Tennis club looks to revive heyday
NEW YORK — 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 one of the cathedrals of tennis — host of the U.S. Open — it was also a stirring music venue, tucked into a leafy neighborhood of stately homes in Queens’ Forest Hills neighborhood.
That heyday came to an end in 1978 when the Open moved three miles away to the much more expansive grounds at Flushing Meadows. The horseshoe-shaped stadium at Forest Hills quickly became a relic, and its days as a music venue faded as well amid complaints from neighbors about noise, crowds and cars parking on residential streets.
But a new plan is now in the works to revive the sound of music at the 16,000-seat Forest Hills stadium and perhaps, one day, bring back big-time professional tennis.
“We were once the center of the tennis universe,” says club president Roland Meier. “And this is our revival.”
It begins Aug. 28 with a concert featuring the British band Mumford & Sons, which will serve as a test to convince neighbors that such performances will not create too much of a disturbance. If all goes well, club officials and a promoter are aiming to stage 18 more concerts in the next three or four years.
“The concerts will go on if they’re palatable to the neighborhood,” says Meier. “We’re sensitive to the neighborhood.”
He says the hope is that the music will draw more attention to the century-old Queens club itself — where the membership has dropped from over 1,000 to 750 in recent years — and help bring back professional tennis events.
After years of neglect, the 90-year-old stadium is definitely showing its age, with areas of crumbling concrete and weeds sprouting in the stands.
Meier says testing has proved that the stadium is structurally sound but needs repairs to its concrete that are under way, a better sewer system, sealing to avoid water penetration and new seating.
Still, the old edifice retains the distinctive columns and archways that made it a distinguished home of the national tennis championships from 1915 to 1977.
Spectators look out on the lush, green grass courts and the grand, Tudor-style clubhouse, rich with the history of the great champions who played there: Bill Tilden, Fred Perry, Margaret Court, Pancho Gonzales, Billie Jean King and Rod Laver.
It was the place where Arthur Ashe became the first African-American man to win the open, where a skinny teenager from Florida named Chris Evert burst onto the scene, and where Guillermo Vilas beat Jimmy Connors on clay to win the last men’s final there in 1977.
The 1960s and ’70s were the high point of the stadium as a music venue.
The Beatles played two consecutive sold-out shows there in 1964. Barbra Streisand took a break from her role in Broadway’s “Funny Girl” to play a concert at the stadium that same year. Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones and The Who were also among the big names.
The venue secured its place in music lore in 1967 when Jimi Hendrix was the opening act for The Monkees.
He got so tired of the boos and screams from impatient fans of the group that he flipped a finger at the crowd and stormed off stage.
Complaints from neighbors were a big part of the reason the music went away. Frank Gulluscio, district manager of Queens’ Community Board 6, says he’s been working with the club and police to make sure traffic and noise are kept to a minimum during the Mumford & Sons show in August.
Henry Berolzheimer, 84, who lives a walk away, says he wouldn’t mind hearing music again.
After all, decades ago, “when they would play, you could listen from our living room — for free,” he says. “I heard Janis Joplin, I heard The Beatles, I heard most of them.”
He and his late wife once rented out their garage to accommodate the cars that crowded the residential neighborhood. But traffic hasn’t been a problem for a while.
“Nothing has happened here in about 20 years,” club president Meier acknowledges. “We’ve had wallflower status.”
At one point in 2010, club members voted down a proposal to sell the stadium to a developer who wanted to turn the property into luxury apartments.
Meier says the club’s nearly 12 acres are “the biggest undeveloped property in Queens, and we want to retain this oasis — an intimate setting with so much history.”
“It’s a time of transition, and there’s an excitement here about this.”