The years have passed over the old concrete tennis stadium in the Forest Hills Gardens neighborhood of Queens, a monument once home to the roaring crowds and unscripted moments for tennis greats like Arthur Ashe, Althea Gibson and Billy Jean King.
Today, a revitalization effort to bring the West Side Tennis Club back to fruition is underway, however the old wooden seats are not yet expected to see tennis tournaments, but the likes of this building’s lost musical past.
In an effort to raise revenue and close the gap on the club’s growing financial obligations, while still offering members affordable annual rates, a number of closed-door meetings have been held to discuss the possibility of bringing a dozen concerts each year, reviving the community’s forgotten yet timeless past.
Bob Ingersol, director of tennis at the club, said, “Whatever we do here, we are first and foremost a tennis venue, and everyone should keep that in mind.”
Club president Roland Meier said the board has been working with the inspectors to test the building’s structure and sound quality. He also plans to hold meetings with promoters as early as later this month in an effort toward preparing the stadium for a concert by August.
“This would be just one event this year, and the next year we would be looking at perhaps three events,” Meier said. “All the money we would make from these events would go to the stadium.”
Meier said he expects repairs would cost no more than $2.5 million, and the club can then begin to generate revenue to further address plumbing issues with the building.
“We would then look at long-term renovations that can take place as they get more events,” he explained.
As the club has already invested nearly $46,000 for a new playground, one thing he stressed was ensuring a family-friendly environment and ample community involvement.
“We want to be good neighbors, and I want these events to be supported by the neighborhood,” Meier said.
The 1964 Forest Hills Music Festival brought bands like the Beatles, Joan Baez, Barbara Streisand and Harry Belafonte, and the stadium’s roughly 10,000 seats have hosted music legends like Jimi Hendrix, Frank Sinatra and The Who.
Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz represents Forest Hills and attended concerts at the Stadium in the 70’s and 80’s. “I saw Diana Ross there. She was great. Who wouldn’t want to preserve that stadium for the community?” said Koslowitz on Tuesday. “Concerts there would help the restaurants and businesses on the two strips in our community.
“But,” she continued, “You have to give in order to get. The club needs to open their doors a bit more to the community. Unless you are a member you can’t even have lunch there. Open the club on your slowest day for non-members to have lunch.”
Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi says he supports the plan to revitalize the building for the community and to support the WSTC’s plan to bring in additional income.
“I’m looking forward to working with the members of the West Side Tennis Club to help them generate revenue to make capital improvements to their facilities in a way that has the least negative impact possible on the surrounding community and our neighbors,” he said.
Joann Ciorciari, a member of Community Board 6 in Forest Hills and a director of the Forest Hills Kiwanis Club, has lived in the area surrounding the stadium for 40 years and has fond memories of the days when music rang from the walls of the old stadium.
“I remember the concerts at the stadium very well,” Ciorciari said. “I was able to hear the music being played from my home.”
Ciorciari said she is more concerned with the land being sold to developers.
“If the club needs the income to be able to keep the stadium the way it is then I am all for holding concerts there,” she said. “Having five or six concerts a year is worth the trade-off for the community. I believe the neighbors would feel the same way if they were polled.”
The type of music events is key to the solution, according to some in the area.
One storeowner on Metropolitan Avenue said that one of the last concerts held there a dozen years ago caused local civic leaders to declare war against concerts at the stadium.
“If the type of music were to be more conducive to a less rowdy crowd it could work,” the owner said.
There were reportedly only a half-dozen concerts in the 1990s, but they turned into events that lasted the entire day. In 1998, after a daylong Reggae music festival labeled Cari-fest, violations, traffic jams and noise complaints sealed the fate of concerts at the club.
Scott Lifeshine grew up in the neighborhood and remembers heading to the stadium for concerts in its heyday, and even recounts the long walk down the stadium’s aisles to the ground level at the legendary Beatles concert when he was just seven years old.
“It was the most important outdoor music and tennis stadium in history,” Lifeshine said. “We have to revive it.”
He always came armed with his Super 8 Camera and has some of the only footage of the stadium during the legendary concerts, filming stage setups at shows from Chicago, The Mamas and the Papas, The Doors, Simon and Garfunkel and Janis Joplin.
One thing he will always regret, however, is turning the camera off after the sun went down.
“I was afraid to take video after dark because I didn’t think it would come out,” Lifeshine said. “In hindsight, they would have come out fine though because the stage was so well lit.”