A Toast to 100 Years of Tennis & Music History at Lavish Affair
Annual Heritage Day at West Side Tennis Club
By Michael Perlman | [email protected]
The West Side Tennis Club, a cultural and architectural cornerstone, commemorates its history with “Heritage Day” celebrations ever since 2018, and the “Stadium Party” in 2017. On August 26, under a crisp blue sky that turned into a golden sunset, fashionable WSTC members, their guests, and tennis notables, were ready to rejoice the centennial of Forest Hills Stadium, where hallowed grounds harbor a series of firsts in tennis, music, and social history, among other definitive achievements.
Additionally, Heritage Day spotlighted the Club’s 131st anniversary, after originating on Manhattan’s west side and eventually calling Forest Hills home in 1913, with a Clubhouse designed by Grosvenor Atterbury and temporary grandstands.
The program began on the Forest Hills Stadium stage, where a buffet-style cocktail hour led up to the much-anticipated opening of an Acme Safe Co. safe with a plaque bearing a vintage phone number, Canal 6-2500. It was abandoned for years under the Stadium, and longtime groundskeeper Jim Sheridan had the honor of opening it alongside a backdrop of the eagle-adorned 14,000-seat horseshoe Stadium. Sheridan said, “I started at 14 years old, cleaning down the Stadium. That was my first job, and I always wondered what was in that safe.”
Sheridan continued, “My father (Owen Sheridan) was the groundskeeper before me, who started in the 1930s. He retired, I got an education in horticulture, and then came back to the Club. It was found in the U.S. Open kitchen. Open tennis began in 1968 and just blossomed, and then they built a kitchen at the Stadium. Restaurant Associates ran it. The safe remained there until they did the present-day renovation. Nobody has opened it and we’re hoping for a big surprise. I have the keys and I’ve been given the honor. Well, here we go…”
He was joined by Liz Kobak, who said, “I’ve been a member for seven years, and my parents were also members. I’m honored to open the safe with you.” Sharing in the honor was Dr. Ashley Park, a Germantown, Tennessee resident, who had a rich history at the WSTC since the late 1960s with his parents.
Attendees gave a drumroll, but it resulted in an empty deposit ticket plastic bag from Chemical Bank, which closed decades ago in Forest Hills. Also uncovered were a cloth bag, empty coin boxes, and a discolored typewritten bank issue form titled “Forest Hills 1990,” featuring amounts issued for areas including the F.H. Café, Club Bar, Stadium Club, fast food areas, and ice cream and fajitas kiosks. It totaled $3,600.
Then all guests made their way to an elegant affair on the Clubhouse’s terrace and posh lawn. A traditional ceremony marked the unveiling of banners below and above the graceful Tudor Clubhouse’s archways. The evening also featured a multi-course buffet with live music and a dance party. In the Club’s signature colors, the banners honored “Lt. Joe Hunt – World War II, Joins The Navy 1941 – U.S. Nationals Singles Champion 1943 – A Champion Gives His Life To The Country 1945,” “John Newcombe – U.S. Nationals/Open Singles Champion 1967, 1973 – U.S. Nationals/Open Doubles Champion 1967, 1971, 1973 – U.S. Nationals Mixed Doubles Champion 1964,” “Althea Gibson – Broke The Color Barrier In Tennis At The U.S. Nationals 1950 – U.S. Nationals Singles Champion 1957, 1958 – U.S. Nationals Mixed Doubles Champion 1957,” and “Forest Hills Stadium – America’s First Tennis Stadium 1923.”
These banners will be suspended from Forest Hills Stadium’s colonnade, joining a lineup of earlier banners, dedicated on Heritage Day, which honored Maureen Connolly, Jack Kramer, Arthur Ashe, Virginia Wade, The First U.S. Open, Rene Lacoste, Bud Collins, Stan Smith, and Rod Laver.
Brett Emerson, WSTC’s executive director of racquet sports, opened the ceremony by introducing the banners and thanking the Stadium Centennial Committee and staff that made Heritage Day possible.
