A Tribute to John Lennon Keeps to Its Quixotic Path

Neil Genzlinger / November 30, 2008

It’s a rabbit-hole kind of question born of today’s surreal economy: If your annual charity fund-raiser looks as if it might actually lose money, do you stage it anyway?

Joe Raiola, principal organizer of an event called simply the Lennon Tribute, has the appreciation for the incongruous required to answer yes to that question: by day he’s a senior editor at Mad magazine. And so he is pressing ahead with this year’s event, the 28th installment of an annual show remembering John Lennon, even though what little corporate backing he had evaporated and ticket sales are as sluggish as they are for most every other kind of event in New York. 

“Some people have suggested I cancel it,” Mr. Raiola said. “They just look at the numbers and say, ‘My God, we’re getting squeezed on both ends.’ ” 

But fund-raising wasn’t the original point of this shoe-string variety show, and it’s only part of the point now. “Everything about this event is secondary to getting together to celebrate and remember John Lennon for a cause bigger than ourselves,” Mr. Raiola said. 

And so at 7 o’clock on Sunday night at the Ailey Citigroup Theater on West 55th Street, Rosanne Cash, Cliff Eberhardt, Wendy Osserman Dance and others will serve up a bill of entertainment heavy with Lennon and Beatles songs (with Mr. Raiola doing some comedy). Whatever money the show makes will go to World Hunger Year, a nonprofit organization that seeks to battle hunger and poverty by promoting self-reliance. But if nothing else, everyone will have had a chance by the night’s end to reflect on what was lost 28 Decembers ago, when Lennon was murdered outside the Dakota on West 72nd Street. 

Back in 1980 Mr. Raiola was a 25-year-old exploring experimental theater with a director named Alec Rubin and his Theater of Encounter (now called Theater Within). He was also driving a cab, which is what he was doing the night of Dec. 8. 

“I had a very odd radio back then,” he recalled. “I had a radio that would pick up television stations. And I was listening to ‘Monday Night Football.’ ” So he, like much of the United States, had the discombobulating experience of hearing the news about Lennon from the sportscaster Howard Cosell. 

“I was on Queens Boulevard,” Mr. Raiola said. “I almost smashed into a telephone pole.”

Though Mr. Raiola had never met Lennon, he said the loss had a personal dimension for him and others in Mr. Rubin’s theater group, partly because they met just down 72nd Street from the Dakota and partly because Mr. Rubin, who was also a therapist, was interested in primal scream techniques, as was Lennon. 

As Mr. Raiola recounts the story in “Memories of John Lennon,” a book of essays compiled by Yoko Ono, the next year the theater group was preparing for a reading of a play about the night Lennon died, but the playwright backed out at the last minute. Rather than cancel, the group threw together an informal evening of performances dedicated to Lennon’s memory. 

The annual tribute, sponsored by Theater Within (theatrewithin.org), has been going, and growing, ever since. Early on, with Mr. Rubin directing and Mr. Raiola producing, the lineup might have featured almost anyone, including subway performers. (“We just looked for people we liked,” Mr. Raiola said.) But as the show moved from small black boxes to slightly larger black boxes to, now for the third year, the Ailey, it picked up better-known names. 

Some had serendipitous connections to Lennon. For instance Ben Taylor performed in 2006; his father, James, released his breakthrough album on the Beatles’ Apple label. Marshall Crenshaw, who appeared last year, once played Lennon in “Beatlemania.” 

Mr. Crenshaw was planning to return to the Lennon Tribute this year but was dismayed to discover he couldn’t get back from a show in Alaska in time; he helped steer Mr. Raiola to Ms. Cash instead. Among Mr. Crenshaw’s memories from last year’s show: “I accidentally knocked over the table that had all of Steve Forbert’s harmonicas on it, meticulously placed. I still feel contrite about that.” 

Ms. Osserman has been participating for years, bringing new works choreographed to songs by or related to Lennon. (This year she is using two Yoko Ono songs.) Part of the attraction, she said, is the chance to work with a type of music she does not generally use. And if some of her dancers weren’t even born when Lennon was alive, so what? 

“It seems to me my dancers are the same as we were in the ’60s,” she said. “They don’t have any money, and they’re idealistic.” 

The tribute show was just a tribute show for the first 20 years, until Mr. Raiola took it over when Mr. Rubin retired. (Mr. Rubin died in 2005.) 

“The first thing I did was I turned it into a charity fund-raiser,” Mr. Raiola said, choosing charities that Lennon might have supported. It has never generated a lot of money — the $11,000 raised in 2006 is the highest total so far — but he said he hopes that pressing ahead in this lean year will keep the tradition alive for better times, with the 30th anniversary beckoning. 

One other thing about the tribute’s evolution over the years: It has become less a cathartic mourning and more a celebration. “This is not a morose gathering,” Mr. Raiola said. “This is not a funeral.” 

Mr. Eberhardt, who this year will be performing for the second time, likes that mind-set. 

“It’s a very positive thing,” he said, “remembering him in a very positive light rather than tragic.” Among the songs he plans to sing: “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away.” 

“The audience,” he said, “loves to shout the ‘Hey.’ ”