Liberty Enlightening the World

So a week or two ago, I was cleaning up some stuff in my basement and in a huge Rubbermaid tub that was full of old VHS tapes found an old tape labeled “Liberty Weekend.”  I don’t remember grabbing it from my parents’ house when I moved away, but that’s not a surprise considering I grabbed quite a few things from their basement that I am sure they were happy to get rid of.

Still, I had to wonder why we had a tape labeled “Liberty Weekend” (not why I grabbed it–that’s explained by my love of having random crap) and then I noticed that the handwriting on the label was neither mine nor my parents’.  It was that of my dad’s old friend, Chuck, or “Uncle” Chuck as we used to call him.  He was the guy who once copied the entire Star Wars trilogy from laserdisc to VHS for me, so that meant that he’d probably put something together either using the footage from Liberty Weekend or for Liberty Weekend.

After realizing what it was, I had to wonder why he had put together the tape to begin with, unless he had been trying out some sort of editing equipment and decided to have a little fun.  Then, I actually started to watch the tape and remembered how huge the Statue of Liberty centennial celebration was twenty-five years ago.  So much so that not only did I decide to take the time to reflect on the weekend but a lot more.

Because in all honesty, it was very hard to escape the Statue of Liberty’s 100th anniversary, especially if you were a kid living in the New York City area.  The weekend of July 4, 1986 was a four-day party in and around New York City (especially New York harbor) and it was quite possibly one of the hugest things I had seen at the time, or since.  But the story really starts a few years earlier and encompasses more than a fireworks show and a concert that wound up in my basement in Virginia a quarter century later.

The Statue of Liberty has been photographed, painted, and filmed ad infinitum since it was first placed upon what was once known as Bedloe’s Island in New York Harbor in 1886.  There’s an entire collecting culture centered around Lady Liberty’s memorabilia (I don’t happen to have anything myself) and the early days of the statue were captured, albeit briefly, in the early days of filmmaking as shown below:

But by the early 1980s, the statue had fallen into a state of mild disrepair and with its 100th anniversary approaching, there was an enormous public effort to restore it.  Money was raised through a campaign led by then-Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca, who played the part that Joseph Pulitzer played back in the 1880s when funding for the pedestal began falling short.  The story from that time goes that Pulitzer would publish the name and amount donated by each person in his paper and did so which is kind of a remarkable feat considering that there were little kids giving nickels to help in the cause.  I don’t think that Iacocca had a published donor list like that but I do know that it was one of the more successful public donation efforts of my lifetime, helped by an ad campaign with commercials like this one:

Some companies, such as American Airlines and American Express, also contributed to ad campaigns and I distinctly remember an Ellis Island Foundation commercial featuring Neil Diamond’s “America” with pictures of immigrants; however, I haven’t been able to find that.

The result was that an enormous scaffold was placed around the statue in 1984 (the scaffold itself, by the way, is an impressive structure) and work began to make the major repairs needed.  For instance, I believe the torch arm was shifted, and the nose was repaired.  More importantly, the torch was completely replaced.  The scaffolding was only up for two years and hasn’t been necessary since, so the image of the statue with the scaffolding is a uniquely 1980s image, having made its way into only a few pieces of popular culture from the time, like the occasional comic book (Donna Troy vs. Donna Troy in New Teen Titans [Baxter] #3 and #4) and most notably the adventure flick Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins.

But what was to come would overshadow the scaffolding as the most memorable thing about the statue in the 1980s and that was the centennial celebration.  With the renovation going on, there was enough lead-up for everyone to realize that by the time 1986 did hit, you would not be able to avoid The Statue of Liberty.  Early examples included CBS’s PSAs called “An American Portrait” …

… and the Ken Burns’ 1985 documentary, Ken Burns’ America: The Statue of Liberty.  The one-hour piece, which was part of a larger series of documentaries early in Burns’ career (certainly before he’d make a name for himself with The Civil War), begins with a beautiful helicopter shot of the statue while Paul Simon’s “American Tune” plays.  Burns provides a comprehensive history of the statue’s construction and it’s remarkably objective, letting us know that the American public was lukewarm to the idea of a statue in New York Harbor, especially considering that we were asked to pay for the construction of the pedestal (which led to Pulitzer’s aforementioned role in getting publicity for the statue).  Included with this are archival photos, footage, and readings of actual newspaper commentary (showing, btw, that 125 years ago, the New York press was just as cranky) as well as a full recital of Emma Lazarus’s famous poem “The New Colossus.”

The scaffolding around the Statue of Liberty during its renovation in the mid-1980s.

