On July 21, 1983, the nascent Showtime broadcast a live concert from Central Park, where a record-setting 800,000 people were gathered on the Great Lawn for a performance by Motown legend Diana Ross.
The program went into the history books for a number of reasons, including the weather, but the cable network had a small audience in those early days, and the cathode ray TV screens of the era were small too, mostly in the 21-inch range.
On Tuesday, as Ross celebrates her 75th birthday, Diana Ross Live in Central Park will have its first public showing on the big screen, as Fathom Events brings Diana Ross: Her Life, Love and Legacy to movie theaters across the U.S. and around the world. The complete digitally remastered concert will be supplemented with new footage of emotional interviews with Ross’ five children, Tracee Ellis Ross, Rhonda Ross, Chudney Ross, Ross Naess and Evan Ross,.
Billboard talked to Steve Binder, director of the 1983 TV special, about the show literally being stopped by a dangerous lightning storm, working with Ross over the last 55 years and the concert’s place in television history.
You first directed Diana Ross when the Supremes were part of The T.A.M.I. Show in 1964, another legendary production. How did you get involved in the Central Park concert?
I got a call from Diana, who was staying at the Bel Air Hotel in California at the time. She asked me to meet with her there and she said, “I’ve got this offer to do Central Park and I’m thinking of using it as a vehicle to put a children’s park there. Would you be interested?” And I said, “Of course,” because I had such great experiences with her.
We had a really good relationship from day one. As a matter of fact, when I did the CBS special with Michael [Jackson] and Quincy [Jones] and Larry Hagman, she was singing “Home” from The Wiz and she came over to editing when I was putting it together. I had this extreme close-up of her and she said, “You can’t use that shot.” And I said, “What do you mean I can’t use it?” She said, “Well, look at the veins in my neck.” And I said, “Diana, if people are looking at the veins of your neck at this emotional point in the song…”
Ever since then, she’s never challenged any of my visual shots whatsoever and it’s been a really great relationship over the years. I never get attached to celebrities and with all the shows I’ve ever done, I never had a real social life. But she’s always invited me to her parties and her kids’ stuff and so forth.
A lot of people who have never seen Diana Ross Live in Central Park will be seeing the special for the first time.
I’m thrilled that a new generation can see it. Even though it was broadcast internationally when we did it, I don’t think anybody saw it on the screen, because HBO dominated the cable industry. They had almost 100 per cent of the cable audience. Showtime was just starting up. They had no real geographical exposure and subscribers at the time and I think the only reason they did it is because Barry Diller was running Paramount Studios and wanted another cable company to compete with HBO. That’s why Paramount financed the whole thing, but I don’t think he did it because he thought it would be a moneymaker.
Diana said at the time, “This is one show I would love to produce. Do you mind just being the director?” And I said, “No, I don’t mind at all.” I got to New York and the first meeting we had, there were like 150 people in the room. She had an office building in New York that she had just purchased. So we’re all packed in there like sardines. Diana comes in and says, “Welcome everybody. This is going to be exciting. This is going to be great, and if you have any questions, ask Steve Binder.”
How did you and Diana react to seeing the special again after all these years?
It was very emotional for her. For me, I realized it’s going to be seen by not only the generation that actually was alive 50 years ago, but new generations. There are Diana fans all over the world, and many of them will see for the first time why she is the superstar that she is. You certainly get that feeling if you see her live, but those who have just watched her on television over the years may never have realized. The fact that she picked this one show to represent her diamond jubilee anniversary and her birthday is thrilling to me. Watching her kids react to it is phenomenal.
During the live broadcast on July 21, 1983, the heavens opened up and there was torrential rain and a lightning storm. You can see Diana thinking on stage that the show must go on, but she finally tells the throngs gathered on the Great Lawn that they should exit the park slowly and safely. At first she says maybe she will do the show again the next night, and then she quickly says she definitely will. What were the logistics of doing the show again the following night?
It took an army to put it together. After the first day, even though she said she was doing it again, my crew said the equipment was all shorted out. The Great Lawn was like a Great Lake and our equipment -- including all of the cables -- were buried under water. The crew spent all night trying to dry it out with fans and hair blowers and so forth just so the equipment would work the next day. We were panicked. As a matter of fact, the audio did have a buzz in it when I went into post-production, and thank God technically they were able to get the buzz out of the soundtrack.
How prepared were you for the rain and the possibility of having to do the show again the following night?
If you remember, it was a bright, sunny day in Manhattan. There were some reports that there might be rain, but it was less than a 50 per cent chance. Still, the Paramount and Showtime executives insisted we have a backup. So I got a whole slew of her music videos and we had them ready to go in case there was a major catastrophe or we had problems with the satellite. So when the rain started, I was in what was a state-of-the-art remote truck and I’m sitting there with my crew. Immediately, I hear these voices behind my back say, “Go to the standby! Go to the standby!” Well, I directed The Steve Allen Show and he trained me. You don’t stop shooting until the artist walks off the stage, period. I was blocking them all out and I was going to stay out there as long as Diana stayed out there.
Back in 1983, you probably figured that after the original broadcast, the programs you worked on would be lost to future generations.
When I did any show in those days, I never thought they’d be seen again. The networks generally just played them once and it was over in prime time. I’m amazed how many of my shows recorded on two-inch videotape still look great and how they were able to be converted into hi def. When we did it originally, they didn’t have big monitors. You were watching on relatively a very small screen. But when Central Park was released on DVD, as good as it is, you don’t get the detail that you can see now on the big screen. I’m seeing things myself that I never realized, especially in those close-ups when she’s tearing up and is very emotional. It’s fantastic to me on the big screen.
Who came up with the idea of making this an event in movie theaters around the world?
I partnered up with Spencer Proffer, who was a pretty significant record producer in the ’70s and ’80s. He is one of the originators of the concept for Fathom Events in theaters and he approached me about doing my ’68 comeback special with Elvis Presley. That did really, really well and I’m hoping Diana does even better. I am blown away that in the past six months, I’ve had two theater presentations of 50-year-old [and 35-year-old] shows. I’m thrilled about it. I appreciate it, and I know Diana does, because she and I are talking all the time now. I’m real curious to see the reaction of contemporary kids. I’ve got a bunch of grandkids now and I want to know what they think of it, if they’re going to sit through it and really appreciate it the way we do.
Are you going to watch this in a theater on Tuesday night?
Definitely. I have a sister who just turned 90 and she wants to go, so I’m going to take her. It’s playing right near our home at one of the top theaters. They just built a new mall and they’re already advertising it in the lobby, so I’m happy about that.
Diana Ross: Her Life, Love and Legacy will be screened in movie theaters on two nights, March 26 and 28, at 7 p.m. local time. Tickets are available at the Fathom Events website.