Chapter 23. Barbra at MSG: John’s Last Public Appearance

23.

The results of one of John's photo sessions.

The results of one of John’s photo sessions.

John’s Last Public Appearance

“Wouldn’t it be lovely if we were old?  We would have survived all this?”  Katie Morosky, ‘The Way We Were’.

So, everything you’ve read in the previous chapters is what Barbra read and what prompted her note to me.  What happens next happened after this was first written.  Barbra has never read this chapter.

I don’t remember what date tickets went on sale for Barbra Streisand’s 1994 concert tour.  Historians will note that the full-page ad ran in the first “color” edition of The New York Times.  That I remember.  The last weekend in March.  I think maybe tickets went on sale that same day, at 12 noon.

Try to imagine if you can the hysteria this announcement set off on a global and personal level.  There had been talk all winter of the upcoming tour, big pieces and little pieces in the papers.  The drumbeat was louder each day.  Immediately everyone started spinning, plotting, worrying, pulling his or her money together, and trying to figure out the best way to get the best seat in the house.  Everybody but me, that is.

One of my heroes has always been the baker from the Titanic.  I remember reading that while the disaster was unfolding around him he calmly had a few drinks and waited for the boat to go under the water and then stepped off.  He didn’t jump, he didn’t panic, and he didn’t fight for his life.  He just stepped off and then swam to a lifeboat.  I like his style.

Of course the phone lines were jammed (I didn’t even attempt to call) and the lines outside Madison Square Garden were as you can imagine.  John was amazed that I was taking a hands-off approach to this – you see I was the ticket getter, I was the arranger, and I was the host.  But not this time. Not yet.

John was living in Manhattan at the time, the year prior we split up our apartment in Jackson Heights.  I moved back to Riverdale, he moved into “New York” (as Brooklynites are known to call it).  He walked over to Madison Square Garden to assess the situation – and it was brutal.  I don’t think he even got a wristband.  He called me and laid down the law.

“Joseph, you have got to get us tickets.”

“Why, she doesn’t like to perform live, you can’t get a ticket to this thing, who has that kind of money?”

“You have to.  This is going to be my last public appearance.”

I didn’t know how to take that.  John and I always spoke in “press release” short hand – all those years of reading star autobiographies and watching “The Mike Douglas Show” no doubt.  Why did he say it was going to be his last public appearance?

To use the vernacular of the day, John had been “diagnosed” in the spring of 1990.  Ironically, he got the results on Barbra’s 48th birthday and immediately called me at work.  As cliché as it will sound he started the conversation with “Are you sitting down?”  I wasn’t, but I lied, as there was no need to sit down, as I knew what was coming from his question.

He didn’t want to take AZT, he thought it was poison.  At that time there was no “cocktail”, so whatever he did, he did.  And he was doing fine.  Really.  He went to work, never went out on disability, and with a little make-up and a good night’s sleep he was always ready to go.

So, now I had to get tickets.  If it meant so much to John, as he couldn’t get them on his own, well know it was up to me.

As you might have read at that time I was the weekend telephone operator at the Lowell Hotel.  This boutique hotel served the highest of the high.  Movie stars, dignitaries, ex-wives, and all the bold-faced names you can think of.  Some balmy afternoon over plated sandwiches and iced beverages I will regale you with stories of my conversations with Nancy Reagan, Betsy Bloomingdale, Dominick Dunne, Cher, Eunice Shriver, Sidney Pollack, et el but for now the only name you need to know is Sid Ganis.

I bow my head when I speak his name.

Mr. Ganis I think was in charge of Sony Columbia at the time, the early 90s.  I first got to chat with him when ‘The Prince of Tides’ opened.  The movie was scheduled to open on Christmas Day, naturally meaning I wouldn’t be able to attend.  But on, I think I’m pretty sure about this, Dec. 7th, there was an announced “preview”.  I took the afternoon off from the hotel and rallied all the troops and we waited on line down at 19th Street and Broadway.  The line was so long that theatre management added a second show.  The next morning, Sunday, I was back on the phone at The Lowell and one of the first calls I received after opening my board was from Mr. Ganis.

I jumped right in – “Mr. Ganis, guess where I was last night?”  And I told him about the preview, the added show (he hadn’t heard that one yet), the audience reaction, the applause at the end of the movie.  I went scene by scene of the movie letting him know when people cried, laughed, broke into applause – thank God it was early morning and I had no other calls.  I was finally finished my report.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Ganis, who did you want to speak to? May I connect you now?”

He told me there was no need – he got all the information he needed from me, he was thrilled with the reaction, and if I could just tell whomever it was he was calling to return his call when they woke up.

