Ithaca Blog

Thursday, May 10, 2007

The Untold Story of the Untold Fans of the Grateful Dead at Cornell

We didn't want to put the State Theater in a tough spot on Grateful Dead Day this past May 8 with one particular aspect of our personal reminiscence of the original May 8 , 1977 show, which is the large number of people who got in to the sold-out show at Barton Hall without tickets.

It might not have been that large a number, relative to the overall crowd. But it was a large percent of the people who came without tickets - like, 100%.

We know, because we let them in.

In 1977, I was 19 years old, a sophomore at Cornell, and somehow in charge of security (with two friends of mine, who shall remain nameless, as I don't have their permission to implicate them) for the Cornell Concert Commission, even though I had hair past my shoulders, weighed 133 pounds (pneumonia that winter), and was a little loose.

The Grateful Dead show sold out, and knowing their crowd, we knew there would be a lot of people showing up without tickets. We weren't worried about it, but the president of the Cornell Concert Commission was. The CCC was a big deal in those days, as a springboard for getting big jobs in the music industry. So the officers tended to be serious and business-like.

Before the show, the president came to address the security people, ushers, and ticket takers. He said there would be a lot of people trying to get in free, and scam and cajole us, and we had to be resolute, and defend the barriers, or something.

So we listened to that, very solemnly, and when the president was finished, we accepted his best wishes and support, and he left us to our duty.

And when he did, we told the crew what we would really like them to do, which was to let everyone in who showed up. With conditions, of course.

Anyone who didn't have a ticket would be asked to come back after everyone with tickets got in. We figured it was only fair to take care of the paying customers first, and then we could see what we were dealing with, numerically.

Then, if you didn't have a ticket, you could gain entry, not for nothing, but also not for money. It wouldn't have been right for us to take money, and we didn't.

Instead, we required anyone without a ticket to do something to contribute to the event. Not money, but they had to give something. Also, not drugs or alcohol. But some token, of some kind.

If they had a ticket to another event, we would honor that. If they got a ticket driving to the show, we would honor that. If they had a coupon to Arby's, or a key chain, or a lucky charm, or a guitar pick, or a pencil, or a cooking utensil, or anything else unorthodox they were willing to give, that would do it.

I remember one guy giving a peanut butter sandwich. We didn't eat it, of course, but he told us he had made the peanut butter sandwich in Tennessee, which we thought was pretty good. We had never seen a sandwich from Tennessee before.

Another guy didn't have anything, so we asked him to spell Tennessee. He did, or at least he tried, so he got in.

The majority of people got in that way: by answering a question, telling a story, performing a dance, doing chin-ups (there was a convenient overhanging bar right in the doorway), or singing a song. We heard "Happy Birthday" a lot that night.

We didn't think we were doing any harm, as there was plenty of room in Barton Hall, and they say there's always room for one more. We considered this a chance to see if that's really true. We were students, you know, and inquisitive about such things.

Cornell didn't really need the money, and they weren't going to let these people in for money, anyhow. So we were in agreement there.

From a security standpoint, we thought, how secure is it to have all these disappointed people milling around outside, when they wanted to be inside, to see the Grateful Dead? We understood that; we wanted to see the Grateful Dead, too. Mightn't they try to figure out some other way - maybe some destructive or violent, or at least obstreperous way - to get in, if there's no way to get a ticket, and their sandwiches and singing won't work? Of course they might.

All those unhappy, shut out people would have made us feel insecure. And we were in charge of security. So we acted.

It was not up to us to act upon stringent security issues for the State Theater show this past week. So we didn't even hint at the possibility - nor the history.

Plus, of course, we are older and wiser now. Aren't we?

Steve Burke
for Ithaca Blog

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