Then Club President Monika Jain took the podium and explained, “The Stadium’s construction began in April 1923, and the Club just so happened to have a well-known architect, Kenneth Murchison as a member, and incidentally he was also a member of the Nominating Committee in 1917. The Club also had a past president who served from 1918 to 1920, a civil engineer named Charles Landers, who was part of the Stadium development team. The Club and the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association partnered to finance its construction. It was an over $150,000 project.” On October 11, 1923, a dedication and opening ceremony was held.
Jain continued, “In more recent times, we can all agree that another historic and crucial moment took place in 2010, when the WSTC voted not to sell the Stadium to Cord Meyer, and in 2013, Mumford & Sons was our Stadium’s inaugural comeback show.” She felt honored to host prominent guests, including members of Althea Gibson’s family. Additionally, descendants of Murchison included Long Island resident Lynne Burris, the great-granddaughter, and Alison Green, Jono Moles, and Angus Moles, who are in town from London.
Joe Hunt, the great-nephew of Lt. Joseph Hunt, flew in from Seattle, and feels it is his obligation to keep the achievements and memory of a world-class player and hero alive. “For tennis players everywhere, this is hallowed ground. This very turf, on the floor of that Stadium, is sacred. The lawn at Forest Hills was without a doubt the most important lawn in Lt. Hunt’s life. He played here six times, and finished with a one loss record of 26 and 5. He first played Forest Hills at 17. He made it to the third round, where he lost to the great Don Budge. Joe would never again exit the tournament that early,” said Hunt. He won the 1943 national singles over legend Jack Kramer, and is regarded as the only player to win the U.S. boys (15), junior (18), collegiate, and men’s singles titles.
As a Naval officer during WWII, he passed away in a combat training exercise as he flew his Grumman Bearcat. “What Joe accomplished in 25 years is what few accomplished in a lifetime,” Hunt said, followed by reading a tributary excerpt by sportswriter Allison Danzig in The New York Times: “Here was a youth who represented the finest in young manhood… No finer specimen of an athlete has been seen at Forest Hills Stadium… For a youngster, he had a remarkably sound set of values from the time he came east from Los Angeles as a junior. Fame did not go to his head. Joe was every inch the ideal of what every parent would like their son to be.”
Honoree John Newcombe of Australia, who is regarded as an all-time top 25 male player, recorded a video message. He was among the few males to achieve a world No. 1 in singles and doubles. Furthermore, he won seven major singles titles, 17 men’s doubles, and two mixed doubles. August 26 marked the 50th anniversary of Newcombe’s 1973 Open championship. “Growing up in the 1950s, all I heard was about Forest Hills. Wanting to be a tennis player, my dream was to play at Wimbledon and then Forest Hills.”
He explained his earliest memories. “From the Clubhouse, you looked all the way down to the center court. I thought that I needed to play on center court one time, and of course I managed to as time went on.” He later said, “The Clubhouse could get a bit crowded at the beginning of the tournament, so you really needed to work hard to keep your concentration levels up high. It was a thrill to play there. When I first played here in 1962, TV wasn’t big in tennis, so tennis players weren’t that well-known, since not too many people were able to see you. We’d travel out there with our tennis bag. They were the early days, as now players are shipped out in really nice cars to the tournament.” He referred to a Grand Slam as a funny tournament. “It’s two weeks, so don’t panic early on. You try to find your best form for the second week and hang in there.”
Newcombe’s close friend Dick Stockton, played him six times and won twice. He is acclaimed as a former no. 8 worldwide and a Forest Hills quarterfinalist in 1976 and 1977, as well as a semifinalist at Wimbledon and Roland Garros. He explained, “John was incredibly fit, especially in those days when tennis players did not go into the gym, as they do today. That’s why he said that playing five sets didn’t bother him, since he knew he would last. He was so tough mentally, that he always thought he could win. He did not take his tennis that seriously – it wasn’t life or death for him.”
Stockton was raised down the street from the Stadium and shared his life at the WSTC. He said, “I think I’m the only person who played at that Stadium in 1923,” which generated chuckles. “I played junior tournaments on these clay courts in the 1960s when the Eastern Junior Clay Court Championships were held here. I played in the U.S. Open on grass and clay, and in the Tournament of Champions on clay. This place is very special to all American tennis players.”
