In 1984, our college jazz band leader informed the group that we would be performing at the Kings Park Psychiatric Center. We were the Suffolk County Community College Jazz Band led by the well-respected and legendary jazz musician Sonny Dallas. At the time, the Kings Park Psychiatric Center was still an open and functioning psychiatric center. This was long before the ghost stories began. This was a time period in which there were other types of stories that circulated about the institute. It’s hard to decipher which stories were true and which ones were simply made up. However, those stores did resonate among Long Islanders and it caused a great deal of trepidation among us college students when we were told that we would be performing at the Kings Park Psychiatric Center. In fact, I don’t remember calling it the Kings Park Psychiatric Center back in the old days. The center actually had a plethora of nick names that will be respectfully refrained from naming in this article.
In reality, the Kings Park Psychiatric Center was one of Long Island’s four state mental institutions. For most of the twentieth century these four institutions housed thousands of mentally ill and disabled patients. Eventually, the state closed all the facilities and began housing patients and those who could not take care of themselves in small group homes. It’s a rather complex and detailed history that is to deep for the scope of this article. However, the simple point is all the state psychiatric centers have been closed. Nonetheless, this is the story of what it was like to perform at the center for the patients.
It was a twenty-five piece jazz band that boarded the bus at the college and headed towards the Kings Park Psychiatric Center. Most of the students were between the ages of 17 and 20. There were a few of us in our early twenties who were simply just playing in the band for the opportunity to learn from the great Sonny Dallas. Our bass player Bruce, was much older than the rest of us. For lack of a better term, Bruce was a little crazy and he seemed to be the only one not worried about playing at the center.
When our bus arrived at the Kings Park Psychiatric Center, a hospital administrator boarded the bus and began to go over the rules we needed to follow once we entered the building. We were told to walk quickly through the side door of the building and head straight into the theater doors across from the side entrance. We were told not to hesitate or look down the halls. Just keep our eyes focused on the doors and move quickly into the theater. If any patients began to yell at us or make comments, we were sternly advised to ignore them and keep moving. Well, this did nothing to alleviate any apprehensions at all.
We left the bus and lined up to enter the building in our black pants and white dress shirts. As a piano player, I was usually lucky enough to not have to carry a piano. However, I always got stuck carrying a drum for one of the percussionist. As the band entered the building, the students quickly moved across the hall into the theater. I heard some howls ahead of me before I entered the building. As soon as the drummer and I walked through the outside entrance into the hallway, we heard a very loud scream. I juggled the bass drum and did exactly what I was told not to do. I looked down the hallways directly into the eyes of a very tall man with super long gray hair wearing some sort of white gown. He began running towards me screaming wildly. I dropped the drum instantly and ran into the theater leaving the drum and drummer behind me.
Once we were on the stage and warmed up, the administrators began letting the patients and residents into the theater. I watched everyone closely as they found their seats. It was not what I expected, especially after the experience I had in the hallway. Most of the people who came into the theater were quite. There was a sadness and somewhat blank look on their faces. Some were a little active but for the most part it was a pretty solemn audience that entered the hall. That all changed as the band began to play.
Music therapy has become an important part of the mental health care system. For those looking for some inspiring reading and a look into the power of music for therapeutic use, I would strongly recommend Oliver Sacks 2007 book Musicophilia. That 1984 spring day I saw first hand the impact music can have therapeutically. Once our band began to play, the hall exploded into joy. The same faces that seemed so sad and sat motionless in their seats were now smiling, clapping, and cheering. We were a 25 piece big band conducted by the great Sonny Dallas. We may have been just a college band, but we had a powerful sound that was completely uplifting to anyone. Sonny Dallas was an amazing musician and conductor. His jazz big bands were always great. The whole dynamic of that hall in the Kings Park Psychiatric Center changed when it became engulfed in the great joyous sound of big band swinging jazz.
We performed about ten songs that spring afternoon in 1984. Most of the songs were about ten minutes long with solos. Add in the onstage banter, and the show rounded out to be about two hours long. Most of the show went on without any problems. Our initial fears of performing at the center turned out to be redundant. However, there was one moment when we almost lost control of the audience and a near riot almost ensued. There was a small tango section in the middle of one of the jazz pieces that we performed. Our band had a female lead singer named Lenore. During the tango section, I would usually jump off the piano, grab Lenore and then dance the tango with her across the stage. We had done it a few times at previous concerts and it always went over well with the audiences. It was fun to do and at that time in my life I was pretty much a better dancer than I was a piano player, so it sort of felt like my saving grace in the band. However, at that concert when I jumped of the piano and grabbed Lenore, the audience at the Kings Park Psychiatric Center went wild. The patients began screaming intensely loud. Some of them were running up and down the aisles. A few ran towards the stage but were stopped by orderlies. I cut the dance short with Lenore and ran and hid behind my piano. All Lenore had to hide behind was a microphone stand. It was pretty intense for a few minutes, but like the band in the Titanic, we kept playing until it all calmed down.
At the time, we were unaware of the separate buildings that formed the Kings Park Psychiatric Center complex. We had actually performed in building 80 which was known as York Hall. The center was located in the town of Kings Park, Long Island. Kings Park is a North Shore town in between the towns of Smithtown and Northport. The grounds in which all the buildings were located were at one time beautifully landscaped. In the present day, the buildings still exist, but are a mere shell of what they used to be.
This issues of asbestos and other hazardous materials have proven to become great obstacles in any plans for redevelopment of the grounds. For now, it simply looks like a ghost town or war-torn city. It’s hard to imagine that the grounds that are so devastated in the present, functioned as a state mental health facility that employed thousands of people in a complex of over twenty-five buildings. There are many stories that have come out of the history of the hospital. Inevitably, most of them are sad and tragic. However, for two hours on one spring afternoon in 1984, we hopefully made some people feed good at least for a few minutes. And who knows how long that may have lasted. I for one, have never forgotten,
Kings Park Psychiatric Center Performance Recordings
“Brazilian Fantasy,” was our opening number at the Kings Park Psychiatric Center. I recorded this with a small tape cassette recorder. I would have to believe that the tapes I recorded that day may be the only surviving audio recordings of any musical performances at the Kings Park Psychiatric Center. I have never found anything else like this on the internet. You can really hear the sound of that large hall in the natural reverb present on the recording. Just hearing Sonny Dallas count the band in and respond to the audience reactions at times is such an interesting listen. These tapes give the reader an actual audio window into the sounds of the Kings Park Psychiatric Center Hall.