A recent evening picnic and re-creation of 19th century impresario William B. Niblo’s pleasure garden brought more than a little night music to the ears and eyes of the revelers at Green-Wood Cemetery on Saturday, August 10.
Fire jugglers, trapeze artists, opera singers and Victorian-era academics in full costume regaled the dozens of guests with the likes that few people in this century have seen, in honor of Niblo, the tavernkeeper/entrepreneur/entertainment guru of the early 1800s, who, in addition to creating the go-to place for outdoor entertainment in Manhattan at the time, would throw lavish picnic parties on the lawn outside his family mausoleum in Green-Wood Cemetery in the years before he himself was interred there.
It was this atmosphere that Green-Wood and historian Benjamin Feldman sought to bring to life.
So, armed with picnic baskets, blankets, lawn chairs and plenty of chilled wine, the guests streamed in, setting up camp around the large lake which had once been stocked with goldfish, courtesy of Niblo.
For Anthony Appierto and Ana Guzman of Dyker Heights, buying a ticket was a no-brainer. “I’ve always had a fascination with the cemetery, so I joined as a member and go to book signings, tours and other events,” explained Guzman, whose parents are buried in Green-Wood. “This just seemed like a blast from the past, to be able to go back in time in this historical place, with music and everything.”
Appierto concurred, noting that the idea of Niblo bringing people to his cemetery plot for parties is a remarkable reminder of the idea that “let’s enjoy it while [we] can.”
For Leslie Torre, there was no question of whether or not she would attend—it was just a matter as to how many friends she could convince to join her. “I’m a member, so anytime something seems awesome, I come,” said Torre, a Queens resident who brought friends from Windsor Terrace and New Jersey.
One friend, David Lipp, noted that “we normally don’t get to see something that celebrates death. There was a dichotomy among Victorians, where they were obsessed with death, but celebrated the macabre. Like with sex, it’s not black and white.”
Among the foodstuffs brought by modern New Yorkers were sushi, peach cobbler, quinoa salad, sangria and shrimp salad—the latter of which was actually one of many popular dishes (e.g. cold chicken, deviled eggs, cold tongue, and lemonade) eaten at such picnic parties in the 19th century, according to Nadine Stewart, the event’s resident picnic expert who also played the role of Mrs. Martha Niblo.
Stewart, who is also a Victorianist and a professor of fashion history, even shared a recipe for a drink called raspberry shrub: combine red raspberries and cider vinegar in a jar, let it sit overnight, covered, then put a pint of juice and a pint of sugar to boil, cool it, then serve it over ice.
In addition to the history lesson, guests enjoyed a jaw-dropping acrobatic performance from trapeze artist Polly Solomon, a dusk-hour light show from fire juggler Michael Karas, and a performance of selections from Giuseppe Verdi’s “Macbeth” and “La Traviata,” and Gaetano Donizetti’s “La Fille du Regiment.”
“I specialize in raising the dead as a historian [because] unless you’re Attila the Hun, Adolf Hitler, Marilyn Monroe [or the like], people tend to forget about you,” explained Feldman, who said the event took eight months to put together. “Names and fame are evanescent. After 100 years, people forget. Particularly with theater impresarios. And he was a modest, charitable man.”
To learn more about Niblo’s life and times, go to www.newyorkwanderer.com and keep an eye out for Feldman’s upcoming biography on the man, East in Eden: William Niblo and His Pleasure Garden of Yore.
For more events at Green-Wood, visit www.green-wood.com/toursevents.