June 20, 2024

Forest Hills Stadium could have been a condominium.

The legendary Queens, New York tennis-stadium-turned-amphitheater — longtime home of the U.S. Open, which would later host outdoor concerts by the likes of the Beatles, Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Ray Charles and the Rolling Stones — had gone decades without live music and was casually courting offers from developers to knock down the stadium and build housing units.

Meanwhile, in 2012, music entrepreneur Mike Luba had just finished a tour with Mumford & Sons and was looking for a “wacko” venue for the folk rockers to play in New York. Luba grew up on Long Island and remembered hearing stories about Forest Hills from his parents, whose second date was a Simon & Garfunkel concert at the venue. And given that half of the members of Mumford & Sons grew up in Wimbledon, he thought the tennis stadium was a perfect match.

So Luba cold-called Forest Hills. “They said, ‘I don’t know who you are or what the hell you’re talking about, but your timing is pretty good,’” he recalls. “The night before, the members finally said to the developers, ‘Over our dead body are you going to knock down this space.’”

Several months later, he took Mumford pianist Ben Lovett on a walk-through. The musician told Luba that, far from the rarified air of the British tennis mecca, the amphitheater was actually the sort of down-and-dirty venue the band prefers. “’You pitched this to us completely wrong’,” Luba recalls him saying. “‘This is nothing like Wimbledon — this is a shithole! We can actually play a proper rock concert here.’”

So Luba and Forest Hills got to work, stripping the stadium of its original petrified wood and bringing in a pop-up stage. The goal was to recreate a “Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii” vibe. Without seats or aisles, the venue could cram 13,000 people in the bowl and 4,000 on the floor. But during the Mumford & Sons grand reopening show, in August 2013, fans flooded the pit. It was so packed that Luba, fearing a crowd crush, approached the chief of police, who he says was a music fanatic and had the word “Prince” tattooed on his knuckles.

“I said, ‘Hey Chief, I’m not super comfortable with how things are going. Should we stop the show? Turn on the house lights?’” Luba remembers. “He was sitting backstage reading the Post. He stood up and put his Prince hand on my shoulder, looked me in the face and said, ‘Go with God.’ Go with God?! I don’t want to go with fucking God, I want to go with the New York City police!”

Luckily no one got hurt, but to remedy the chaos, the venue sent an email to all 17,000 ticketholders that said, “If for any reason this wasn’t the best Mumford & Sons show you’ve ever seen, send us an email and we’ll refund your money, no questions asked.”

Quickly, the emails poured in, ranging from “Marcus Mumford wasn’t as cute as last time, send me my money back” to “That was fucking miserable. The bathrooms were disgusting. I got separated from my family. Fuck you,” Luba recalls.

Forest Hills received 3,000 emails and, as promised, issued $400,000 in refunds. And the battered, newly reborn venue worked to earn New York’s trust and learned from its mistakes. It reduced its capacity to 13,000, built a proper stage and installed real seating and aisles. It also traded porta potties for nice bathrooms, amped up the food selection and introduced secret VIP seating in the form of speakeasy lounges hidden across the stadium.

Since Mumford & Sons brought live music back to Forest Hills, the venue has hosted a blossoming summer lineup and boasted acts like Dolly Parton, Drake, the Who, Ed Sheeran, Brandi Carlile and the Strokes — and the return of legends like Bob Dylan and Paul Simon after half a century.

As Forest Hills Stadium celebrates its 100th year, Variety looks back on the venue’s most celebrated and controversial moments.

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