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How Princess Diana’s NYC trip put Brooklyn on the map in 1989

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In February 1989, Princess Diana came to Brooklyn.

The 27-year-old royal arrived via motorcade to Fort Greene to attend a performance by the Welsh National Opera at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It was part of a historic solo tour that included her famous visit to Harlem Hospital depicted in Season 4 of “The Crown,” where she held young AIDS patients.

Yet the idea of a princess crossing the bridge to attend an event in Brooklyn was almost as shocking as her Harlem stop. “CBS Evening News” ran an incredulous segment about the outer-borough jaunt, juxtaposing Di’s glamorous image with shots of homeless people, dilapidated buildings and broken sewers.

“We were so excited that we were getting national television coverage,” recalled Karen Brooks Hopkins, BAM’s former president and its chief fundraiser at the time, describing how the staff had pitched in to buy a little black-and-white TV so they could watch it at work. “Then the segment opens and [Dan Rather] is showing garbage on the streets of Brooklyn and asking, ‘Why is Princess Di coming here?’ We were shattered!”

In 1989 Princess Diana stunned the world by attending a performance by the Welsh National Opera at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
In 1989 Princess Diana stunned the world by attending a performance by the Welsh National Opera at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
AP

Brooks Hopkins details the moment in her new book, “BAM … And Then It Hit Me” (PowerHouse Books), out March 1, which looks back at her 36 years at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Diana’s visit, she said, was an extra special memory.

“For a princess, coming to Brooklyn was stepping outside the comfort zone of high society at the time,” Brooks Hopkins told The Post. Her royal seal of approval “changed everything for us, for Brooklyn.” 

It started in 1988, with BAM prepping to launch its first opera season with a gala and performance of “Falstaff” by the Welsh National Opera. Brooks Hopkins had to figure out a way to sell enough tickets to fund the ambitious production.

Karen Brooks Hopkins was BAM’s president and its chief fundraiser at the time of the visit.
Karen Brooks Hopkins was BAM’s president and its chief fundraiser at the time of the visit.

“Brooklyn then was not the Brooklyn we know now,” she explained. “Getting people to cross the bridge to come to a show was a job.” 

That’s when the Welsh Opera’s general director told her Princess Diana was a patron, and he would invite her to the show. Brooks Hopkins didn’t quite believe he could get the most famous woman in the world to Kings County, so she was shocked when, a few weeks later, she got a call telling her to ready herself for a royal visit.

“This was an invitation that came to the right girl at the right time,” Brooks Hopkins said of Diana, who married Prince Charles in 1981. “I think she was ready for her solo trip where she could be the center of attention and do it her way.” 

Princess Diana was a patron of the Welsh National Opera (above, performing “Falstaff” at BAM).
Princess Diana was a patron of the Welsh National Opera (above, performing “Falstaff” at BAM).

On Feb. 2, the day of the gala, Diana’s private detail descended upon BAM, along with the FBI, Scotland Yard and the NYPD, all bringing bomb-sniffing dogs and mandating metal detectors. The princess was given her own dressing area, complete with a private bathroom and shower. (The crew discovered that someone had “absconded with the royal toilet seat” from her room a day later, Brooks Hopkins said. They never found the culprit.)

When the princess’ car finally arrived, Diana came out — a stunning vision in a white silk strapless gown, with brocade bodice and matching shrug.

“We were overwhelmed,” Brooks Hopkins recalled. “She was so gorgeous.” Brooks Hopkins greeted her, curtsied and ushered her inside through the stage door and then up the backstage elevator, where she met the other staffers.

Diana's visit helped the opera sell out its entire five-night run. Meanwhile, someone stole the toilet seat from her private dressing room (the culprit was never found).
Diana’s visit helped the opera sell out its entire five-night run. Meanwhile, someone stole the toilet seat from her private dressing room (the culprit was never found).
Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images

“She was so nice to us and asked us questions about BAM,” Brooks Hopkins said, adding that she displayed an enthusiasm and eagerness so rarely found in celebrities. “We had walkie talkies, and she wanted us to show her how they worked and thought it was funny. I knew that the event would be a success.”

Outside, protestors shouted about the Troubles in Northern Ireland as limos lined the street and elegant guests poured into the theater and took their seats. Mayor Ed Koch wore a cheap suit instead of the mandatory tux. (“Apparently, he had been on the way to a Democratic Party fundraiser at the Waldorf,” Brooks Hopkins writes.) Even Donald Trump made an appearance, though Brooks Hopkins said her staff later had to chase him down for his money.

As the curtain went up, the orchestra played “The Star Spangled Banner” and “God Save the Queen,” and Diana made her grand entrance. “Everyone is standing, everyone is wearing black, and then she enters her royal box, wearing white, and a gasp goes up from the crowd. The drama!”

BAM
Diana’s visit to BAM was part of her historic solo tour.

The opera sold out its entire five-night run.

“I don’t want to take away from the production, which was great, but Princess Di put it over the top [in terms of sales],” Brooks Hopkins said. The gala raised $1 million in one night, more than double the amount BAM’s biggest fundraisers brought in at the time.

In August 1997, when she heard the news of Diana’s death, Brooks Hopkins and her colleagues were devastated.

“We all felt like we had lost a friend — we felt so connected to her,” she said.

“It’s so great that she came to Brooklyn; another person might have been snobbier about it, but she was not like that. She wasn’t just going to do the traditional things, and that was kind of her whole image.”



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