Back in the mid-19th century, Niagara Falls was America's top tourist attraction. The runner-up was less predictable: it was Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. As New York City's largest open green space, the hilltop burial ground, with its striking harbor views, was a popular picnic site on weekends.
Today, the 478-acre not-for-profit cemetery, opened in 1838, is running out of land and determined to lure visitors again. "Cremation will help us for a little longer, but a day will come when we're not selling plots because there's nothing left to sell," laments Richard Moylan, Green-Wood's president. "We hope to build a base of supporters so we can get a little help. We'd need millions of dollars for a project to preserve our monuments."
Moylan may not raise millions, but a fortuitous alliance with a local performing arts center is spurring some innovative outreach. In 1999, Eric Richmond bought and renovated a dilapidated 1910 bathhouse in rapidly gentrifying Park Slope. He learned the Lyceum's architect, Raymond Almirall, was interred at Green-Wood, only a mile away. "I'd taken tours of Green-Wood and was interested in it. I decided I'd like to stage a play about someone buried there," recalls Richmond. He called the cemetery and met with Moylan, who was immediately receptive.
Richmond discovered that in the 60s and 70s, Green-Wood's management, unfortunately, had become concerned mainly with protecting the grounds. "But by 2002, the neighborhood had improved so much that they decided to involve the public again. They were so eager for people to visit that they'd begun restoring and renovating their beautiful 1910 chapel, which was being used as a storage shed." Instantly, Richmond saw the chapel's potential, but his first goal was a Lyceum production.
For theatrical inspiration, Richmond pored over books of Green-Wood's 600,000 residents, rejecting obvious choices - including Currier & Ives, Elias Howe, DeWitt Clinton and Leonard Bernstein. He was looking for a lesser-known figure who had been fairly important while alive. Richmond selected Dr. Harvey Burdell, and hoped to raise enough money for a headstone on Burdell's unmarked grave. He invited local writers to research and create plays for "Only The Dead," based on people buried at Green-Wood.
Green-Wood On Stage
In December 2002, the Brooklyn Lyceum premiered "31 Bond," by Michele Aldin. Its series of vivid flashbacks told of Burdell's 1857 death at his dental office (31 Bond Street, in Manhattan). "His murder had all the juicy elements over which media tends to salivate: greed, passion and infidelity," wrote a reviewer in a local newspaper. After production costs, Green-Wood netted several hundred dollars from the single performance.
A theatrical agent in the audience approached Aldin and now expects to move "31 Bond" to a larger venue. If the agent succeeds, Moylan hopes Green-Wood will get a percentage of ticket revenues. "I know the playwright, and I think they'll do the right thing, especially if Eric is involved," he said.
Richmond would like "Only The Dead" to become an ongoing series. Its next play will focus on Alice and Phoebe Cary, sisters who led a 19th century "salon" in their Manhattan home. The glittering weekly cultural gatherings drew the likes of John Greenleaf Whittier, P.T. Barnum, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.
Attracting New Audiences
By the spring, Richmond was ready to utilize the cemetery's newly-refurbished chapel. "Once they'd re-opened it, they wanted people to use it, but had no plans for spreading the word," Richmond recalls. Having committed to his board to hold about ten events per year in the restored chapel, Moylan wanted to make the non-sectarian cemetery a destination. He and Richmond considered ways to make people, especially community residents, feel welcome to come to Green-Wood. Richmond lobbied for showing movies, because "they touch more people than most art forms."
A summer-long Saturday cinema series in the chapel was soon underway. It featured a family film in the afternoon and adult offerings at night. Green-Wood selected a few of the movies. Richmond chose the majority, favoring films with a link to the cemetery, such as "West Side Story" and "The Wizard of Oz" -- composer Leonard Bernstein and author Frank Baum, respectively, are buried at Green-Wood.
Good crowds attended the early summer films, ranging from "Mary Poppins" to "Arsenic And Old Lace" to "On the Waterfront." "Kids' films were especially popular, attracting young families, often new to the neighborhood. Audiences -- many here for the first time -- were very appreciative," noted Moylan.
Richmond, who ran the projector at every screening, served as an unofficial tour guide, too. He spoke with numerous attendees who were very glad to see the cemetery admitting the public once again. "Many happy relatives actually had [family] plots that looked out over the chapel. Most said their dearly departed would not mind, as long as we didn't wake them. We heard that one at least 20 times," he said.
Shows were listed in free local newspapers as well as city-wide publications, one of which (The New York Post) began protesting the showing of 11 "scary films" in a cemetery. "They were offended by 'Dracula,' 'The Shining' and 'Psycho,' which we had to cancel after the bad publicity," said Richmond, quite surprised since he'd carefully selected films he considered fun-to-watch crowd pleasers.
On the night "Psycho" had been scheduled, over 25 people arrived to see it. "That's just what we were trying to do: make Green-Wood a destination," said Richmond. With ticket prices of $5 to $8, the series was not profitable after expenses, but succeeded at generating visibility and positive public relations.
Other Cultural Programs
It took flamenco, not film, to fill the cemetery's coffers (relatively speaking). Danzas Espanolas, a company preserving the traditions of Spanish dance, packed the chapel. "It was fantastic! The applause was thunderous. It was a great success," Moylan said. Then the Lyceum held two October dance weekends, each preceded by a brief talk about Green-Wood. A percentage of proceeds was earmarked specifically towards restoration of a marble monument known as "The Dancers." After the dance events netted Green-Wood $3,000, preliminary restoration work began.