Burns also uses interviews by contemporary poets, actors, and immigrants in order to contemplate the concepts that the Statue of Liberty stands for.  It’s a nice touch, since it is one of those true symbols and we can often only realize that by hearing what “liberty” and “freedom” mean to the myriad peoples who have passed through the “gateway” that she provides in New York.  It’s a quiet film that acts as a nice precursor to the bombastic celebration of a year later.

I was in the third grade in1986, so I was ripe for the type of curriculum that one would develop as a way for schoolchildren to commemorate the Statue of Liberty’s 100th anniversary.  I’m not sure if we had a special curriculum or not, but considering that there are special packets available for any topic, I wouldn’t be surprised.  And curriculum or not, we were inundated with Statue of Liberty stuff that year.  My memory is a bit shoddy in this regard but I’m sure we had art projects and history lessons and I do know that the Lincoln Avenue Elementary School’s spring concert was focused on Lady Liberty and that wound up being one of the highlights of my third grade year because it was the first time I ever truly performed in front of people.

Granted, this “performance” was me simply playing the recorder and I was a few years away from my two years in select chorus, but being talented enough at playing the recorder meant that I got to play accompaniment to the select chorus’s numbers, one of which I am sure was the choral recital of “The New Colossus”, a rousing version of “Hands Across America” (the less said about that, the better),  as well as a number called “Lady of Liberty.”  I don’t know who wrote the latter song and Googling brings up the possibility that it was a woman named Shelley Townes, but I can’t find the lyrics to confirm that.  I can say that I know the song came from whatever stockpile my music teacher had, which is the same stockpile of songs that every music teacher seems to have.  I mean, it was sometimes uncanny–you asked for a song about the Statue of Liberty and you got an entire small musical’s worth of stuff.  She may have been able to pull out a song called “Buttresses and Spires” if you asked her for a song about medieval Gothic architecture.

Nevertheless, the fifth and sixth graders dressed in rags that were probably left over from a production of Annie and leaned on theater boxes while singing about being immigrants and wanting opportunity and freedom.  The third graders who were best at the recorder all sat in a makeshift orchestra pit and accompanied the songs.  We did our best to keep time and stay on tune, but I have to say that I remember being more in awe of how big the fifth and sixth graders seemed.  They’d reached the stage where they started to care about brand name clothing and were getting actual 1980s hairstyles instead of the 1980s kid hairstyles we were all wearing. Plus, I thought some of the girls were very pretty and caught myself staring at them quite a bit.

But my awe at their bigness and my infatuation with the fairer sex didn’t continue after the spring concert finished because the school year was soon over and that meant playing with friends and running around in bare feet all summer.  It also meant that my birthday was coming up as was the Fourth of July.  I looked forward to both days every year.  My birthday because it was … well, who doesn’t look forward to his birthday when he’s going to be nine years old … and the Fourth because it was one of the only days of the year where we were allowed to stay up really late.  Most nights we were in bed by 8:00.

My birthday that year was pretty unremarkable.  I’m sure I got my fair share of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe toys–the specifics kind of get lost in my memory’s ether–but I do know that a couple of my family members gave me Liberty Coins.  These were commemorative coins that were specially minted to commemorate the 100th birthday of the Statue of Liberty.  They were “proof” coins (I don’t know what that means except that I don’t think they were actually meant for circulation) that came encased in plastic and in a special blue box with a red, white, and blue ribbon.  I had the silver dollar and the half dollar and probably did take them out of the plastic once (in fact, I think I dropped one of the coins and chipped the plastic at one point), and they eventually wound up in a small box in the bottom of my dresser drawer with a bunch of other odd coins and dollar bills I’d collected from either travels or which other people had given to me.

Where that box is, I don’t know.  I thought I had grabbed it from my room when I moved out 12 years ago; however, all I ever found was my box of lapel pins.

The half-dollar Liberty Coin. I owned the half and silver dollars. What happened to them, I have no clue.

Anyway, the Liberty Coins were precursor to the real main event of the summer of 1986 and that was Liberty Weekend, which I have preserved on TDK Super Avilyn video tape with its SP, LP, and SLP capabilities (I was going to try and work in a Betamax reference but I couldn’t make it work).

Uncle Chuck had basically taken the entire weekend and condensed it to two hours, which wasn’t exactly the easiest feat considering that if he had taped the whole weekend, he had five days’ worth of coverage, starting with the July 3 dedication ceremony and ending with a July 6 concert at Giants Stadium.  And the coverage from July 4 alone would have been monstrous because aside from the ceremonies and fireworks display that night, there was “Operation Sail,” an enormous parade of boats through New York Harbor.  All in all, you’re talking at least a full tape’s worth of coverage for Friday, July 4 alone.