Another guest speaker was New Jersey resident Don Felder, the cousin of tennis legend Althea Gibson (1927 – 2003). Family members attended from Queens, Long Island, and Virginia, although Althea has family nationwide. After receiving an invitation last year from longtime WSTC member Bea Hunt, Felder walked these grounds. “It is quite amazing, the fact that I was able to walk the grounds that Althea walked on, and onto the tennis court that she played on. Althea would be very honored to know that she’s finally getting recognition that is long overdue.” She would ride the subway to Forest Hills, when she broke the color barrier, and was the first African American to play on the courts. She won the French Open in 1956.
Felder inherited some of her possessions. “As I went through her notes, I learned so much, I felt as if I was invading her privacy. She was a courageous woman who was far ahead of her time. I heard stories where Althea had to change clothes in cars, since she wasn’t allowed to dress in a dressing room and walk through front doors, but she walked through those back doors proudly.” Felder is a visionary in other ways, who perseveres, as in the case of leading a street co-naming of “Althea Gibson Way” on West 143rd Street between Malcolm X and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevards. He advised the audience to anticipate additional ways of honoring her.
Tennis Historian and Centenary University President Dr. Dale Caldwell is the founder of the Black Tennis Hall of Fame. He also curated and wrote the USTA exhibition and documentary, “Breaking The Barriers.” He provided further commentary on Althea Gibson. “She was a recluse, but here’s a black woman in July 1957 who had an NYC ticker-tape parade. She reached the pinnacle of success, but the drain of not being able to be a full citizen and really benefit from her success, wore on her.” He told the audience, “As we remember her, understand the context, but not just the 11 Grand Slam titles she won,” and then continued, “Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, but Althea broke the color and the class barrier.”
Joel Drucker, a foremost tennis historian worldwide, whose works appear in Racquet Magazine and on the Tennis Channel, among other platforms, and authored books including “Jimmy Connors Saved My Life.” He dramatized a talk titled “Moments, Music, Magic,” since he feels that is what the Stadium embodies for a century. This built much anticipation for unveiling the Stadium centennial banner, a historic first from the Clubhouse’s second story above the clock, which became timeless in a sense. “I want you to join me for a Magical Mystery Tour across decades of memories and melodies,” said Drucker, who highlighted innovative moments in tennis and music over 100 years, with an excerpt as follows.
“Jimmy Connors turns tennis from an acoustic lawn party into an electric carnival. He is truly tennis’ first rockstar. Now we will shift tone and talk about another person who sang here, Barbra Streisand and ‘The Way We Were.’ Hall of Famers from the ‘20s into the ‘40s left their mark at the WSTC. So many great women; Helen Wills, Helen Jacobs, Alice Marble, Pauline Betz, Sarah Palfrey, Margaret Osborne, Doris Hart. What an eclectic array of stylists,” said Drucker. Then he referenced the elegance of men’s winners, including Bill Tilden, Rene Lacoste, Ellsworth Vines, Fred Perry, Don Budge, and Bobby Riggs. “Can you close your eyes for a second and picture them in the long white flannels?” he asked. “This was tennis in Forest Hills in the 1940s – crisp, elegant, commanding.”
He referenced the “chairman of the board,” Frank Sinatra. In 1965, he performed his signature song, “Fly Me To The Moon.” “Of course, you fly to the moon on a rocket ship, which brings to mind tennis’ rocket, Rod Laver. “It happened right at the Stadium, where two times, Laver won the calendar year Grand Slam (1962 and 1969). The rocket soared. He did it with everything tennis can be – grace, class, and as versatile a game as our sport has ever seen.” Fast-forwarding, he said, “Everyone knows these lyrics Bob Dylan sang in 1964, ‘The Times They Are A-Changin,’’ and indeed four years later there came a tennis revolution, and it came in a big way. Tennis had at last gone Open. Amateurs and pros were all able to compete together. Tennis became a big money sport. The first U.S. Open title was won by Virginia Wade and Arthur Ashe.”
He closed with words from poet T.S. Eliot: “We shall not cease from exploration; And the end of all our exploring; Will be to arrive where we started; And know the place for the first time.”
Stay tuned next week for a continued celebration of the centennial through this column, where a vast array of Club members will take the spotlight.