Bella Abzug was an iconic presence and positive voice for change in the 1970s. She was a woman ahead of her time and a quintessential New York character, famous for her big hats and feisty demeanor. Abzug was an outspoken proponent of liberal causes during her trailblazing career as a social activist, lawyer, Congresswoman, and leader of the Women’s Lib Movement. She was also one of the first members of congress to support Gay Rights—the Equality Act of 1974.
Where there is a liberal cause there has always been Barbra Streisand, and so it went with Bella, whom Streisand frequently supported, never more memorably than when she campaigned for Abzug’s successful bid for congress in 1970. According to Matt Howe’s Barbra-Archive page, “Streisand held a fundraiser for Abzug in her New York home, and also joined the candidate as she rode around in a flatbed truck, campaigning.” In case you’re curious, this is what it looks like when Barbra Streisand is campaigning on a flat bed truck:
Streisand’s support of Abzug culminated that year in her headlining the “Broadway for Bella” concert at Madison Square Garden’s Felt Forum on November 1, 1970. My dear friend John Richkus, whom I’ve known since the early 1980s, recently reminded me that he actually went to the “Broadway for Bella” concert. I was fascinated as he shared his memories of how he attended the concert by himself, not just because it was full of anecdotal theater lore, but also because as he told me the story, I realized it was a turning point in his life; you see John was only thirteen years old in November, 1970.
I asked him if he would share his memories of that day for Stargayzing readers. He agreed and I’m so grateful that he did. Here’s what he had to say:
1970 was an epochal, watershed year in my life. I grew up the youngest of five children in the small New Jersey town of Roselle Park, about 20 miles from New York City. Having been fanatical about Barbra Streisand for the previous two years—I saw the film of Funny Girl nine times (this was before home video)—my sister Mary, her boyfriend Woody (the man who she to this day refers to as “the jerk”), and my sister Rosemary, took me to see the film of Hello, Dolly! at the Rivoli Theatre on Broadway for my 13th birthday in February. I loved it. I also loved the idea and the fact of being in Manhattan. After the movie we walked from the theater down to 42nd Street, and I just I fell in love with the City of New York.
In early June I read in the NY Times that the film of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever was about to open. I spent two weeks inveigling my mom into letting me go to the opening day by myself. At first she adamantly refused, but I wore her down by constant wheedling and she ultimately relented. (I wisely didn’t inform my dad because I knew he would never let me go to New York by myself.) So on the morning of June 17th I got on the bus, walked over to the Loew’s State on 7th Avenue at 45th Street and sat with a packed house for the first showing. I was watching a Barbra movie, set in Manhattan, and seeing it in Manhattan! I was euphoric.
That October I saw in the Sunday Times that there was going to be a benefit for Bella Abzug’s Congressional campaign, and the ad showed an Al Hirschfeld drawing of my girl: she was actually going to be appearing. IN PERSON!!! It seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime chance because she just did not perform live then. Now by this time I had gone back to the City many times to see many other films, and on August 31st I went to my first Broadway play, Company (ticket price: $2!), so by this time my parents were begrudgingly on board with my going to New York by myself. I found out that my sisters and their boyfriends were going to drive into the City on November 1st to go shopping, so I went with them (it beat taking the bus). We shopped on Orchard Street in the morning and then we went over to the Felt Forum box office. I was sure it was going to be sold out but unbelievably it wasn’t and I bought my ticket. We had lunch at a diner on 8th Avenue and 33rd Street, and then they left.
I had enough money for the bus home plus about $5. I spent the day walking around the Theater District, Central Park, then walked down 5th Avenue to the New York Public Library to use the microfiche viewer to look at past New York Times film-related articles and reviews. I then walked over to Nathan’s in Times Square, had a hot dog and fries and by 7:30 made my way to the Felt Forum.
