What “Happened” Aboard the Staten Island Ferry?

Interesting events have occurred on, in, and around Staten Island for the past 350+ years. In researching our island during the 1960’s, I found an event that well represented the time period. It was a called “A Happening.”

Girl in Fountain with Frisbee by EK Criaris Property of Cheryl Bontales

A youth of the late 60’s enjoying the outdoors. Photo by E.K. Criaris. Courtesy of Cheryl Criaris-Bontales.

On September 29, 1967, cellist Charlotte Moorman created “A Happening” onboard the Staten Island ferryboat, John F. Kennedy. It was an avant-garde festival featuring modern art forms, musical groups, poetry readings, body painting, and much more. Capacity crowds took to the ferry to experience this special event. The press exclaimed that participants were hippies, but an examination of the images that accompanied the articles showed well dressed, average-looking youth who appeared more like 1950’s teenagers than stereotypical long-haired, bead-wearing, bell bottomed hippies.

Many politicians and community members fought the proposed “Happening” for a number of reasons. Most serious to these individuals was the fact that Ms. Moorman was arrested on a morals charge for playing her cello topless. She claimed her lack of attire was part of the performance: it assisted in explaining the message of her music.

Owing to Ms. Moorman’s trouble with the law then Borough President Robert Connor and Councilman Edward V. Curry proclaimed that the festival would be an “insult to the decent citizenry of the borough’ and an ‘offense to the people of Staten Island.”[i] (An odd combination of statements since it indicates a difference between the “decent citizenry of the borough” and “the people of Staten Island.”) In any event, the charge against the cellist must not have been too serious as the sentence was suspended.

JFK Ferryboat cropped

The “John F. Kennedy” ferryboat, no date.

The agency that operated the ferry system at this time, the Department of Marine and Aviation, allowed the “Happening” to happen for a number of reasons. Their main objective being that it would help “create a personality for its ferries…”[ii] Yes, it certainly was the 1960’s.

The so-called hippies were said to have been sociable and pleasant during the “Happening” with an amazing 56,000 individuals participating. This number is inflated though, as no one differentiated between the participants and the commuters who normally trudged onto the boats to get to and from their Manhattan jobs.

The last words on the floating festival were made by journalist Richard Nusser who acknowledged that “the Staten Island Ferry had finally made ‘The Trip.” How groovy was that?

Special thanks to Cheryl Criaris-Bontales and Gina Sacco.

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Works Cited:

Morris, Brian. Staten Island Advance. “Ferry Boss Won’t Beach Floating Arts Festival.” September 25, 1967.

Nusser, Richard. Staten Island Advance. “Ferry Rides Out Arts Festival.” October 1, 1967.

Sitts, Maxine. Staten Island Advance. “Hippies Reign on Art Cruise.” September 30, 1967.

Staten Island Advance. “City Counts 56,000 On ‘Way-Out’ Cruise.” October 3, 1967.

Notes:

[i] Morris, Brian. Staten Island Advance, “Ferry Boss Won’t Beach Floating Arts Festival,” September 25, 1967.

[ii] Ibid.

Copyright 2016 by Patricia M. Salmon

12 Comments

  1. Mary
    Jul 10, 2016

    Were there actually 56,000 people on thevferry?!?

    • Patricia Salmon
      Jul 10, 2016

      Hello Mary. Yes, that number is per the “Staten Island Advance.” It was not one ferry ride. The event took place over several hours. Thank you for reading and thank you for writing! – Pat

      • Mary
        Jul 11, 2016

        Now I get it!

  2. Donna
    Jul 11, 2016

    Great article Pat! I really enjoyed it! My Uncle once jumped overboard to save a fellow commuter who I believe was attempting suicide. I remember seeing the SI Advance with his picture!!

    • Patricia Salmon
      Jul 11, 2016

      Brave man. Which uncle Donna? Your family has a number of interesting Staten Island stories. You should put them on paper. We could blog them on this site.

      • Donna
        Jul 11, 2016

        That’s true Pat!! Long SI history that’s for sure! It was Uncle Bob, the Kelleher’s father! I remember it being a very crazy story!

  3. Bill Flynn
    Jul 11, 2016

    As a Staten Island resident since ’63, I have had occasion to ride the Ferry System for work and other necessary tasks. I’d be interested in knowing “how many Staten Isländers actually rode the ferry that day for “that” purpose. I for one can’t see myself getting on the ferry to include myself in the (festivities?). It is a necessary conveyance, but thats about it! Plus the fact, anyone that rides on a regular basis probably would admit to “not wanting to mix with the skells that inhabit that environment. And an event like that would bring that element out in droves. Where do you go? once the vessel is underway? Sorry about all the negative attitude!

    On another note,I was on the Ferry in the (70’s?)on the St. George bound trip. This was a day after a boat collided seriously with a bulkhead (Manhattan Bound). On the boat headed to St. George was Bob Teague, An NBC TV News Reporter. He somehow convinced the vessel Captain to stop the boat 3-4 minutes out, and head back to South Ferry slip for FILM footage and verbal report………Needless to say, the crowd, all nervous and curious as to what the problem was, reacted to the stupidity of the situation and Bob Teague was lucky not to be thrown in the drink, along with his crew. This was a rush hour crowd looking to get home! BAD choice Captain!

    • Bill Flynn
      Jul 11, 2016

      Side note: Bob Teague, NBC Reporter, never got his story that day, at least not film footage from that boat, that day!

      • Patricia Salmon
        Jul 11, 2016

        Thank so much for sharing Bill. It is amazing to me the number of times the Staten Island ferry has hit something other then its landing location. There was one instance when it crashed into Battery Park. This was after the boats had radar. I found an account of one captain talking about negotiating the harbor in fog before the development of radar. He would listen to the noises of the harbor and claimed to know where he was when sound bounced off such structures as the Statue of Liberty and Governor’s Island!

  4. Elaine
    Jul 11, 2016

    Pat
    I was on the boat that was sliced into by a freighter in the morning. I was amazed that the top of the ferry didn’t even hit the water line on the freighter. It was quite an experience.
    Since I don’t swim I always sat on the top level – assuming we would get rescued before the boat went down.

    • Patricia Salmon
      Jul 11, 2016

      I cannot imagine being on that boat Elaine. It must have been terribly frightening. Staten Island ferryboat accidents have been very common over the years–especially before the 1970’s. Actually a whole book could be written on the topic. Off the top of my head I do not recall any sinking since municipal ownership began in 1905. Prior to that there were several, not including some of the ferryboats that were used in the Civil War.

  5. Patricia Salmon
    Jul 11, 2016

    I posted this blog on one of the Facebook pages that looks back at old Staten Island. A response was received that I should write a book about the history of the Staten Island ferry. So I realized I should mention that “The Staten Island Ferry: A History” was published in 2008, by the Staten Island Museum. If you go to the Bookshop page of this website you can get details about purchasing a signed copy. http://patsalmonhistory.com/bookshop/

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