Lights Out at the Algonquin

Blackoout 1977 – New York City

 

 

By Michael Colby

 

The time was 9:37 PM.  The date – July 13, 1977.  That was when New York, the town that purportedly never sleeps, came to a standstill.  We were thrown into the abyss by the big electric blackout through the city.  Exceptions included the borough of Queens, which had a separate power source (the Long Island Lighting Company).  This was generally a no-backup-generator generation.

I was living at the Algonquin at the time and had spent much of the day working on musical theatre projects.  For this occasion, the medley would be “Dancing in the Dark,” “We Kiss In a Shadow,” and (ultimately) “I’m Beginning to See the Light.”

Broadway shows were suspended amid performance – audiences left in cliffhanger suspense—in more ways than one—with no functioning subways or traffic lights.

 

The Colby Brothers

 

Back at the Algonquin, I was called into action since my grandparents, Ben and Mary Bodne, owned the place (and this was a chance for me to earn my keep).  Candles and flashlights needed to be distributed and guests, returning from canceled shows and events, needed to be ushered back to their rooms.  Elevators were not working (operated by employees, the two hotel elevators sometimes required a long wait, but this made one nostalgic for mere delays).  Accordingly, guests had the choice of front or back staircases to trudge to their destinations.  The top floor being the 12th, this was no piece of cake; but at least, to paraphrase Larry Hart, ours was a small hotel.  I’ve never been more grateful that my family owned the Algonquin rather than the Waldorf-Astoria (47 stories up).

I was recruited to fumble through the hotel kitchen to locate matches and candles.  It was so dark, that Grandpa Ben burned his finger with a match; but that was minor compared to guests’ scorching complaints.  Next, the bellmen and I became human Sherpas, taking countless trips up and down the stairs, ushering up guests and/or delivering food.

Though relatively benign, the lobby itself was reminiscent of the casualty scene in Gone With The Wind: everywhere you looked, stranded visitors were bunked out on hotel cots, other furniture, and—when all else failed—the carpet (at least, they could claim “I slept where Laurence Olivier trod”).

 

Algonquin Lobby Illustration

The next day, natural lights returned at dawn and electricity at various times.  According to my diary, the Algonquin electricity returned at 3:30, but many Broadway lights had revived a little earlier (certainly, the sun had come out, along with other illumination, at the Alvin Theatre, where Annie was playing).

During that morning, as if the Algonquin had become a retirement home, many guests sat on chairs outside the 44thStreet entrance, watching traffic and passers-by.  Inside, employees were attending to the aftermath: a tub that had overflowed (seeping to the next floor), trampled carpets, and countless cots that had to be put away.  With all the used-up candles that had dripped everywhere, the Algonquin looked like a house of wax—all that was missing was Vincent Price.

But there was a happy ending.  Within 24 hours, the hotel, Broadway, and New York life went back to business as usual.  I mention this now, because—though everything halted then for a shorter time—our CURRENT situation will likewise turn around (And at least we’ve got a CURRENT).

I don’t remember any time in which we’ve had, at our disposal, so many sources to help us through this dark period – the Internet for communication, YouTube for entertainment, cellphones for emergencies.  None of these were prevalent—or, in most cases, even existed—in 1977.

Moreover, in these divisive times, I find it comforting to know that the theatre and other communities are banding together so compassionately to assist one another.  Heck, I’m even having good conversations with politically opposing relatives—for the first time in three years.

Our Broadway theme of the day may be “Trouble” but the time will come when it’s just “Memory.”

– Michael Colby (“The Algonquin Kid”)

 

 

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