Friday, September 30, 2016

Forest Hills Tennis Archive, Library, & Maybe A Museum?

Reminiscing & Building Tennis History in Forest Hills

by Michael Perlman, Historian, Preservationist, Author

The stately Tudor style Clubhouse
Forest Hills Tennis Stadium: First in America
Significant achievements in recent West Side Tennis Club (WSTC) history include the comeback of world-class concerts in 2013 and pro tennis in 2016, and now the club is considering the development of a public tennis library and archive, and perhaps a museum on the property.

On August 27, 2016, the historic clubhouse became the grounds of a seminar and dinner, where national and international members of Tennis Collectors of America (TCA) and WSTC members gathered to help shape the future of the club. A day earlier, the club hosted a tennis antiques trade show.

Vintage tennis publications on display
The TCA, a non-profit, was founded in 2003 to promote tennis collecting and tennis history through the TCA website, published media, and an annual meeting at varying locations throughout America. The seminar was attended by WSTC members. It featured a WSTC history slide show by 45-year member and chair of the archives committee member Bea Hunt, plans for the tennis history library by Alan Edelman, and memories of the US Open among tournaments by panelists Linna Hunt, Nancy Crabill, Ray Fitzmartin, and Jim Sheridan, and moderator Jack Leibler (past WSTC president). Edelman and B. Hunt both joined TCA last year. 

Memories committee panelists: Linna Hunt, Nancy Crabill, Ray Fitzmartin, Jack Leibler, Jim Sheridan
TCA & WSTC members gather
The WSTC was founded in 1892 on Manhattan’s West Side, and leased land at Central Park West and 89th Street, Amsterdam Avenue and 117th Street, and Broadway and 238th Street before calling Forest Hills home in 1913 and developing America’s first tennis stadium in 1923. Bea Hunt explained, “Originally, there were 13 charter members, who organized our club as a men’s tennis club, but that same year, we held our first club championship for men and women. By the end of our first season, we had 5 tennis courts and 43 members.”

Forest Hills Tennis Stadium as "America's Tennis Stadium" - MIT's The Technology Review, November 1922
Today, Forest Hills offers a stately Tudor clubhouse designed by Grosvenor Atterbury, but attendees were hard-pressed to learn that the first clubhouse was a shanty with cold showers. Hunt emphasized how far the club has come, and said, “In 124 years, Angela Martin is our first woman president, but I am disappointed to say that we didn’t have one earlier.” Throughout its history, numerous pivotal moments included the Wightman Cup featuring the first international team match for women on the stadium’s opening day, breaking racial color barriers when Althea Gibson became the first African American to win a US national tennis title in 1957, and the birth of the US Open, where Billie Jean King played the first “open” match in 1968.

Alan S Edelman addressing his audience 
Baltimore resident Alan Edelman is much of an inspiration to the WSTC and largely a reason for their expansion plans, as well as WSTC member James Wilson. Nearly two years ago, Edelman was seeking a New York venue to play tennis, visited the WSTC, and met Wilson. He reminisced, “One of the first things I was told, which was shocking, was that West Side doesn’t have much of an archive. I consider this the most important tennis institution in the United States, and I really couldn’t believe they wanted my collectibles.” That consisted of over 500 magazines featuring WSTC history from 1953 until the late 1980s.

Time capsule: WSTC tin   
The site of pivotal moments!
Wilson suggested that they create a public archive extending beyond the club’s membership. Edelman said, “It became apparent that most institutions don’t have archives. If we can accumulate an encyclopedic history of all of tennis, it will be a very important thing for the tennis world.”

Bea Hunt with Alan S Edelman
Part of the archive will document members’ memories. During the US Open, Nancy Crabill escorted players to center court from 1975 to 1977 and carried male player racquets, which she called glamorous, but there was one time she escorted female players. She said, “Jimmy Connors approached me and asked if I was going to escort Chris Evert onto court. He asked if I would give her a message (although they were not together then), and said to tell her that I love her and wish her luck.”

During the US Open, Linna Hunt once sold tennis merchandise in the pro shop under the stadium and distributed passes to tennis players. She recalled her experience with Patricio Cornejo, a Chilean tennis player who made it to the men's doubles finals in 1974. “On the day of the tournament, his favorite racquet was still being strung and he told me to please bring it out, even if the game was starting. I was shy in front of an audience, but ran out, gave him his racquet and got a standing ovation. That was the high point in my tennis life.”