From that day on I made sure Mr. Ganis was always upgraded, received flowers and fruit – he would have gotten them anyway but I made sure of it.  Sometimes we spoke, sometimes I just put his call through (if you’re a good operator you know when to just put their calls through), but he was always a gentleman.  And I hope I was too, although every fax that came in regarding ‘The Prince of Tides’ I read, twice, before putting it an envelope and sending it upstairs.

So, now it’s April 1994, Barbra Streisand is at Madison Square Garden, there are no tickets to be had, and John is pestering me with reminders.  Barbra had opened that week in London and was closing on the 29th.

And Mr. Ganis phones The Lowell.   Is so-and-so there?  “No, Mr. Ganis.”  What about this guy?  “No, Mr. Ganis.  Not registered.”  How about this other fellow?  “Sorry, Mr. Ganis.  Not here.” Well where could everybody be he wondered?  No one was “in town” (Los Angeles), they weren’t in New York, where was everybody?

“I don’t know, Mr. Ganis.  Maybe they are all in London for Barbra’s concerts?  She’s closing tonight so they should be back soon.”

BINGO.

He agreed with me.  He hadn’t thought of that.  That’s probably where they all are.

And how about you, Joe, he asked.  You must be excited to see her.

You know those moments in your life when you sense something is about to happen but you don’t want to be too sure because it might not happen but you know it is going to happen?  This was one of those moments.

“Oh, Mr. Ganis. I’m just a telephone operator minding my own business.  You can’t get a ticket to this, they were sold out in like two minutes.”

And then I waited.  I didn’t say too much, I didn’t say too little.  I just waited.

Joe, call my office on Monday, and speak to Kira.  I’ll let her know you are calling.  She will get you tickets.

Oh! Mr. Ziegfeld!  You mean you liked it?  I didn’t play coy, I didn’t play dumb, I just said thank you.

“Believe me, Mr. Ganis.  If you want me to call your office on Monday morning at 9am, I’ll call our office Monday morning at 9am.”

Remember when it took Norma Desmond three days to be good and ready to return DeMille’s phone call?  It took me two.  I didn’t want to call on Monday and appear pushy or anything, I had to calm myself down, and, besides, maybe I didn’t even want the tickets at all?  Who said I was going?

I called on Tuesday.   Kira was an angel to me.  She told me was expecting my call yesterday (“Yeah, well, I had some things to do…”) and said she would put in my order, I would send her certified check, the people handling the tickets would get in touch with me the week of the concerts, and so on and so on and so on.

“And how many tickets do you want?”

I don’t know where I got the courage but blurted out “Six.”

There was a slight pause.

You really want six tickets?

“Yes, didn’t Mr. Ganis mention that?”  I don’t know how I came up with that one – but all this time since the concert was first announced friends had been telling me that they were sure I was getting in somehow and to remember them when I did.  Really?  But I wasn’t even going.  I told them all to fend for themselves. But no, they put their faith in me.

And then I waited.

Okay, she said.  I’ll let them you’re buying six tickets.

Before making the phone call I had consulted with my little circle of friends – or friend, John – and decided we would go on closing night.  We thought about going opening night but then we’d have to live with all the press reports that week knowing we were never going back, we figured all the lighting and little tweaks would be worked out by closing night, and we wanted to Barbra to have settled in and be as comfortable as possible when we saw her, so we agreed to go on the closing night.

Six tickets cost $2,148.00, $350 per plus $8 in fees.  This was Tuesday, May 3rd.  I had to have a certified check made out to JEG Productions and in Kira’s office by the end of the week.  Where was I going to find that kind of money in less then a day?

I called my mother.  I told her of this incredible opportunity that just happened, I told her she would get every dime back, but I hadn’t had a chance to collect the money from everyone yet, and that I needed a certified check by Wednesday the latest to send to Hollywood, U.S.A.

Meet me at the bank, she said.  I don’t have to drive this check to California, do I?

I don’t know what she must have thought, I don’t know what made her say yes, I don’t know if she thought I had completely lost my mind, I didn’t ask and she didn’t tell me.  My mother was not much for talking; she was more a woman of action.  Once, when I had learned how to talk to her, we here having a very pleasant conversation and she said something like, “If you like drawing so much, why didn’t you take it up?”  I looked at her and thought should I tell her?  Why not. “Because when I was four you told me to stop drawing because I would go blind.”  She didn’t miss a beat and turned to look at me.  “I would never say anything like that to any of my children.”  And she went back to scrambling the eggs.  So there you have it.  The first drafts of our personal history is written by our mothers, as is the second draft, and third.  Go figure.

