May 24th, 1883 is a date that looms large in Brooklyn history; it is the birthdate of this borough's beloved icon, the Brooklyn Bridge. Over the past 128 years, the bridge has been immortalized dozens of times over, in countless studied histories and gorgeous photography books that aim to capture both its cultural impact and its architectural grace. The bridge's popularity extends far beyond this borough, as well. On any weekend the bridge is glutted with tourists from all over the globe snapping pictures, and we've heard that even aliens like to visit this so-called "Eighth Wonder" of the world.
It would be redundant, then, to commemorate the recent birthday of the bridge with another history of its construction and its effect on our city. That effort has been undertaken exhaustively since the very day of the bridge's opening, as the rambling Brooklyn Daily Eagle headline to the right suggests. The entire newspaper that day was dominated by gushing praise of the new landmark and a thorough recounting of how it got there.
Rather than rehash that entire saga, I'd like to instead turn back the clock just 28 years, to another moment in the Brooklyn Bridge's history: May 24th, 1983, when the city feted its beloved bridge with a centennial celebration extravaganza.
The official Brooklyn Bridge Centennial Celebration 1883-1983 brochure, produced by the 1983 Brooklyn Bridge Centennial Commission. It lists dozens of exhibitions, lectures, and performances that ran from May to October, 1983. The cover image was created by Andy Warhol for the Commission. This was a big deal!
As is often the case, a jaunt through our ephemera and photograph files turned up many fascinating scraps of history, all of them supporting my theory that Brooklyn knows how to throw a great party.
Dozens of local businesses and civic organizations sponsored the celebration, which ranged from an Historic People's Parade to art exhibitions inside the bridge's anchorage to a Kotter-esque "Welcome Back to Brooklyn Day" for expatriot Brooklynites. A parade of ships passed gracefully under the bridge during the "Harbor Craft Salute" and, of course, the day's entertainment ended with a fireworks show large enough to rival that of the original opening day in 1883, when 14 tons of explosives were set off in an hour-long ecstasy of civic pride.
Purveyor of 31 flavors, Baskin-Robbins, invented a 32nd ice cream flavor for the occasion, Brooklyn Bridge Brownie. In the image above we see then-Brooklyn Borough President Howard Golden dishing the sweet stuff out to construction workers who were preparing the bridge and surrounding parks for the big day.
Never one to sit out on the fun, the Brooklyn Public Library got into the festive spirit by redesigning its seasonal bulletin to be reminiscent of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. You may notice a strong resemblence between this and the paper clipping at the top of the post.
The U.S. Postal Service released this stamp to commemorate the occasion as well. Only 20 cents to mail a letter!
The centerpiece of the centennial celebration was undoubtedly The Eighth Wonder. Described as "New York City's first sound and light spectacle" in promotional brochures, the show was a 20-minute performance projected onto the Brooklyn Bridge itself. Through "a combination of lighting, narration and special visual and audio effects" it told the story of the bridge's construction.
The producer of Eighth Wonder, Francis Anne Dougherty (left) and the stars of the show, Farley Granger and Anne Jackson, on the birthday bridge.
Longtime residents of Brooklyn may remember vividly what this "sound and light spectacle" entailed, but for the rest of us the description is woefully scant yet also enigmatically intriguing. Even YouTube fails to yield up a home video of the event.
I was able, however, to find this gem on YouTube--a composite video of several home films shot on and around May 24, 1983. At about the one minute mark you can see lovely shots of the boat parade cruising serenely under the bridge; the fireworks show follows 45 seconds later.
Happiest of birthdays to you, Brooklyn Bridge! I'm looking forward to your 150th birthday party in 2033! Maybe we can invite the aliens to that one?