Review: Presenting Legendary Concert Promoter Ron Delsener in A Terrific Doc Headed to Hamptons Film Festival
By Roger Friedman
October 2, 2023
Growing up in New York in the 70s, every rock show had this line above the star’s name: “Ron Delsener Presents.”
Now that’s the title of a terrific documentary by Jake Sumner.
Delsener, as many in the world of music know, is a little like a Jewish Leprechaun. Slight and wiry, with an offbeat acerbic sense of humor, he is a self-made man who saw what the rock concert business could be and went for it. He always has a twinkle in his eye.
In the beginning, Delsener made a deal with New York Mayor Ed Koch and launched a summer music festival on top of the Wollman ice skating rink in Central Park. Rheingold Beer was the early sponsor, but Schaefer Beer took over the event from 1968-1976. That was the golden age of rock when almost all the artists we’ve loved were established. Not one of them came to New York without doing a Delsener show.
Central Park was not Delsener’s endgame. He put rock and roll into Carnegie Hall for the first time. The Hall was the crown jewel of all New York properties. Among the groups he booked there was Chicago, which recorded its famous live album in 1971. It was Delsener who also put the Beatles in Forest Hills Tennis Stadium — one of his original venues — in August 1964 on their first tour of the States. His legacy also includes concerts at Jones Beach, bigger than ever to this day.
Several witnesses speak candidly and warmly about Delsener and the history of New York gigs including Bruce Springsteen and Stevie van Zandt, Patti Smith and Lenny Kaye, Billy Joel, and Jon Bon Jovi, who’s kept a custom-made wine bottle Delsener commissioned for him from the 1980s. Bette Midler, younger promoter Peter Shapiro, the group, KISS, and Earth Wind & Fire’s Verdine White also weigh in. Their affection for Delsener is obvious even though the concert business of the 70s and 80s is described as a kind of Mafia, with territories drawn up among rivals. Delsener controlled New York, John Scher had New Jersey, Don Law commanded Boston, and so on. The regions were specifically assigned and one the promoter stepped out of line, he was ousted and Delsener took over that spot for good.
You could think of “Ron Delsener Presents” as the flip side of Clive Davis’s “Soundtrack of Our Lives.” The two films together explain quite a bit about the record and music businesses, and how the culture rooted itself from the 60s til now. Where the two films overlap mostly is with Simon & Garfunkel. The hit recording duo wasn’t speaking in 1981 (what else is new?) but Delsener cajoled them into reuniting where else — in Central Park. The landmark concert on a September afternoon brought half a million people to the Sheep’s Meadow. A successful album and film followed and cemented Simon & Garfunkel’s legacy for a second generation. It was another crowning achievement for Delsener.
Sumner and writer Dan Crane do a very good job fleshing out Delsener’s personal life, too, with his wife Ellin, daughter Samantha, and sister Harriett– who’s always worked with him — weaving in anecdotes. There’s pretty cool animation, too, and gems of archival material.
The Critics Choice Awards should have no trouble giving “Ron Delsener Presents” something for all this good work, not to mention the Gotham Awards. Music fans will lap up all this insight and gossip, I know I did.
“Presenting Ron Delsener” had an original screening at the Tribeca Film Festival and plays this coming week at the Hamptons Film Festival before its release. Don’t miss it.