On May 4th I had the check and it was sent overnight to Kira at Mr. Ganis’s office and just like that, John and I were going to see Barbra Streisand.

The certified check procured by my mother with just a few hours notice.

The certified check procured by my mother with just a few hours notice.

Have you ever bought tickets privately, from the promoter?  What a scene.  Of course the people I was selling the tickets to wanted to know if I had them yet, where were we sitting, why didn’t I have them yet.  For years John and I used a line thrown at us once when one of our school plays ran into a little production problem.  Threatening to stop the show the director told us kids, “The tickets aren’t printed yet!”  John and I fell back on this line and repeated it for most of May and three weeks in June.

When ‘The Tour’ rolled into New York someone handling the tickets contacted me.  They wanted to verify my contact details.  They had taken over a suite or two at the Rihga Royal Hotel in Manhattan.  They told me the game plan.  I would be called with a day and time slot to come pick up the tickets.  Please do not call them back.  Please do not ask to pick up your tickets at any time earlier than the time they arranged.  Don’t call us, we’ll call you.  Can you follow these instructions, Mr. Naughton?

Can I follow these instructions?

No.  I immediately dashed off a thank you note and ran it over to the hotel and dropped it at the lobby.  I sent a basket of fruit to the gal I spoke to on the phone.  Day two I had bagels delivered to the suite.  Day three I had hot facial towels (rolled) sent up from housekeeping.

And then I got the call.  Oh, and by the way thanks for all the goodies.  And was it you who had the Engineering Dept. check up on us every two hours to make sure the air conditioning was working properly?

Yes.

Well, come by tomorrow afternoon for your tickets.  Oh, and by the way, do you want four for opening night and two for Tuesday?

I think at this point I fainted.  I had held it together through every step of this transaction – from speaking with Mr. Ganis to dealing with my mother – by this point I was beaten down and I know I must have fainted.  Or at the very least dropped the phone.

Do you take cash?

I don’t know how but I pulled together the cash by the following afternoon.  The opening night tickets were in the $350 section and the Tuesday night tickets were I think, I think – $125 – on the floor but at the opposite end.   I arrived at the Rihga Royal with cash in hand and waited in this lovely seating area.  I could see into one of the bedrooms and the beds were covered with these big plastic shallow tubs, packed with envelopes – the tickets.

And that’s it.  That’s how two fans from the Bronx, who fell in love with the movie ‘The Way We Were’ back in 1973 were able to get into a Barbra Streisand concert in 1994.

On opening night John and I attended with two friends I was able to sell the other tickets to.  I think we were in the very last seats on the side that cost $350.  Section 108.  I don’t remember what we were thinking.  I remember looking down on the floor and seeing Barbara Walters and Donna Karan.  Donna seemed to be in control of the seating in the first few rows, she kept moving people around, or bringing them to their seats.  I was a little struck – I don’t know if I could sit up front to see a friend perform, a friend who was nervous performing live – and didn’t she just see Barbra at lunch?

John was beyond excited.  As I said he was doing very well, medically speaking, and he was just beyond excited.  When the overture started I put my head down, this was all a bit much, I didn’t know if I could look at her, I felt guilty being there, but I was happy for John.  I didn’t look at her at all during her first number and possibly the second.

At some point she started talking about the beautiful flowers on stage and she remarked that, gee, flowers are really expensive here in New York.

I lifted my head and said, “Yeah, well, so are concert tickets.”

What was that I just said?

Did I just heckle Barbra Streisand?

John looked at me in horror, the people around me looked at me with disgust.  I didn’t shout it our or anything, I just said it.  And I didn’t mean that her tickets were too expensive I just meant, yeah, things are expensive in New York; flowers, concert tickets, rent.  As if I was having a conversation.

It’s amazing the stuff that comes out of our mouths.  Or the stuff that comes out of my mouth.  This woman, Barbra, who has given me so many hours of entertainment for the simple price of an album or movie ticket, I wouldn’t begrudge my last penny. Fans who won’t buy a ticket because they don’t like the price just don’t get it.  Her prices aren’t too expensive.  In the course of a year, if you add up all the money you spent on gum, and packages of luncheon napkins, and hairnets, and light bulbs – I bet it all adds up to more than a price of a ticket to see Barbra.

But I said it.  Well, I blew it, so I might as well look at her and enjoy the rest of the concert.  But it was so nerve wracking.  I don’t know why but I just couldn’t enjoy it.   I was worried about John, I was worried about my rent, I was worried for Barbra, and I was just worried.

