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NYC's Central Park Offers Array of Cultural, Entertainment Opportunities - 2003-09-10

Many people who have never been to New York City's Central Park would recognize parts of it from Hollywood films like The Prince of Central Park and When Harry Met Sally, or from literature, or fashion photographs that use the Park as a backdrop. Others know Central Park's reputation as a masterpiece of landscape design in the midst of one of the world's busiest cities. But, as Adam Phillips reports, New Yorkers also love Central Park, which is 150 years old this year, for its array of cultural and entertainment opportunities.

Even the birds and the bees of Central Park took note one recent Sunday afternoon as Big Brother and the Holding Company began a three-hour tribute to the late psychedelic blues singer Janis Joplin.

That event was just one of 35 free concerts, representing over 20 countries, that the non-profit group "Summerstage" is producing in Central Park this summer. During the first set, "Summerstage" producer Alexa Birdsong peered out from behind the curtain at the audience of perhaps 1,000 concert-goers and was very pleased.

"Central Park is an oasis, and people flock here to be rejuvenated," she said. "And music certainly contributes to that rejuvenation. And so we do 'Summerstage,' and we present music from all over the world. So we include as many kinds of New Yorkers as possible… New Yorkers are so demanding. You've got to keep the bar high."

Many non-traditional types of entertainment exist within Central Park. At the mouth of an ornate 19th century tunnel leading to the Bethesda Fountain - the angel-topped centerpiece of the park - the man who calls himself "Thoth" was dancing to his own drum, a metal plate set into the asphalt, while singing falsetto and playing the violin in what he calls a "prayer-formance" in honor of his creator-goddess "Anya."

Thoth's usual costume includes a gold loincloth festooned with African beads, Indian bells, and chains that criss-cross his chest. Thoth's dreadlocks spill like a waterfall and are topped by the feather of a red jungle bird. The crowd of 30 or so onlookers was enthralled.

"Beautiful," commented one woman. "We heard it from far. We thought it was a lady doing opera and we came here and it was much more than that. I don't know what it is."

"Great voice," added another audience member. "Exceptional talent! Don't you love New York?"

Thoth himself says children are his biggest fans. "Because I to them am a mythological creature," he explained. "They don't have any question about what I'm wearing. Up to a certain age they will respond that I am a hero that just came out of comic book and they are just like whoa, 'he is making all those sounds' and 'he is like a warrior person…. Wow!'

And there are eyes are wide and they are 'Wow!' Sometimes it's scary for people. I acknowledge that sometimes people come in here and it is like 'What is happening here?' But sometimes people come in and they just start dancing. And I invite that. It's a wonderful platform for anybody to just let go."

"The Delacorte Theater is now open. Everyone please make your way to your seats," instructed the announcer over a loudspeaker.

Summer audiences in search of more traditional fare have been attending free "Shakespeare in the Park" performances at the Delacorte Theater since 1962. This year it's Henry V.

Backstage, David Costabile, one of the stars, warmed up his voice in his dressing room. He said actors love the Delacorte as much as audiences do, partly because its open-air stage is similar to those that Shakespeare's own actors used.

"They performed at the Globe Theater and they had no rood. So they were exposed to the elements the way we are exposed to the elements," he explained. "It isn't small like a Broadway House where it is contained and every element is being shaped. In this one, things happen. The horns honk, the airplanes fly over.

And here there is also the addition of wildlife, so we have raccoons that often come up on the stage, there are some mice that are on the set. And there is a beautiful lake just behind the set too, where there is a beautiful heron that sometimes will land during the thing. We can hear the bullfrog during the whole show. You'll hear him. It really shakes things up. It's fun because it makes of feel so live!"

During intermission, an audience member expressed her own appreciation for the way the magical worlds of the theater and Central Park co-mingle at the Delacorte.

"I think it's dreamy. I think it's a feast," she said. "The evening light of the sun setting against the background and the lighting in the theater and the mosquitoes come in and the special effects smoke drives them out. It's all kind of an intertwining of real nature and light and the play. It gives you double takes and triple takes. It's great."

Like every city, New York has buskers galore… performers who depend on appreciative passersby for their livelihood. But few ply their trade in as romantic a setting as John Turner does. Mr. Turner usually croons American standards and blows his trumpet at the edge of Central Park's gorgeous model boat pond, in the shadow of fashionable Fifth Avenue apartment buildings where some of those songs might have been written in the 1930s and 1940s.

"As a matter of fact when I started doing this, I was playing different music. It was more like R&B funk type of stuff, but it didn't fit the space that well," he said. "But playing the Fats Waller repertoire is an excellent match. I guess it just ties in with a sense of nostalgia, which matches the locale with the lovely curves of the pond and everything. I guess that's it... It's just a very enjoyable, nice place to be - just the different energies and creative forces smashing together in a chaotic yet nice environment," he said. Everybody comes together in Central Park - a place where entertainers have found an audience for 150 years.