The days grow long as New Yorkers continue to stay in place awaiting the reopening of our city. If you walk outside, there is a sense of abandonment and despair. The streets are empty, stores are closed, the passing busses have few passengers, and the presence of masked walkers creates an eerie atmosphere.
Yet since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the city full force, every night at 7 p.m. sharp, people peer out their windows and scream, clap and cheer in honor of the doctors, nurses, grocery workers, delivery people, EMS paramedics and police who have been the heroes in responding to this crisis.
Nowhere in the city has the celebration been more festive than on the West Side of Manhattan at 98th Street and Broadway. I know this because I have a bird’s eye view out my window facing Broadway. Around 6:45, people start to gather on the street, police cars appear, a Mt. Sinai ambulance parks in front of Lenny’s Bagels and the honking of passing cars begin. Because when the clock chimes 7, a window will open on the fifth floor of the building on the northwest corner, clapping hands will appear from the window and Brian Stokes Mitchell will peek his head out to the cheers of the throngs below.
Yes, that’s the Brian Stokes Mitchell, famous actor and singer – 2000 Tony award winner for "Kiss Me Kate" who also received Tony nominations for his performances in "Ragtime" and "Man of La Mancha." Stokes, as he likes to be called, has also chaired the Actors Fund for the past fourteen years. The Fund has provided $4 million of emergency assistance so far to over 4,000 people who have been left jobless because of the pandemic. We often hear about the well-known actors who have been affected by the darkened shows, but Stokes is quick to point out that it’s the carpenters, writers, stage managers, musicians and lesser performers who are suffering the most.
It’s his penchant for those that make this city function for the rest of us that spurred him to give back by his singing. Stokes fell ill at the beginning of April. What began as a low-grade sinus infection and fever grew into a more serious fever that left him feeling “that he had been hit by a train.” He also complained of severe body aches, chills and a loss of sense and smell – all symptoms of the virus. He tested positive for COVID-19 and was “laid up” for nearly two weeks. When he recovered, he felt a sense of deep gratitude to the frontline workers who were treating thousands of sick New Yorkers and helping the rest of us survive as we remain shut in.
The idea to sing from his window happened spontaneously. Like others, every night at 7 p.m. Stokes leaned out his window and clapped and cheered. It hurt him to take a deep breath but he realized that he could still actually sing – and sing he did to the joys of his neighbors.
One night Stokes sang the theme song from "Man of La Mancha" along with "The Impossible Dream." “Singing both felt like a performance and I didn’t want to do that,” he said recently. “The Impossible Dream” is the perfect song for the moment. It gives people hope. It’s also a song about trying – just to hear the lyrics –“to fight the unbeatable foe, bear with unbearable sorrow, and to run where the brave dare not go.”
"We Need Warmth and Support"
When word got out that there was a live, nightly performance by Stokes, 98th and Broadway became the epicenter of the West Side’s show of appreciation.
Tracy Sussman traveled 13 blocks north from her apartment on 85th Street to hear Stokes. “I teach kindergarten in the South Bronx and we are doing a project on how to make essential workers feel better, she said. “I’m going to video him and post it on my morning meeting.”
Anne and Wade live at the building at the southwest corner of West 98th Street. “We would see the crowd every night but we couldn’t hear him from our window," they said. "We finally decided to come down to the street and see him firsthand.”
“There is a tone of meanness in this country, and you think with something like this, people can start thinking differently about each other,” Wade commented. "We need warmth and support.” Anne concurred. “This 7 p.m. shout out is wonderful given what we are going through. Every day, I look forward to the cheering at night.”
Unfortunately, Stokes’s singing was silenced last week. Maudette Brown, who lives on 95th Street and Columbus Avenue, was ecstatic at the prospect of hearing Stokes. “He is one of my favorite performers. I just needed to hear him. This is very uplifting. His singing keeps everyone in good spirits during this difficult time,” she said. “But don’t let the crowd get too large.”
The crowds did become too large. The police were concerned that the crowd on the street had become too dangerous in this era of social distancing. “There was no way to keep people off the street and the idea is not to make their job more difficult,” Stokes said.
So Stokes was forced to end his streak. Nevertheless, the sound of his voice bellowing from his fifth floor window “questing for the unreachable star” still brightens our neighborhood as we soldier on through this unprecedented lockdown.
Stephan Russo is a West Side Spirit contributor, and an Upper West Side resident since 1975. He served as the Executive Director of Goddard Riverside Community Center from 1998-2017.
'"The Impossible Dream' is the perfect song for the moment. It gives people hope." Brian Stokes Mitchell