In Central Park, Snacks, Quacks, Plaques & Tracks

More than 275 bird species have been seen in the park, many of them in the Ramble, ranked among the top bird-watching spots in the nation.
More than 275 bird species have been seen in the park, many of them in the Ramble, ranked among the top bird-watching spots in the nation. (By Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)
By Anne McDonough
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 6, 2007

Even born-and-bred New Yorkers don't know everything about Central Park. For example, despite growing up just blocks from the park, I've yet to see a match of the New York Lawn Bowling Club (founded in 1926), whose members compete May through mid-October on a manicured space north of Sheep Meadow. Here are 10 other ways to get acquainted with the park on your next trip to New York.

1. Meet celebs. You don't need to head to Broadway to catch the crews from "Avenue Q" and "Wicked." Nope, just hang out at the Heckscher ball fields in the park's southern section, where for more than 50 years, the Broadway Show League -- actors, stagehands and other theater types -- has played softball. Games are Thursdays from about 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., from April through the middle of August. Just grab a spot in the stands and watch the theater folks pitch, hit and slide.

Actor Matthew Broderick helped kick off the 2007 softball season last month, the first following a $3 million restoration of the fields; his team won the league championship last season. On Thursday at about 11:15 a.m., cast members from "Jersey Boys" will sing the national anthem; Darlene Love ("Hairspray") and Boyd Gaines ("Journey's End") are among the other actors expected.

Then there are the local celebrities, such as the park's honorary mayor, a tan, mustachioed 92-year-old named Alberto Arroyo, who claims to be the first person to run around the Reservoir, back in the 1930s. "I know every inch of Central Park," he said last week from his perch on the south end of the Reservoir. Built between 1858 and 1862 and covering a wide area from 86th to 96th Street in the middle of the park, the Reservoir is surrounded by a 1.58-mile track used by runners and camera-toting tourists every day of the week. Arroyo can be found sitting here most days with his walker. He happily takes credit for every jogger who passes by, most of whom wave or stop to say hello.

Perhaps fewer people approach Thoth, another park regular whose look and sound pretty much defy characterization. Last Sunday, I found him -- dressed in a short red silk robe, strappy sandals and a black and red feather headdress -- in the Bethesda Terrace Arcade, part of a series of terraces and archways mid-park near 72nd Street. Chances are you'll hear Thoth before you see him, as he uses the arcade's incredible acoustics to "prayform" his "soloperas," a sort of yowling accompanied by violin, hand bell and foot-stamping.

By the way, while you're in the arcade, look up. The ceiling's 15,876 19th-century tiles, which were removed in the 1980s, were restored and unveiled in March. The $7 million restoration is yet another indication of how the park, under the stewardship of the nonprofit Central Park Conservancy, has transformed from the graffiti-ridden, lawless space of the '60s, '70s and early '80s into the elegant park it is today. New York Police Department statistics show that crime complaints citywide are down 74 percent since 1993; Central Park complaints for the same period are down 84 percent.

2. Go skate-dancing. You can skate throughout much of the park (see Page P7 for rental details), but only at mid-park, near the Mall and the bandshell area, can you shake, bop and groove to funk and house music.

"If you're not skating, check your pulse -- you might be dead," someone called out as DJs Nick Johnson and Andre Collins played for the crowd last Sunday afternoon in the park's Skate Circle. It's free, and anyone with skates (in-line or four-wheeled) is welcome; you just have to keep moving to the beat. From about 2:30 to 6:30 p.m. on weekends from April through October, skaters go 'round and 'round the DJs' gear. Last weekend there were a few obvious newbies, but everyone else -- 30-somethings in shorts, a bare-chested man with billowing peach-colored pants, a lithe woman in braids, bandanna and skin-tight jeans -- swiveled to the music. It's the one place in the city you can wear spandex and a fanny pack and not be pegged a tourist. (You can't skate with bags in the Circle.)

The Central Park Dance Skaters Association ( lists times, dates and a DJ lineup -- there are 26 of them, playing everything from Latin music to R&B, reggae, house and funk -- on its Web site.

3. Take in a show. You probably know about the summer season of Shakespeare in the Park at the Delacorte Theater. But you may not know that the circa-1876 schoolhouse just next door is home to an equally inspired troupe: a cast of wildly creative puppets and their human crew.

Yes, it's geared toward young children, and I don't have any. But last Sunday's matinee of "Cinderella Samba" at the Swedish Cottage Marionette Theatre was one of the best shows I've seen in ages. I joined about 60 preschoolers, their parents and four puppeteers in the tiny theater near 79th Street and loved every minute of the hour-long production.

Theater staff members demonstrate how the marionettes work, and then the show begins, with the carnival king explaining that the prince will choose the carnival princess at a samba contest. It follows the same lines as the children's fairy tale, but with a South American flavor and tiny, stunning sets.

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