The 1967 Central Park Be-In: A 'Medieval Pageant'
March 30, 1967, Vol. XII, No. 24
Central Park Rite is Medieval Pageant
By Don McNeill
As the dawn sun gleamed off a backdrop of molded metal skyscrapers on Easter Sunday, a medieval pageant began in the middle of Manhattan. Laden with daffodils, ecstatic in vibrant costumes and painted faces, troupes of hippies gathered on a hill overlooking Central Park's Sheep Meadow to Be-In. By sunset, 10,000 celebrants swarmed in great rushes across the meadow, and thousands more were dispersed throughout the rest of the park. Bonfires burned on the hills, their smoke mixing with bright balloons among the barren trees and high, high above kites wafted in the air. Rhythms and music and mantras from all corners of the meadow echoed in exquisite harmony, and thousands of lovers vibrated into the night. It was miraculous.
It was a feast for the senses; the beauty of the colors, clothes, and shrines, the sounds and the rhythms, at once familiar, the smell of flowers and frankincense, the taste of jellybeans. But the spirit of the Be-In was tuned -- in time -- to past echoes and future premonitions. Layers of inhibitions were peeled away and, for many, love and laughter became suddenly fresh.
People climbed into trees and made animal calls, and were answered by calls from other trees. Two men stripped naked, and were gently persuaded to re-clothe as the police appeared. Herds of people rushed together from encampments on the hills to converge en masse on the great mud of the meadow. They joined hands to form great circles, hundreds of yards in diameter, and broke to hurtle to the center in a joyous, crushing, multi-embracing pigpile. Chains of people careened through the crowds at a full run. Their energy seemed inexhaustible.
The password was "LOVE" and it was sung, chanted, painted across foreheads, and spelled out on costumes. A tall man, his face painted white, wearing a silk top hat adorned with straw flowers, wandered ethereally through the Be-In holding aloft a tiny sign reading "LOVE."
The costumes ranged from Easter Parade hats and morning suits to high mod gear to psychedelic robes. Many people painted their faces in wild designs and colors ranging from chalk white to glowing lavender. They often included a dot, a tiny mirror, or a defraction disk pasted on the forehead. One man was dressed in a suit of long, shaggy strips of paper. Another person wore a jacket covered with buttons, all upside down. "This isn't a day for slogans," he explained.
Although hippies dominated the Be-In, it was by no means exclusively a psychedelic event. Many families came to join the Be-In after the Easter Parade down Fifth Avenue. Be-In posters in Spanish invited members of the Puerto Rican community. Grandmothers and executives, hippies and housewives mingled together in harmony. Three nuns appeared wearing Be-In buttons.
A young boy, a Negro, was skeptical about the hippies. He turned to his father, "But Daddy," he said, "they look so funny."
"You shouldn't say that," his father admonished, "until you know them."
The posters for the Be-In said "Bring Picnic" and anonymous press releases urged people to bring flowers, food, and easter eggs to share. The main activity of the day was giving. Most of the flowers and decorated eggs were passed around many times. Sticks of incense, smooth pebbles, sandwiches, and jellybeans were offered among the crowd. You could yell "Does anyone have a cigarette!" and get one in seconds.
The Be-In had no center of activity. The action continually shifted from point to point, from group to group and, from a high point in the meadow, you could watch the surges of people to the peaks of activity, usually closely followed by a tribe of people extoling the newly discovered banana high. A herd would converge on a spot and, in seconds, you could hear the chorus of the banana mantra -- "Banana, Banana" -- and see a large, wooden, slightly phallic banana bobbing in the air. You could almost always see the banana out of the corner of the eye, aloft in a tree or rushing through the meadow. At one point, the banana clan, consisting of about 15 people, surged to the northwest, converging with a full-throated banana chorus, on the refreshment stand for a coffee break.
The event was at once surreal and beautifully absurd. Three girls wandered through the crowd of thousands, one of them holding up a key chain. "Did anybody lose some keys," they droned. "Anybody lose some keys to a Volkswagen?" The girls wound in and out of the groups of people, all around the Sheep Meadow, impossibly patient, holding up the keys.
The Police and Parks Departments quietly and unofficially cooperated with the Be-In. A police car arrived at 6.45 in the morning, and the few hundred people already gathered rushed the car and pelted it with flowers, yelling "Daffodil Power." The police, astonished and covered with flowers, beat a hasty retreat.
Throughout the day, a few police watched the Be-In from the edge of the Sheep Meadow. They made no arrests. When police approached the two men who had stripped off their clothes, hundreds rushed and surrounded a group of five cops, alternately chanting "We love cops" and "Turn on cops." They crushed tighter and tighter. The banana hovered overhead, and the police had no escape. The chant switched to "Back Up, Back Up" and just in time, the people peeled off the cops.
A few thousand people were still encamped on the hill, dark except for the flickering light of a few fires, when the police arrived in force around 7.30 p.m. Police beamed lights on the hill and used bullhorns to order the Be-In to disperse. Again the crowd rushed the cops. This time it was more tense, moving towards a nightmarish showdown. Then it eased, and the police let them stay, watching the crowd from a distance. The Be-In broke up shortly afterward.
"The police were beautiful," said Jim Fouratt, who helped to organize the Be-In. "It was really strange and it freaked them out, but they were beautiful."
The four main organizers of the Be-In were Fouratt, an actor; Paul Williams, editor of "Crawdaddy" magazine; Susan Hartnett, head of a group called Experiments in Art and Technology; and Claudio Badal, a poet-playwright from Chile. With a last-minute budget of $250 they printed 3000 posters in English and Spanish, and 40,000 small notices in a dayglo design donated by Peter Max. The posters appeared on walls and telephone poles in every part of the City. The notices were tacked on doors, stuffed in mailboxes, and passed out on the street.
"We tried to remain anonymous," Fouratt explained. "People would ask who was organizing it, and we would give them a Be-In button and tell them 'You are!'"
Fouratt doesn't think that a Be-In can succeed or fail. "It just is," he said. Nevertheless, most participants thought that the Easter Be-In was a triumph. It avoided many of the pitfalls of the first Be-In, a "Gathering of the Tribes" in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park on January 14. Personalities dominated the first Be-In, and the activity was centered on a stage. The New York event seemed more spontaneous.
Another Be-In, in conjunction with the Spring Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam, is planned for April 15. It is scheduled to begin in the Sheep Meadow at 11 a.m., and continue with a walk to the peace demonstration at the UN at 2 in the afternoon. Some people are skeptical about mixing Be-Ins with politics. The Be-In seems almost a sacred event, harking back to medieval pageants, gypsy gatherings, or the great pow-wows of the American Indians. At the same time it is a new and futuristic experience which, once refined, offers great promise. But it should be refined carefully. It is a lot of energy to deal with.
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