The transition from cathedral of tennis to celebrated concert stage, interview with Stadium GM Jon McMillan
From Billie Jean King to The Beatles, Jimmy Connors to Jimi Hendrix, Chris Evert to The Rolling Stones. For decades the stadium at the West Side Tennis Club was not only host of the U.S. Open, it was also a renowned music venue, tucked into a leafy neighborhood of stately homes in Queens’ Forest Hills neighborhood. However, when the U.S. Open moved to a larger space in Flushing, Queens in 1977, the architecturally stunning, horseshoe-shaped Forest Hills Stadium fell into disrepair and its days as a music venue faded.
In 2013, concert promoters partnered with the West Side Tennis Club to rehabilitate the stadium and bring events back to this storied venue. Jon McMillan, GM of the iconic stadium, tells us about its history, restoration, what makes it special, and exciting concerts happening this summer.
The stadium was originally the home of the U.S. Open; how did it turn the corner to become known as a legendary music venue?
The musical history of the venue actually stretches back to the ’60s. There was a promoter who was one of the iconic New York Promoters in the ’60s, who I believe was partnered with a tennis player.
The Beatles played there, the Stones, Barbra Streisand, Jimmy Hendrix, Frank Sinatra, Simon and Garfunkel. It was actually the preeminent outdoor music venue in New York. Jones Beach didn’t exist. They weren’t doing concerts in Central Park. It was like the place to go to see that world class type of music.
That concert series continued into the early ’80s. Really, up until about 1996, there were shows out there at the stadium. We arrived in 2013 and nobody had done a show there for about 17 years. It had this wonderful history that existed, but we just had to excavate it, and remind people of what had happened there. Then try to reconnect that with the same kind of modern legends of music.
We’re sure there’s been a lot of major moments in music history here (one of Bob Dylan’s first electric shows…but more on that later!), but what’s the story about The Beatles two sold out nights?
The Beatles had played the Ed Sullivan Show and then this was like their next big New York play, before the Shea Stadium show that everybody talks about. They landed a helicopter on the grass courts near the clubhouse and they came out and people just really completely freaked out.
I don’t have any insider knowledge but I’ve heard the stories, we’ve met people who jumped the fence and came in. One guy tells the story about [how] their crazy girlfriends would throw jelly beans at the Beatles because apparently they said at some point that they liked jelly beans. They laid down this kind of plastic surface underneath a bunch of folding chairs. The show happened and it was completely bananas. When they went to pick the seats up the next day, the grass had been turned this rainbow color because all of the jelly beans that had been thrown and then fallen through. Basically messed up center court for the U.S. Open.
We’re really hoping that we get Paul McCartney back up to kind of complete the circle on that.
Speaking of people coming back to play, Paul Simon is a Queens native returning after forty years for a show at his home stadium! When booking him for this summer, was it an idea that he reached out about or did the stadium choose to pursue him?
When we started our project, there was a list of artists who were our basic target artists. Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan were three of the six of the ones that we really just felt were so important – the history and the stories are so incredibly compelling.
There’s been a dialogue going with Paul Simon’s camp for a long time and I think we’ve been trying to pitch him from the moment we reactivated the stadium.
Stars aligned this year in terms of his touring and needing to be in New York at the right time for us – really kind of embracing the idea of wanting to come back to the stadium.
I’m not the world’s foremost Dylan historian, but I know that was a very important summer for him. He’d gone to the Newport Folk Festival and he plugged in his guitar for the first time ever. He’d been a folk musician and he plugged in. He did the Newport Folk Festival, everybody’s talking about it, then he came down and I think Forest Hills was the next show after that. This was the second time he plugged in. It was New York. It was a big stage. It was an iconic play. People were just getting their heads around what the next kind of iteration of Bob Dylan was going to be.
Forest Hills connects to a very pivotal moment in his career and his development of who he is now, and what he’s become over the years. We’ll see what he comes back with.
What kind of crowds are you expecting for these nights? Mostly fans of their generation or a whole new group of concert-goers experiencing a show here for their first time?
I think our stadium is old, but it’s kind of new enough that people are coming back for what feels like the first time. We’ve been getting a nice cross section of people who have some experience with it and some people are just showing up at Forest Hills and never having been there before, and embracing it. We’ve done now James Taylor, Santana, The Who, and Van Morrison. Artists of that generation tend to draw a little more diverse fan base than you think, just because they’re icons. Paul Simon’s music has been influencing people for 50 years. He’s got fans that are 15. He’s got fans that are 85. We’ll see a bit of that.
Generational fans may notice some differences in the venue since their last concert at Forest Hills. Why did you decide to restore the legendary space?
It was sort of like we couldn’t not do it once we got there. I think that was just kind of a consensus among the small group of people who really dug in to make it happen.
We do a lot of shows around the world, in a lot of different places that range from fields in the middle of small towns in middle America, to the Hollywood Bowl. It’s very obvious to us as show people that it is a magical, magical place. It just has these incredible bones and this incredible history you can feel when you’re there.
We did a whole bunch of sound mitigation and clean up and patron sort of things last year. It’s just becoming a really much more fan-friendly environment. It’s got its quirks to it because it’s an old structure. Making it modern is not necessarily possible all the time, but making it fun and exciting and inviting is what we really go for.
New York isn’t short on iconic music venues, but what about seeing a show at Forest Hills Stadium is an experience that sets itself apart from the rest?
It’s the biggest outdoor venue within the city limits. It’s the same size as Madison Square Garden for most concert configurations. The worst seat in our house is about a third the distance from the worst seat in Madison Square Garden’s.
Forest Hills is just a magical place for people who haven’t been there. It doesn’t look like any place else in New York, it doesn’t feel like any place else in New York. You’re in the is little bucolic kind of wonder town.
What have been some of the great shows in the past few years since the renovation and who do you have lined up?
It’s a huge range. We did Drake and Lil’ Wayne and we did Zac Brown Band, we did James Taylor. We’ve done Mumford and Sons. We’ve just really tried to get a cross section of different types of music to get different types of people out, different types of music fans.
The stadium is now back on the map of artists and people in the industry. It’s not like we’re Barclays Center trying to fill the joint 200 nights a year. We do 6, 8, 10 nights a year for programming. It’s special, it has a limited footprint. For outdoor venues in New York, it’s just of a size, and scale, and location that’s unmatched.