rock, folk and pop history gracing our very own section of the Bronx.

What began as a few scattered shows with low-budget contemporary artists would ultimately culminate in tens of thousands of concert-goers flocking to Gaelic Park in the early 1970s to see legendary acts like the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers, the Guess Who and Yes, all for no more than a few dollars a ticket. But how did it all come about?

The story begins in 1967, when the Social Life Commission of Student Government at Manhattan hosted its first official concert, headlined by folk-pop group the Kingston Trio, at the Manhattan Center on West 34th Street. The cost of overhead at the venue proved to be too great, resulting in what The Quadrangle referred to as a “financial flop” and the loss of approximately $2,000 dollars for the college.

The following year’s show featured rock group the Turtles, best known for their 1967 hit “Happy Together,” this time performing at the College of Mount St. Vincent in North Riverdale. The show was described as underwhelming, and despite the switch to a less expensive venue, again resulted in a financial loss for the college.

The change seemed to come during the 1968-69 school year when Manhattan began hosting a few live musical acts to supplement recurring campus-wide events known as “Manhappenings.” These “social extravaganzas” were also organized by the Social Life Commission and were scheduled to occur six times throughout the year, in addition to one or two dedicated music concerts.

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Arlo Guthrie performing at Manhattan in 1969. / THE QUADRANGLE

One of the first of these highlights was an on campus performance by Arlo Guthrie on September 21, 1968, which was met with a large student crowd that actually turned a profit for the school. Yet reviews featured in The Quadrangle following the show indicated mixed reaction among students in attendance.

“Many left the concert thinking that Guthrie wasn’t as good as he had been in previous appearances.” wrote one editorial. “Some thought that the show was very good and wondered at his blasts of the establishment. Notwithstanding either of these views, the concert was a success financially. This is something new for Manhattan following the losses of the Kingston Trio and the Turtles.”

The implications seemed obvious even at the time, that the potential for popular, successful concerts at Manhattan was there.

“This concert should go to show that the administrators of the college who feared another loss, that with another great entertainer and with an innovation for Manhattan such as an outdoor campus concert, there is a good deal of money to be made … Arlo Guthrie may well have given Manhattan College a new social life. Now it will be the job of Student Government to prove that it can be done again.”

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The Drifters performing at Manhattan in 1969. / THE QUADRANGLE

The Drifters, best known for their 1964 hit “Under the Boardwalk,” played at the fifth Manhappening of the school year on January 31, 1969, supplemented by two local bands and and 11-piece soul group. The Quadrangle described the event, which took place in what is now Thomas Hall, as “a discoteque atmosphere on the main floor with light show and psychedelic poster display,” while the bands played upstairs in a “nightclub” setting. Beer was served on two floors to those with proof of age.

Admission was just $1.75.

In conjunction with the Junior, Sophomore and Freshman classes, Manhattan’s Special Events Commission also set up an evening concert with rock and pop singer Judy Collins at the College of Mount St. Vincent on April 26, as a part of Manhattan’s first “Spring Weekend” event to close out the academic year and send students off for the season.

Yet the summer break did not halt the musical momentum the college had started, as things were just starting to heat up on campus and in the Riverdale community.

In conjunction with the Special Events Commission, the idea was developed for a local concert series, the proceeds of which would be used towards scholarship funds for Manhattan College students. Thus was born the Manhattan College Scholarship Concert Series – Summer ‘69 Festival.

According to an article in a July 1969 issue of the Bronxville Review Press-Reporter, the series was chaired by Special Events Commissioner Mark Walsh, Class of ‘69, and came at an expense of approximately $200,000.

The college worked with Ruston & Brenner Associates, Inc., a booking agency based out of Bronxville, NY, to bring the shows to Gaelic Park, which at the time was not yet owned by the school. The company specialized in providing musical acts and entertainment for colleges, schools and clubs throughout the New York metropolitan area, particularly contemporary rock bands, and had also assisted in arranging several Manhappening artists.

The concert series kicked off on July 17, 1969 with a show headlined by California pop group the Association, who had opened up the legendary Monterey Pop Festival two years prior, along with The New Colony Six and The Critters. The Association had originally topped a school-wide poll to play at Manhattan in 1968, but had accepted a contract to perform at Notre Dame before they could be booked for a show.