Jim Sheridan, now an honorary member and consultant to the club, has been a familiar face at the WSTC for 52 years. In 2014, he was presented with a plaque in recognition of his dedicated service as assistant through head groundskeeper, which was built on the legacy of his father Owen Sheridan, who began tending the grounds in 1932. Sheridan reminisced The Beatles concert in 1964, when they landed in a helicopter. “No one thought about the wind screen, and it blew the fences down,” he said. Fans throwing jelly beans at Ringo was a common sight. “There was grass at that time at the stadium, and jelly beans were stuck in the grass for some time since it rained.”

Ray Fitzmartin worked the US Open for nearly 50 years, officiating various matches and tournaments. “As an umpire in Forest Hills, we had to show up at 9 AM every day. If the match ran 3 hours, you had to stay that long with no bathroom breaks. You had to wear a blazer and a long sleeve shirt and tie, no matter what the weather was.” In contrast to the US Open in Flushing Meadows, he said, “Here the atmosphere was warm, and players would ask if they could join you for lunch or dinner.”

Jim Sheridan signing "Legendary Locals of Forest Hills & Rego Park" by Michael H Perlman for TCA President Becky Desmond
WSTC Foundation President Roland Meier addressing the dinner party
After the seminar, TCA members further expressed their support for an archive. President Becky Desmond, a founding member who resides in Downingtown, PA, has been teaching tennis since 1967. One of her earliest collectibles took a creative spin, when she acquired a tennis motif button depicting two Edwardian ladies on each side of the net with a dog, and transformed it into a ring while maintaining its integrity.

Desmond said, “I look forward in seeing how the TCA can help the WSTC, and it’s wonderful that this venture will take place on the historic site and memorabilia will not be locked up in a closet somewhere.” She may even donate her 1970s era personal photos of Chris Evert and Jimmy Connors walking the grounds, and another of Connors and Ilie Năstase cleaning the lines on court after the rain.

Michael Perlman & Jeanne Cherry: Two authors come together
Santa Monica, CA resident Jeanne Cherry, another TCA founder, is the author of “Tennis Antiques & Collectibles.” “I searched for books on tennis memorabilia, but after finding none, decided to write the first book on this topic,” she said. Her tennis collection consists of everything from trophies and paintings to letters to and from players and greater than 600 racquets. Eyeing the future, she said, “I am writing a pictorial biography of Helen Wills, who won the women’s singles national championships at Forest Hills seven times in the 1920s and 1930s, and I will be glad to donate a copy.”

Archives committee chair Bea Hunt, WSTC President Angela Martin, WSTC Foundation President Roland Meier, TCA President Becky Desmond, Photo by Michael Perlman

Caitlyn & Elise Carpenter host WSTC trivia
At the dinner, the youngest attendees were two sisters, 11-year-old Caitlyn and 10-year-old Elise Carpenter of Mamaroneck, who have been playing tennis for 7 years and volunteered to become speakers for 2 rounds of WSTC tennis history trivia. “If you bring forward a sport, you need to preserve its origins, so you can learn from it,” said Caitlyn. Elise then added, “I thought it was really cool how they got everyone to put out their antiques for others to see.” Both sisters expressed interest in becoming TCA members someday by saying “yes” with a smile.

Step into the future of the WSTC, beginning with the Clubhouse's Hall of Fame

Tennis memorabilia display
WSTC Certificate of Subscription toward the Stadium, July 20, 1923

1931 & 1923 Lawn Tennis magazines 
1935 & 1968 tennis publications

WSTC Centennial plate, 1892 - 1992

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Sept 25th: Four Forest Hills Events - Mark Your Calendar!

What do animals, books, a yard sale, & a street fair have in common? Between 10 AM & 4 PM on 9/25:

At the Forest Hills Street Fair, I will be offering signed copies of my book "Legendary Locals of Forest Hills and Rego Park" as a collaboration with Trylon Vet Care P.C.'s Posh Pets Rescue fundraiser. Stop by our table on Austin Street near Starbucks. I will also be selling signed copies at the Tea Garden of the Forest Hills Inn around the corner from Station Square, as part of the Inn's annual yard sale that will benefit this historic property. Feel free to email with questions or requests.

- Michael Perlman