This fall, Green-Wood launched a series of free afternoon book talks in the chapel. "We're doing it for exposure, to introduce new people to Green-Wood, and cultivate them. We try to get attendees' names and develop a mailing list," Moylan explains. The first author, Alexandra Mosca ("Grave Undertakings") drew 40 to -50 people. Attendance was lower for novelist Danny Simmons, who appeared with a member of Def Poets. Moylan concedes their marketing was insufficient. "I thought a small blurb in the New York Times would really help, but it didn't do much. We should have put up signs at local colleges instead of relying on Danny's publicist."
Those lessons should help for upcoming book events, featuring Alix Strauss ("The Joy of Funerals") 'in April and Stephen Prothero ("Purified By Fire: A History of Cremation In America") in May. Peter Nash will discuss "Baseball Legends of Green-Wood Cemetery" in January, while Green-Wood sells his new book at a 20 percent discount, along with other cemetery publications. Eventually, Moylan hopes to find space for a Green-Wood store to sell their selfguided tour books; self-published $50 coffee-table book, "Brooklyn's Green-Wood Cemetery: New York's Buried Treasure" by Jeff Richman (GreenWood's historian); and hard-to-find "The Battle of Brooklyn," by John Gallagher. A local historian and former cemetery tour leader, Gallagher is buried there on Battle Hill, site of the actual 18th century fight.
Social And Outdoor Outreach
On November 1, Green-Wood held its first wedding ceremony. The couple, who had attended some films and the dance program, asked if the cemetery did weddings. They wanted to marry there because they liked the spectacular chapel, grounds and statuary. "It went very well, and received a nice write-up in the New York Times. The wedding was marginally profitable. If ceremonies become ongoing here, I hope we can get volunteers to staff them, rather than the union person we had for this one," said Moylan.
Green-Wood's crowded calendar of walking tours sometimes offers as many as three on a single weekend day. Private tour guides are encouraged to donate $1 per participant to the Green-Wood Historic Fund. For tours led by Jeff Richman (admission $10), all proceeds, except the historian's fee, go to the fund. Themes range from Saturday Night At The Cemetery (flashlights required) to morning Bird-Watching to Gangs Of New York. Typical attendance is 50.
Weddings, walking tours and book talks seem so innocuous, Moylan and Richmond were stunned to suddenly encounter fierce local outrage about their new programs. Nearby residents began complaining that Green-Wood was damaging the memories of their loved ones buried there.
In mid-November, Richmond learned that Joan Millman, his district's state assembly member, had drafted a resolution that would outlaw entertainment at cemeteries, because several community residents had expressed their displeasure. He immediately contacted Millman to protest the proposed legislation and organized a petition drive to get 10,000 signatures opposing the resolution.
"Of over 2,000 people who came to the chapel on Saturdays in the summer and fall, about 10 had an issue. One or two have now made it their mission to stop what they call 'this horrible transgression near their deceased family members," said Richmond. "As a political fracas, the level of concern seems so out of whack."
Millman's written reply said she had drafted the resolution after several constituents contacted her office and were "disturbed that movies were being shown for profit. They felt that providing entertainment was disrespectful of their loved ones. The language in the bill is narrow and specific... [it] would prohibit movies and performances held for profit in cemeteries. Nothing in it would prohibit the playing of music or other performances associated with any funeral conducted within a cemetery."
Millman noted that she was in contact with Green-Wood's president and was reviewing the bill's provisions with him. She assured Richmond that, "I am very concerned about protecting the financial future of Green-Wood Cemetery, which I believe to be a very valuable asset to our community. "
Moylan calls the complaints "really ridiculous. We never had any big crowds. You would never have known anything was going on in that chapel. I didn't find the movies offensive and was definitely surprised at the protests.
"When we sat down with Joan Millman and told her the real facts, she was fine with it. She appreciated our passion for what we do, and realized we weren't simply distant cemetery managers who didn't care about the community. I told her my own family is buried at Green-Wood."
On Nov. 20, Richmond received an e-mail informing him that "after discussions with Green-Wood officials and after hearing from other concerned Park Slope residents, Assemblywoman Joan Millman has agreed to take no action on the proposed bill at the present time." (However, as late as December, Moylan was still receiving letters of protest from City Council members.) Green-Wood is now continuing its cultural programs.
Spreading The Word
In the Lyceum cafe, Richmond displays posters and distributes information about Green-Wood's Saved In Time campaign, which raises funds allowing the restoration of one monument at a time."People who knew the vastness of Green-Wood understood our aim: to provide a fund for perpetual care of the monuments, because many of the families with relatives buried here can no longer afford the maintenance," he said.
"This is an arts organization with a personal interest in the cemetery," explained Richmond, who often brings new program ideas to Moylan. "I'm a way for events to occur, either at the Lyceum or at Green-Wood, which let people know about specific monuments that need restoring." Upcoming activities are announced on the websites of both the Lyceum and Green -Wood.
Richmond and Moylan share the goal of reintroducing Green-Wood into the
cultural fabric of New York City as well as the local community. "Part
of the reason I'm involved," confides Richmond, "is that as
I started digging around for the 'Only The Dead' project, I saw an incredible
opportunity. I advocate creating an archive of the people buried here,
by approaching the surviving family members of residents. Then we could
create a real historic attraction. Joining forces has been an excellent
idea," he said.