David Ippolito’s nearly 25-year run as a Central Park busker did not have a promising start.
The musician had struggled with alcohol addiction and was newly sober in the summer of 1992 when he first decided to set up a guitar, amplifier and microphone in Central Park in hopes of finding some lunch money in his guitar case by the end of the day. He made it through four or five songs.
“I packed everything up because I felt like such a loser,” said Ippolito. “I think it was the change that was hitting the guitar case.”
A few weeks later he tried again, loading up his gear in a wire shopping cart and setting up in the Hernshead section at the west side of the park. He started with “Sweet Baby James” by James Taylor and he didn’t stop for about four hours, after a group of 300 people had amassed, he said. He invited the crowd to sing along.
“I thought I had less of a chance of getting arrested,” he said. “If everybody’s singing, are they gonna arrest us all?”
The concerts in the park became a regular warm weather gig for Ippolito, and that same section of the park has been his weekend stage ever since. He’s seen his equipment confiscated, and paid fines, but he eventually received permission to play one day a weekend at the same location.
Now, Ippolito celebrates his time as “That Guitar Man from Central Park” with an anniversary concert at Symphony Space’s Peter Jay Sharp Theatre on April 1, though the occasion is accidental. He typically performs a year-end show at Merkin Concert Hall on W. 67th Street, but this year the space was booked.
“There’s no schedule. There’s no record label. There’s no managers. There’s no agent,” he said. “I don’t work for the city. I don’t work for the park. I’m a fiercely independent songwriter who’s got the best gig in the world.”
Andrea Sluchan was introduced to Ippolito through a mutual friend. She first saw him play at one of his annual shows at Merkin Concert Hall.
“The vibe or the energy, it’s almost as if you’re in a room filled with friends,” said Sluchan, who bonded with Ippolito over the New York Yankees. Each year, they attend opening day at Yankee Stadium together, where, Sluchan said, other fans recognize him from the park, and wave and smile.
A native New Yorker, Ippolito, 59, looks like he might be at home on a California beach. His skin appears freshly tanned, his slightly shaggy, blonde-gray hair somewhat windblown and untamed. Ippolito doesn’t think he’s an especially talented singer, but he’s productive, and has recorded nine albums to date.
“If I write a song and it works, it’s going on an album,” he said. “I don’t have 500 songs under the bed in a shoebox.”
On Sept. 16, 2001, the Sunday after Sept. 11, he went to the park as usual. As he played, he said, the crowd grew, maybe into the thousands. He played James Taylor songs and the theme song from “Gilligan’s Island,” with the crowd joining in. He performed his own “City Song,” an acoustic love song to New York, and when he finished everyone stood and applauded.
“It was remarkable,” he said, tearing up.
His writing became more socially-conscious after Sept. 11, but most of his songs don’t have a political message, he said. A registered independent, Ippolito dislikes politics. “OBI (Oak Beach Inn)” is a bright, horn and harmonica-infused song about his teenage party spot. “Tea Party Anthem,” set to music from Les Miserables, is a humorous takedown of the movement. He recently repurposed a song about Occupy Wall Street as a pro-Bernie Sanders anthem.
Ippolito has started diving deeper into his next creative identity: playwright. He has a few works under his belt, including a musical called “Possibility Junkie” about a musician whose song about a right-wing newscaster goes viral, which was workshopped at Theater for the New City a few years ago. His newest play is still in development but already has some industry interest. Ian Lithgow, the son of actor John Lithgow, read a part during a recent table reading, he said. Ippolito sent the script to theater producer and general manager Jeffrey Chrzczon, who passed it to actor Danny Aiello, who attended another reading at the home of playwright Gretchen Cryer, Ippolito said.
He feels this play has a future. Which might mean that his days at the park are numbered.
“I’m ready to miss it, and I know I will,” he said. “I know I will be alone someday looking out the window and crying and just missing it and aching about the days that I was in the park in the sunshine singing songs for 500 people.”