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

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