Be-In, be-in, Being

Central Park Rite is Medieval Pageant

 March 30, 1967

As the dawn sun gleamed off a backdrop of molded metal sky-scrapers on Easter Sunday, a medieval pageant began in the middle of Manhattan. Laden with daffodils, ecstatic in vibrant costumes and painted faces, troupes of hippies gathered on a hill overlooking Central Park's Sheep Meadow to Be-In. By sunset, 10,000 celebrants swarmed in great rushes across the meadow, and thousands more were dispersed throughout the rest of the park. Bonfires burned on the hills, their smoke mixing with bright balloons among the barren trees and high, high above kites wafted in the air. Rhythms and music and mantras from all corners of the meadow echoed in exquisite harmony, and thousands of lovers vibrated into the night. It was miraculous.

It was a feast for the senses: the beauty of the colors, clothes and shrines, the sounds and the rhythms, at once familiar, the smell of flowers and frankincense, the taste of jellybeans. But the spirit of the Be-In penetrated beneath the senses, deep into instincts. The Be-In was tuned—in time—to past echoes and future premonitions. Layers of inhibitions were peeled away and, for many, love and laughter become suddenly fresh.

Linn house presides over wedding of anita and abbie hoffman in central park (June 1967).
photo: Fred W. McDarrah
Linn house presides over wedding of anita and abbie hoffman in central park (June 1967).

People climbed into trees and made animal calls, and were answered by calls from other trees. Two men stripped naked, and were gently persuaded to re-clothe as the police appeared. Herds of people rushed together from encampments on the hills to converge en masse on the great mud of the meadow. They joined hands to form great circles, hundreds of yards in diameter, and broke to hurtle to the center in a joyous, crushing, multi-embracing pigpile. Chains of people careened through the crowds and full run. Their energy seemed inexhaustible.

The password was "LOVE" and it was sung, chanted, painted across foreheads, and spelled out on costumes. A tall man, his face painted white, wearing a silk top hat adorned with straw flowers, wandered ethereally through the Be-In holding aloft a tiny sign reading "LOVE."

The costumes ranged from Easter Parade hats and morning suits to high mod gear to psychedelic robes. Many people painted their faces in wild designs and colors ranging from chalk white to glowing lavender. They often included a dot, a tiny mirror, or a defraction disk pasted on the forehead. One man was dressed in a suit of long, shaggy strips of paper. Another person wore a jacket covered with buttons, all upside down. "This isn't a day for slogans," he explained.

Although hippies dominated the Be-In, it was by no means exclusively a psychedelic event. Many families came to join the Be-In after the Easter Parade down Fifth Avenue. Be-In posters in Spanish invited members of the Puerto Rican community. Grandmothers and executives, hippies and housewives mingled together in harmony. Three nuns appeared wearing Be-In buttons.

A young boy, a Negro, was skeptical about the hippies. He turned to his father. "But Daddy," he said, "they look so funny."

"You shouldn't say that," his father admonished, "until you know them."

The posters for the Be-In said "Bring Picnic," and anonymous press releases urged people to bring flowers, food, and Easter eggs to share. The activity of the day was giving. Most of the flowers and decorated eggs were passed around many times. Sticks of incense, smooth pebbles, sandwiches, and jellybeans were offered among the crowd. You could yell "Does anyone have a cigarette!" and get one in seconds.

The Be-In had no center of activity. The action continually shifted from point to point, from group to group and, from a high point in the meadow, you could watch the surges of people to the peaks of activity, usually closely followed by a tribe of people extoling the newly discovered banana high. A herd would converge on a spot and, in seconds, you could hear the chorus of the banana mantra—"Banana Banana"—and see a large, wooden, slightly phallic banana bobbing in the air. You could almost always see the banana out of the corner of your eye, aloft in a tree or rushing through the meadow. At one point, the banana clan, consisting of about 15 people, surged to the northwest, converging with a full-throated banana chorus, on the refreshment stand for a coffee break.

The event was at once surreal and beautiful absurd. Three girls wandered through the crowd of thousands, one of them holding up a key chain. "Did anybody lose some keys," they droned. "Anybody lose some keys to a Volkswagen?" The girls wound in and out of the groups of people, all around the Sheep Meadow, impossibly patient, holding up the keys.

The Police and Parks Department quietly and unofficially cooperated with the Be-In. A police car arrived at 6:45 in the morning, and the few hundred people already gathered rushed the car and pelted it with flowers, yelling "Daffodil Power." The police, astonished and covered with flowers, beat a hasty retreat.

Throughout the day, a few police watched the Be-In from the edge of the Sheep Meadow. They made no arrests. When police approached the two men who had stripped off their clothes, hundreds rushed and surrounded a group of five cops, alternately chanting "We love cops" and "Turn on cops." They crushed tighter and tighter. The banana hovered overhead, and the police had no escape. The chant switched to "Back Up, Back Up" and, just in time, the people peeled off the cops.

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