Photos by Ebet Roberts
If you’ve attended, or are planning to attend an outdoor show this warm weather season, Ron Delsener’s the man to thank. And a spectacular thanks he got on Monday night under the stars at the Central Park SummerStage as part of the New York City’s City Parks Foundation’s annual gala. 1000 of Delsener’s closest friends turned out with plenty of glitz and glamor to toast the legendary promoter for his 80th birthday.
The newly appointed Chair of CityParks Foundation, John Troubh, spoke first, extolling the virtues of city parks, which span a whopping 40,000 acres of our city. They are, as he pointed out, a critical way to make the city more usable for all inhabitants. Afterwards, Troubh’s predecessor David Morse ran an auction on two bundles of tickets and meet and greets- one for sports and one for entertainment. In mere minutes, the Foundation brought in close to $80,000.
For most young folks, summer is synonymous with outdoor entertainment, but, as Nancy Hoving, the wife of Thomas Hoving, one time New York City Park’s Commissioner, pointed out in her introduction to Delsener, “remember back in the 60s when parks were a place you couldn’t go after dark?” Delsener helped her husband achieve his aim of bringing more people to the city’s parks, a feat highlighted in a short video of Delsener strolling through Central Park and pointing out spots where the action happened, interspersed with clips of news broadcasts and concert footage from the time, from Elton John and Tina Turner to Simon and Garfunkel’s famous Concert In The Park, concerts which brought hundreds of thousands of eager New Yorkers streaming in. Towards the end of the video, Delsener added, “What do I think about New York? I think it’s the most exciting city in America, without a doubt.”
The man of the hour took the stage to the first of several standing ovations. In his colorful speech, he thanked his friends, both there in the flesh as well as those who are no longer with us, and regaled the crowd with some amusing anecdotes from his years in the trenches. This included one bit, in which he was thanking old friends in the audience, that could have come straight out of an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm. “I couldn’t could do math,” he recalled of those early concerts, “so these guys took things- they took hotdogs by the thousands. They’d back a truck up when I had gone home. He’s now with Philip Morris,” Delsner added with a wink, pointing at his victim, “and you know how honest they are… Hey, that’s a joke!”
This was the first of many ribbings made at the expense of the rich, including many strangely placed Donald Trump jabs, which were all a little cringe-worthy, given that the price of a table at the event ran upwards of $50,000. But Delsner is through and through a New York character, born and bred, getting a good laugh with his line, “Even my friends chipped in and came from far places… Like Corona,” and later adding that his list of thank yous was “in alphabetical order, so don’t give me crap about this tomorrow.”
Finally, the concert kicked off with Paul Shaffer and his appropriately named band, the Park Rangers, emcee Shaffer ebullient and looking dapper in a metallic blue suit. They opened with some horn heavy soul, the energy high and the rose still flowing as Shaffer introduced “the greatest living saxophonist” David Sanborn, who quipped, “It’s an honor to be here to celebrate my old… old… old old friend.” Sanborn lived up to his intro, blasting two red hot tunes into the crowd.
Peter Yarrow added a serious side to the proceedings, noting that Delsener “was always there as a friend and an advocate,” launching into a touching and goose-bump inducing singalong of “Blowin In The Wind.” He prompted each chorus with a new tribute; “Sing it with me for Ron;” “Sing it for our friends in Orlando.”
Jon Bon Jovi fired the crowd up again, recalling that “playing the great lawn was one of the great achievements for the band” and calling Delsener “Uncle Ronnie,” before launching into a half acoustic half electric rendition of “Who Says You Can’t Go Home.” “Ladies and gentlemen, all the way from Rome… Gossip columnist and rock critic to the Vatican newspaper!” Father Guido Sarducci took the stage with a curious blend of political and porta potty jokes.
As the last performer of the night as it wound towards 10, Idina Menzel gave a touching tribute to Delsener, recalling, “Before I could get any gigs, Ron believed in me… He said he was gonna make make me a star someday.” No one would argue that Menzel is indeed a star, but her choice of song to end the evening- Radiohead’s “Creep”- was odd at best, as it meant listening to her belt out the chorus with those signature power-pipes, “what the hell am I doing here? I don’t belong here.” But hey, maybe in some, deep-down way, the sentiment rang true for Menzel as it did for Delsener, a couple of scrappy Jewish kids from Long Island and Queens, who, through their wit, drive and talent, infiltrated the New York City elite.
I’ll never rock out under the stars again (and I’m sure I will plenty of times before the weather turns chilly again) without knowing exactly to whom I know the pleasure. On behalf of all of us music lovers, thank you, Ron.