‘Party of the Century’ : Liberty Bash Unfolds in Superlative Fashion

Times Staff Writers

The Statue of Liberty’s centennial celebration opens tonight with a lavish salute that will mix fireworks and lasers, tall ships and warships, solemnity and show business.

In honor of completion of the statue’s $69-million restoration, millions will gather to pay homage to the majestic symbol of America’s immigrant heritage and its historic ties with France.

When President Reagan presses a button to unveil the statue in a blaze of lights, church bells will ring across the nation. As part of the evening’s ceremonies, thousands of new citizens, led by Chief Justice Warren E. Burger on Ellis Island, will take the oath of allegiance in five separate cities via satellite TV.


Stars, Bands and Fiddlers

The Independence Day weekend party will find room for drill teams, gymnasts, cheerleaders, movie stars, marching bands, country and western singers, ice skaters, fiddlers, tap dancers, the Boston Pops, the New York Philharmonic, an intellectual conference, 200 Elvis Presley imitators and a square-dancing brain surgeon.

Little has been left to chance. Even homing pigeons have been rehearsed, and the roses that will be shot from two cannons when Nancy Reagan visits Lady Liberty on Saturday have gone through a special thorn-stripping machine.

On Governors Island, where Reagan and French President Francois Mitterrand will participate in tonight’s lighting ceremonies and will review a parade of ships on Friday, a stage and grandstand rivaling a small college’s football stadium have been erected. Famous personalities may be as tightly packed together as turn-of-the-century immigrants in steerage.

Visitors were pouring into the city Wednesday as more than 200 graceful sailing ships and an armada of 33 warships converged through rain and fog on New York’s harbor. The Coast Guard estimated that as many as 40,000 boats could be on hand on Friday when a parade of 22 tall ships and the international naval review takes place, followed by more than 200 schooners, sloops, barks and brigantines.

“It is the party of the century and you’re all invited,” said Mayor Edward I. Koch as New York and New Jersey braced for as many as 13 million spectators during the festivities, which end Sunday night.

‘We’re Celebrating Liberty’

“I want everybody to have a good time, to feel good about themselves and about their country,” said David L. Wolper, the Hollywood impresario who is orchestrating the festivities. “We’re celebrating liberty.”

Although Wednesday morning brought thick clouds and some rain to the city, by late afternoon, sunshine was beaming down on the statue as Wolper and his staff completed final rehearsals on nearby Governors Island. The forecast called for clear, cool and breezy weather for opening ceremonies tonight.

Planners were hoping that last-minute problems would also blow away. One that disappeared late Wednesday concerned liability insurance for what is being billed as the nation’s largest fireworks display on Friday. Officials said they had signed a policy at 7:30 p.m. and that the 40,000 fireworks shells would be fired as scheduled from barges in the harbor.

But there were other worries as well:

--A threatened strike by New York City cab drivers scheduled for today.

--Slow ticket sales to the opening and closing ceremonies.

--And, most seriously, the possibility of terrorism. One of the largest peacetime security forces ever assembled is on call, armed with the latest anti-terrorist technology.

Officials warned motorists to leave their cars at home and prepared to close a large section of lower Manhattan to traffic for the celebration. Field hospitals were being set up in the Battery Park area facing the Statue of Liberty where millions were expected to gather.

Lee A. Iacocca, chairman of The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, announced this week that the privately funded national campaign to restore the statue and Ellis Island had raised $277 million, exceeding the $265 million goal. The Liberty Weekend celebrations will cost about $32 million and Iacocca said any shortfall from ticket sales would be covered by the Foundation.

Piling Up Superlatives

“There’s never been a fund-raising campaign like this in history,” Iacocca said, piling yet another superlative on those that have already been used to describe the weekend. “It may cost us a few million. That doesn’t bother me.”

The four-day celebration labeled Liberty Weekend has the theme “Rejoice, Remember, Renew.” In large part, the ceremonies are based on the statue’s dedication on a rainy day a century ago, but they have been magnified by 20th Century show business technology.

Tonight, President Reagan will first activate a laser beam that will bathe the statue, section by section, in colored lights, and then, later in the evening, he will relight the statue’s torch. The thousands of ships in the harbor will turn on their lights and sound their horns. Fireworks will explode overhead.

On Wednesday, preparing her for the birthday party, hundreds of workers toiled around the statue, to which sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi gave the name Liberty Enlightening the World.

