Mike Luba stands on center court at Forest Hills Stadium and points out where The Beatles landed in a helicopter for their concerts and where Frank Sinatra's private viewing box for tennis matches used to be.
The Albertson native -- who manages bands including String Cheese Incident and has produced countless concerts -- can show where Bob Dylan was booed by a capacity crowd for playing an electric guitar and where generations of tennis greats enjoyed the biggest matches of their lives at the U.S. Open.
"This," Luba says, with a smile, "is the Holy Grail."
That may make sense now, as the 90-year-old stadium gets ready for another rebirth with a sold-out Mumford & Sons concert set for Wednesday, its first major concert in nearly two decades. After all, Forest Hills Stadium, on the grounds of the West Side Tennis Club, outlived Shea Stadium, where the concept of stadium rock was born with The Beatles shows there in 1965, and scores of New York's legendary music venues.
Stadium investor needed
Three months ago, though, none of this was certain. While the stadium had been certified structurally sound, there were holes in the concrete stands, 6-foot trees were growing out of the drains, and everything from the walkways and entrance portals up to the stone eagles perched atop the venue needed repairs. As Luba told the project's financial backer, "You have to be at peace with taking a suitcase full of cash and torching it -- and he was." The price tag is $2 million, Luba says.
Luba, 41, and his anonymous investor, who attended Wheatley High School in Old Westbury together, where they shared an interest in tennis and music, set out to save one of the world's only historic tennis and music venues -- Forest Hills Stadium.
"It always occupied this kind of magic, legendary mythical kind of space in the ethos of a Long Island kid," Luba says. "When I finally came out and saw it as an adult, it was mind-boggling. I travel around the world and have seen venues all over the place. As big a mess as it was, you could tell that with a little bit of love, it could be truly one of the great spots anywhere in the world, comparable with the Hollywood Bowl or Red Rocks or The Gorge or places in Europe."
Carl Dogali, vice president of operations at DPC New York Inc., ended up with the job of providing Forest Hills Stadium with that little bit of love. He led a team of nearly 50 who painstakingly restored the stadium, replacing damaged areas and treating the structure with processes that would prevent damage in the future. "This kind of construction wouldn't happen today," he says, pointing out where workers have patched the concrete portals so they would look like they did during the stadium's U.S. Open heyday. "Back then, they overbuilt to make sure the place would last."
Luba says convincing Mumford & Sons to go along with the unusual venue wasn't that hard. "When they came out to see it, they had the same kind of visceral reaction to it that I did," he says, adding that it didn't hurt that Marcus Mumford and Ben Lovett are from Wimbledon, England. "They bought into the vision of what it could be."
That vision is, once again, a mix of music and tennis. If the Mumford & Sons show goes well, Luba hopes to launch a regular series of six concerts next summer with the blessing of the West Side Tennis Club. The club, which gets a percentage of every ticket sold at the stadium, hopes to use the new funds for improvements to the grounds and to perhaps land a Davis Cup match.
"These shows are meant to protect and preserve what is certainly a New York icon and what I consider an American icon," Luba says. "In the disposable society we live in now -- where people build arenas and baseball stadiums and then 10 years later knock 'em down and put up the same stadium in the parking lot next to it -- places like this deserve to be protected."
For the plan to succeed, it's important that the show goes well, both in and out of the stadium. Luba says concertgoers should know there is no parking near the stadium and that they should take mass transit to the show. "We want to remind people that this town knows how to do this," he says, referring to the crowds that regularly filled the area for the U.S. Open and concerts throughout the '60s and '70s. "It's in their DNA."
He says the extra work is worth it to save the stadium.
"The dawn of rock and roll happened here," Luba says. "The greatest bands in the world at the peak moments of their lives had experiences at this place. . . . It's pure gold -- rock and roll history."
WHO Mumford & Sons
WHEN | WHERE 7 p.m. Wednesday, Forest Hills Stadium, 1 Tennis Place, Forest Hills
INFO Sold out; 800-745-3000 livenation.com
FOREST HILLS STADIUM MILESTONES
1923: Forest Hills Stadium opens at the West Side Tennis Club to accommodate the growing crowds of the U.S. Championships.
1950: Althea Gibson plays at the U.S. Championships, becoming the first black player to compete in a Grand Slam event.
1951: Alfred Hitchcock's film "Strangers on a Train," which features several scenes in and around the stadium, debuts.
July 12, 1964: Barbra Streisand opens the 1964 Forest Hills Music Festival, which includes Count Basie, Harry Belafonte with Miriam Makeba, and The Beatles.
Aug. 28-29, 1964: The Beatles play two sold-out shows at the stadium, arriving in a helicopter.
July 8, 1965: Frank Sinatra, with the Count Basie Orchestra conducted by Quincy Jones, opens the 1965 Forest Hills Music Festival.
Aug. 28, 1965: Bob Dylan is booed during his concert, his first show since "going electric" at the Newport Folk Festival.
1967: The Jimi Hendrix Experience gets booed as the opening act for the Monkees.
1968: Arthur Ashe becomes the first black man to win the U.S. Open.
1978: The U.S. Open moves to Flushing Meadows.
1996: Diana Ross headlines the stadium, marking the first major concert there in nearly a decade.
1997: The "K-Rock Dysfunctional Family Picnic" -- featuring Echo and The Bunnymen, Blur, Foo Fighters and Soul Coughing -- and the Furthur Festival, featuring Bob Weir, Mickey Hart and The Black Crowes -- become the last major concerts at the stadium.
2013: Mumford & Sons headlines the refurbished stadium.