The tape begins with a montage of Liberty Weekend moments set to “The Star-Spangled Banner.”  I wasn’t sure at first who was singing the song–it starts off pretty nicely but has its shrill moments and has an extra verse that I can’t place because it’s not in any of the other extra verses that Francis Scott Key wrote–but it fits well over a recap of the weekend.  We cut quickly to the night of July 3 when, at Governor’s Island several dignitaries and celebrities give us the history of the statue and its restoration before President Reagan stood up and officially rededicated the ceremony.

I actually did watch this night of ceremonies back in 1986 and was allowed to stay up late enough to see the fireworks.  I remember being in awe of the way they came up and exploded around the statue (a moment which would be stock footage and station identification fodder for years) and how huge some of the fireworks were.  I’d seen fireworks live before, when my parents had schlepped us out to Bald Hill, but this was something else.  And fortunately, Uncle Chuck cut out a lot of the crap from the evening and got the tape to the fireworks quickly, although he did preserve speeches by Francois Mitterand and others that he felt were important.

The Reagans reopen the Statue of Liberty in 1986. It would stay open until 2001 when it was closed after 9/11. It was reopened in 2009 but is now closed for some interior renovation.

As the July 3 ceremonies draw to a close and the fireworks begin, Peter Jennings reminds us that these aren’t the “big” fireworks, and we cut right to the opening of CBS’s “Operation Sail” coverage with Dan Rather anchoring and Walter Cronkite standing on a boat giving the play-by-play of ships sailing through the harbor.  And I have to admit that I wasn’t paying much attention here because while I was impressed by all of the ships that were in the harbor, I was more excited to see people like Jennings and Cronkite.  I’ve always admired the latter and grew up watching the former.  And at this point I was like a little kid again and was all, “Yeah yeah let’s get to the fireworks.”

And we get there.  And it does not disappoint. The fireworks show is 30 minutes long and it just looks like Grucci had commandeered the entirety of Lower Manhattan and parts of New Jersey and said, “Okay, let’s go to town.”  I mean, at one point I was sure that they weren’t setting off fireworks but were bombing New York Harbor, it’s that intense.

I honestly had no idea how intense it had been because I don’t remember actually watching it.  My parents had dragged us to someone’s Fourth of July party that year and we spent most of the day playing outside and were not allowed to watch television, although I know that at some point at the party–when half the people there had consumed a few too many beers–several of us were in the living room watching these fireworks.  I may have caught a few minutes of the show, but Chuck gave us the whole thing, even switching to CNN’s coverage when ABC went to commercial, to which I say two things: why would you want to interrupt an awesome display like this to run another Ford commercial; and how much raw footage did this guy own?  It’s insane!  I mean, the cuts are a little sloppy but what can you expect from 1980s analog equipment, but it does a great job helping us not miss a single explosion.

Unfortunately, I don’t have the means to transfer VHS to my computer so I wasn’t able to pull Uncle Chuck’s version of the July 4 fireworks.  He didn’t include very much of the July 5 and July 6 events, which were two concerts: a Boston Pops concert in Central Park and a big song and dance show at Giants Stadium.  When you think of it, the fireworks on the Fourth were the climax of the weekend but since July 4, 1986 was a Friday you couldn’t exactly end there and call it a weekend.  What little of the July 6 concert at Giants Stadium he included (there wasn’t anything from the 5th) seems a bit cheesy, kind of like a bad theme park show or like a half-assed attempt at the Olympic opening ceremonies on bright green 1980s-era Astroturf.  I will say, however, that “This Land is Your Land” never sounded so bombastic.  It’s only about 15 minutes of the tape, however, and we end with Peter Jennings introducing a ‘normal person’ singing “The Star-Spangled Banner”.  That “normal person” is a contemporary Christian singer named Sandi Patty and her montage bookends my tape.

I honestly can’t recall a Fourth of July as huge as 1986.  Maybe it’s because I was nine years old at the time and the cynicism I have toward today’s media and its tendency to overproduce and over-promote the hell out of everything had yet to be established.  Or maybe it’s because Liberty Weekend truly was as epic as it seemed on that tape.  I have been to the Statue of Liberty twice in my life and both times never disappointed.  It truly is impressive to behold and when you think of all it has stood for over the years for the millions who passed by on their way into this country (and even those who didn’t) you cannot help but be proud to say that she deserved that kind of 100th birthday party.

One comment

  1. Hey there!
    Firstly, I realize this article is currently 7 years old, but I stumbled upon researching family history. At one point you mentioned the song Lady of Liberty as performed by Shelley Townes. What brought me to this article is that my late uncle, Charles Blaylock wrote the song. If he were still alive today, I’m sure he’d get a kick out of knowing one of his songs has was heard by someone decades later. Thanks for sharing, it means a lot to me!

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