Tuesday night was much better, for me.  I was sitting in the back, on the floor, Section 12 I seem to remember.  It was glorious.  I got to see all the lighting, and the set, and the big screens.  I love seeing Barbra on the big screen.  I was able to watch her on the big screen and not worry that I was looking at “her” and bothering her.  After the show was over a funny thing happened.  Jeffrey Rindler and I spotted each other.   The way the Garden is configured if you are sitting in the floor section you cannot get to the first tier.  And Jeffrey was seated somewhere in the first tier.  We didn’t even know this, but somehow as the crowd was milling out we spotted each other.  And we spoke over the gap in the seats, Section 12 being raised.  It was like a scene from a movie; war buddies, separated by train tracks, briefly catching up but not able span the space between them.  Hhmm.  Just 11 years ago we were at ‘Yentl’ and now each of us had other plans for after the show.  He was going his way and I was going mine.

And then closing night was upon us.  Or what was to have been closing night.  Barbra added a few shows but for us, Thursday, June 30th was closing night.  In a very odd way I was glad it was finally over.  Don’t get me wrong.  Everything about the concert was perfection: the sets, the sound, the music, the lighting, and the song selections.  Everything was perfect and sublime.  But I just never calmed down enough to enjoy it.  I had never been silent about my support of Barbra Streisand and now I was paying for it.  I never had so many phone calls in my life.  And the questions – can you get me tickets, are you going back stage to meet her, does she know you are going to be there, why aren’t you going to meet her, why are you going so many times, doesn’t she just sing the same songs every night?  And so on.  I wish I were in a bubble.  I wish I could have just “sneaked in” and observed.   I wish John hadn’t told me this was going to be his last public appearance.

We were sitting on the floor, Section 4, Row D.  Right in front of where she walked to sing ‘He Touched Me’.  I’ve never met Mr. Ganis; when you work back of the house you never meet the guests.  I’ve never shaken his hand to say thank you properly, I never slipped him five dollars so he and his wife could go have an ice cream on me.  How do you say thank you to someone who makes a dream come true?

The trouble with dreams is you wake up.  From the moment the overture starts, it’s the beginning of the end.  Every note and gesture brings you one step closer to the final curtain.  You can’t stop time.  You can’t pause life.  You can’t dream with your eyes wide open.

If you look closely, you can see Barbra throughout the room.  On the closet door, on the bookshelf, on the cork board behind John, a school art project of his.

If you look closely, you can see Barbra throughout the room. On the closet door, on the bookshelf, on the cork board behind John, a school art project of his.

When the show was over we sat there for a moment, happy, nervous, excited, sad.  And we didn’t move.  Finally we gathered up our programs and headed toward the exits.  I still remember this and I can see it clearly as I type it.  The group of us was walking along the curved hallway of Madison Square Garden and John just stopped and leaned up against the wall.  I asked him if he was okay and he said he was fine, but I should go on, he’d be fine.  He just needed to stop for a moment and Carlos II would make sure they got home okay.

That was June 30th.  John’s health quickly left him and July and August were a series of hospitalizations and illnesses I wouldn’t wish on anyone.  He had been doing so well and then, just like that, he wasn’t.

Barbra Streisand, The Concert, was indeed his very last public appearance.  He lost his battle on September 24th (Barbra’s lucky number) 1994, having turned 34 years old on August 7th.  The night of his wake, at midnight, Tower Records was putting on sale the compact disk of ‘The Concert’.  Not that any of that mattered to me now, but I did take note that this would be the first album John and I would not be buying together since we first started some twenty years earlier.  I eventually bought the disk and the VHS or DVD but I’ve never been able to listen to it or watch it.

The day John was buried there was a light rain was falling.  As the final prayers were being said at his gravesite I looked down at his coffin and noticed that some rain had splatted on the lovely polished wood.  If you know John, you know the one thing he would not abide was water damaged wood, every glass had to have a coaster, do not ruin the furniture.  I felt my knees give out and thought I was going to drop – I didn’t have anything to wipe the rain away.  I felt someone touch me, catch my arm and turned to see it was my mother.

I didn’t want to stay for the end of the ritual.  I wanted to see John’s last scene as if it were a movie, as he would want me to.  He was the real star in this friendship and I walked up the little hill to where the cars and limos were parked and leaned against one of them to view the happenings in “wide screen.”

Someone had left their car radio on and I heard the familiar strains of a song.  If have to tell you who was singing, you haven’t been paying attention.

Okay, I’ll tell you.  It was Barbra.

Now This is The End.

“He who is wise, is he who learns from all men,

He who is rich is he who has a full heart and many friends,

And he who is strong is he who controls his passions.”

11 thoughts on “Chapter 23. Barbra at MSG: John’s Last Public Appearance

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