The Beach Boys, backed by the Box Tops and Brooklyn Bridge, would follow just one week later. The following month would bring Pete Seeger, the Four Tops, the Rascals and many others to the athletic field on West 240th Street. Riverdale residents living on Waldo Avenue at the time had a clear view of the Gaelic Park concerts from top-floor apartments and rooftops, and those who couldn’t get into the shows could often listen to the music from the street.

On August 18, as Woodstock was wrapping up its third and final day about 80 miles to the northwest, Manhattan College’s Summer ‘69 Festival was supposed to close out with a show headlined by the Byrds, but the concert was ultimately cancelled. Some problems arose at the beginning of the fall semester as Student Government argued over what to do next, as detailed in a Quadrangle article covering an assembly meeting prior to the final decision.

“It seems that since there had been allotted money for the Byrds and the [college] legislature had not been consulted, whoever had signed the Byrds [from the Executive Committee] had done so illegally. The trouble lay with the fact that it was only illegal as far as Student Government was concerned. The problem left the legislature with two poor choices … either cancel the concert and take an immediate, sizeable loss or it could give its approval to the concert, thus making it legitimate.”

It was decided that the band would return to play two shows on September 20 at Mount St. Vincent. The most expensive ticket to either show was $4.

The start of the 1969-70 academic year also signaled the return of Manhappenings which once again proved popular, often drawing crowds of over 1500 students at the same time. Meanwhile, it was decided that the college could once again undertake another summer concert series, and that with better planning and fewer acts to manage, the show could generate a greater profit than the year prior.

In the summer of 1970, Manhattan College would host its second Scholarship Concert Series, this time co-sponsored by P. Ballantine and Sons, the Newark-based brewing company best known for Ballantine Ale. The Summer ‘70 Festival was much shorter than its predecessor, featuring only three concerts, but packed a wallop in terms of talent.

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Chicago performing at Gaelic Park in the 1970s concert of Manhattan College. / THE QUADRANGLE

Chicago and the Guess Who took to the stage the night of August 5, 1970 to open up the series. The concert lasted until 1:20 a.m., and despite some technical difficulties resulting from audience members crowding against sound equipment near the stage, the concert was successful and netted an $8000 dollar profit for the school.

John Lovett, Assistant Track Coach at Manhattan as well as a member of the class of 1973, was one of those in attendance at the show, which took place in the summer of his freshman year at the college. He recalled how inexpensive the concert was, as were most at the time.

“Back then everything was fairly cheap,” said Lovett.  “I’m sure it wasn’t more than a couple dollars. It was a nominal fee to get in, wasn’t like nowadays, you know, where you gotta take a loan out.”

Lovett, who ran track for the college at the time, recalled taking the train from his then-home in Flatbush, Brooklyn up to the Bronx.

“It was like an hour and a half ride [via subway] back then … people would just go and hop on the train and you’d go and you’d party, everything was a party basically, it was the 70s.”

He recalled the large number of audience members packing Gaelic Park that day, which he had previously visited to watch club football games.

“You never went to a concert where they were half-filled.”

13,000 fans ended up at Gaelic Park that night, the second largest concert crowd in New York that summer, trailing only behind Simon and Garfunkel’s show at Forest Hills Stadium.

An Irish-themed show headlined by the Irish Rovers followed on August 25. While the concert was taped by news station WPIX-TV and drew many of the surrounding Bronx-Irish locals, it was unsuccessful at attracting fans from outside areas and proved to be another financial setback.

The last and final concert in the series featured Three Dog Night the following day, August 26. Their opening act, Pacific Gas and Electric, was unable to perform that night, forcing an hour and 25 minute-long set of new and old material by the headliner that was well received by the crowd.

“Three Dog was good but the audience was even better,” wrote Special Events Commissioner Walsh in a September 1970 edition of the Quadrangle. “The predominantly high school audience was on its feet from the start, and the snow fence which had been erected between sections had been torn down by the end of the concert.”

Walsh ultimately felt that the shows went over well, and did benefit both the school and students.

“The avowed purposes of this series were to raise scholarship funds … to affect good public relations for the college … [and] to provide a significant social event for students and the general public,” wrote Walsh. “If the size and fervor of the gatherings were any indication of the social value of the events, then Summer 70 is also an indication of the success of the concert series.”