Many Fixes Made

In the statue’s three-year restoration, the interior was strengthened and modernized, the torch replaced, the crown refurbished, and the lighting improved. But the reconstruction was also an adventure in archeology. Graffiti dating back to 1886 were found, including a “B” for Bartholdi on the first copper plate to be riveted. On a big toe, an unknown visitor had scribbled “Alone with God and the Statue, Christmas Eve.” Birds’ nests were found in the draped folds of Lady Liberty’s robe.

The special spirit of the statue--a repository of hopes, dreams and aspirations for generations of Americans--was captured by Richard S. Hayden and Thierry W. Despont, two of the principal architects who worked on her restoration. “Throughout the project, we were guided by a force that we couldn’t see or touch,” they wrote in a published diary of their experiences. “When the task at hand seemed almost impossible and the problems insurmountable, somehow the spirit of the statue always carried us along.

“Often enough at the end of a long day a child’s query, ‘What did you do today?’ and the answer, ‘I worked on the Statue of Liberty,’ were enough to renew our determination. . . . We will miss the morning boat rides, the late night suppers, the good times and the bad,” they recalled. “But we will remember.”

Inevitable Commercialism

Along with the patriotism, Liberty Weekend had also brought the predictable surge in merchandising. Store windows all around the city were festooned in red, white and blue. On street corners throughout Lower Manhattan, vendors stressed that their wares were “Made in America!” as they hawked liberty-themed T-shirts of all colors and designs.

Sponge-rubber Liberty crowns seemed to sprout up all around Manhattan. Subway riders wore them; so did some businessmen in three-piece suits.

Two federal judges who had complained about commercialism and dropped out of plans to televise the simultaneous naturalization ceremonies in five cities, rejoined the project after a fashion Wednesday. U.S. District Court Judge Gerhard A. Gesell of Washington, D.C., will swear in about 120 immigrants in his courtroom before the Liberty Weekend ceremonies begin. Gesell will not join the new citizens, however, when they appear five hours later on the steps of the Jefferson Memorial to retake the oath of allegiance via satellite hookup with Burger and sing “America the Beautiful” and “This Is My Country” on television.

Chief Justice to Preside

In St. Louis, U.S. District Court Judge John Nagle will swear in the immigrants on the steps of the Old Courthouse and then join them in the televised ceremonies. Burger will also preside over televised naturalization ceremonies in Miami and San Francisco.

But complaints of commercialism also sparked a protest in Battery Park City, a prime vantage point on the Hudson for the parade of ships. There, about 50 of New York’s homeless spent Wednesday in soggy cardboard boxes to draw attention to their plight. They were joined by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who charged the homeless were being excluded from the celebration because of the high price of tickets to opening night ceremonies on Governors Island. Tickets cost $5,000.

“Independence must be for all Americans for liberty and justice to be,” Jackson urged. “We join as the conscience of this weekend. Reach out, President Reagan to the millions in poverty. We must stand, march and pray together for America to be for all Americans.”

For Wolper on Governor’s Island, Wednesday was a day of flux and last-minute changes. He had pretested hundreds of the homing pigeons over the weekend to be sure they were well-mannered and that they would indeed return home. Five thousand of the birds will be released when Nancy Reagan officially reopens the statue on Saturday.

Burgers Have to Move

For the seventh time in five days, the seating arrangements for the VIP section on Governors Island were changed by William Hussey, Wolper’s chief of protocol. “I had to give up two seats to the American and French secret services,” Hussey told Wolper. “This means I had to drop the Burgers out of this row.”

An aide warned Wolper that fifteen corporate sponsors were on their way to Governors Island to inspect the special tents from which they will watch the statue’s relighting. “The sponsors tents are holding up well,” despite the rain, she reported.

Wolper Watches Rehearsal

Late in the afternoon with the sky clearing and the statue lit by sunlight, Wolper watched a rehearsal of parts of the show on Governors Island. Mikhail Baryshnikov, who will be sworn in as a citizen tonight by Burger, and Leslie Browne danced to music by Gershwin. “It’s a circle,” Gary Smith, one of the ceremony’s producers explained. “Balanchine, an immigrant, fell in love with Gershwin and did this choreography. Now Baryshnikov, another immigrant, is dancing his choreography.”

Wolper spoke briefly with Baseball Commissioner Peter V. Ueberroth, with whom he worked during the 1984 Olympics, producing the opening and closing ceremonies. “I know where I am now with the opening ceremonies,” he told his close friend. “It’s going to absolutely rack ‘em to the walls. When those lights go on. . . .”

Times staff writers Elizabeth Mehren and Mary Louise Oates and researcher Siobhan Flynn contributed to this article.