My memory of the actual benefit is a little cloudy (it was 43 years ago), but I do remember that there were celebrities—famous people(!)—not just onstage but in the house (Betty Comden and Adolph Green!). I was hobnobbing! Thanks to Matt Howe’s excellent Barbra Archives website I’ve learned that Barbra’s Owl and the Pussycat co-star George Segal, Joel Grey, Alan Alda, Jack Gilford, Scott Jarvis, and Buck Henry were also on the bill. But it was clear that pretty much everyone there was there to see Barbra. Every time her name was mentioned people cheered wildly. Then eventually she was announced, and then there she was. It was probably the closest I’ve come to an actual religious experience. My idol. In the flesh. Looking beautiful—the long hair, perfect skin, the nails (I wish I could remember what she was wearing; I wish I could remember what I was wearing!). She started singing and it was just extraordinary, not just her voice (my God her voice!!!) but her entire demeanor. She was so at ease, relaxed, and completely in charge of her instrument. There are certain performers who when they perform you get an extra thrill because you know they’re in such complete charge of their performance that they can’t possibly make a misstep (Meryl Streep, Ella Fitzgerald, Natalya Makarova).
The Felt Forum was a small-ish venue, and my seat was fairly close to the stage. There were several times when I was sure we had made eye contact—this sent me into a paroxysm of ecstasy. By the time she got to Don’t Rain on My Parade/People several people rushed the stage; no one stopped them, so I joined them. So now I’m about 15-20 feet from her, just completely transfixed and smiling like a lunatic. And at this time she really did look right at me a couple of times. It was mystical. I mean, I was just 13 years old for Christ’s sake and there she was, being seraphic and human and perfect (truly—her voice, live, was just astonishing) right before my very eyes. By the time she left the stage I felt bionic. I’d never experienced anything like it.
I walked up 8th Avenue to the Port Authority bus terminal in a trance. I was in a state of shock—not just because of Barbra’s sublime performance, but because I had been at a special event in the City with famous people. On a school night! I didn’t fall asleep for a long time that night as I thought about growing up and being an actor and actually living in the City. And then the next day I got up, walked to Roselle Park Middle School and was an 8th grader again.
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Now I’m a 56-year-old gay man in a 37-year relationship. In 1970 I was a horny teenager who knew he was gay but had no framework against which I could make sense of my desires. I truly never felt guilty about being gay but knew it was not acceptable to live an openly gay life, especially in Mesozoic Roselle Park. Back then I could not have even conceived of it being a realistic possibility. But in going to the City I was exposed to films and then theater with adult sensibilities and open attitudes towards sex. It just seemed logical that while being gay in Roselle Park was going to be problematic, the City gave me permission to be who I was. I was also aware, especially after the Felt Forum concert, that Barbra had a lot of gay male fans who loved her as much as I did, and it was extraordinarily affirming to know that.
I didn’t think there were any other gay kids in my school (although obviously there were). Around this same time, after giving my oral book report on Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes for my English class, my friend Carl Buli said to me as we were walking home from school, “John, why do you read that pussy shit?” And he wasn’t being homophobic or bullying, he was completely in earnest—just didn’t understand why. But by two or three years later I would slowly become aware that I wasn’t the only gay kid in my school, and soon I had other teenage gay friends. We felt like we were the first gay teenagers to ever be able to be honest about our sexuality semi-openly. It was extremely empowering and scary. So from the standpoint of 43 years after these seminal events I can see clearly how my reverence for Miss Streisand and my budding awareness of my sexuality were very much intertwined. It was as if she gave her blessing to my discovery of an adult way of life in which it was okay to be gay. And I’m so deeply proud of her for being so vocal and effective in her support of liberal/progressive and women’s health issues.
Addendum: About two years ago my dear friend, writer James Gavin made a copy of the Bella Abzug concert for me. It was one of thousands of rare things that live in his vast collection. For John’s birthday that year, I asked him to sit in a chair, I blindfolded him and gave him a set of earphones and then watched his face as he slowly began to identify what he was listening to. His face filled with wonderment and then he got very emotional. It was one of the most satisfying gifts I ever gave.
Alvaro is a world-renowned artist celebrated for his portraits and illustrations of the icons of film, music, and pop culture, as well as his “girls”—the super models. A true New Yorker, born in Brooklyn and raised in the South Bronx, Alvaro’s work is distinctive for projecting a contemporary streetwise sensibility while simultaneously evoking the timeless glamour of classic Hollywood.
Many thanks to Matt Howe’s Barbra-Archive for reference material. Please check out his page to read more about the “Broadway For Bella” concert and to actually hear a short clip from her opening number!
The Barbra Streisand Solution: How America’s Greatest Voice Helped Me Find My Own