The candidates and their supporters swarmed through the smoky hotel convention hall, girding for battle. Jay Gitlin watched from his perch at his keyboards — not realizing he would become a musical political tool by evening’s end.
That evening provided Gitlin with an introductory lesson about town-gown relations and New Haven Democratic Party politics.
The lesson took place in 1975. Gitlin had already been studying New Haven since arriving at Yale as an undergraduate in 1967. He studied cities, and he would go on to serve as a marshal during the 1970 May Day protest that shut down the city over the Black Panther murder trial, then an historian.
His thinking has evolved considerably over the years. But he never forgot that initial political lesson from the convention gig in 1975. It reverberates in the cacophony of today’s town-gown-inflected city politics.
Gitlin recalled the 1975 lesson and spoke about his evolved take on Greater New Haven’s development during an episode of WNHH radio’s “Dateline New Haven.”
The setting for the 1975 lesson was the Park Plaza Hotel (now the Omni). The Democratic Town Committee booked a hall there to hold its mayoral nominating convention.
City conventions were more elaborate and hard-fought affairs in those days. The party put on a show. It had live music accompany candidates to the front of the room when their names were put into nomination.
On this particular night, the party’s legendary machine boss — the late Town Chairman Arthur “The Moustache” Barbieri — was orchestrating the convention to try to win the renomination of his hand-picked three-term mayor, Bart Guida.
A reform movement with heavy Yale ties was taking on the machine in earnest. It was running a Yale grad named Frank Logue to try to beat Guida.
Gitlin wasn’t involved in any of that. He was a musician. He was earning a paycheck. Bandleader Pat Dorn — whom Barbieri hired for decades to perform at political events — asked Gitlin to handle the keyboards for a four-piece combo.
Before the formal program began, Gitlin recalled, someone from Frank Logue’s campaign approached him.
“The piano player often looks like the leader of the band,” he recalled. “I often count things off. But I was not in control. The leader was Pat.”
The Logue emissary didn’t know that. “He comes over to me and says, ‘Whatever you do, when they put Frank’s name in nomination, don’t play a Yale song.’”
The reason: Guida was a townie. He resented Yale — its arrogance toward New Haveners, its expansion taking properties off the tax rolls, its hippies and protesters causing headaches for his cops. Guida represented the voting majority in those attitudes.
Many in Logue’s campaign — included Old Blue Logue himself — had Yale connections. The campaign didn’t want to play up those connections.
But Barbieri did. And this was ultimately his show.
Logue’s name was put into nomination. Time to strike up the band.
“I looked up at Pat [Dorn]. Pat’s in charge. He hired me,” Gitlin recalled. “I said, ‘Pat, what should I play?’ He said, ‘Bulldog.’”
Bow wow wow it was.
The Logue camp was not amused. “I got a dirty look from everybody,” Gitlin recalled. “I shrugged: Hey, I’m getting paid. He said, ‘Play “Bulldog’” (aka the Yale fight song).
“Either Channel 8 that night or in the newspaper [reported]: ‘Even the piano player was in the pocket of the machine …’ And of course that’s true.”
Ironies abound in that story. Not just the idea that liberal Yalies they could convince townies that they were cut from the same blue-collar cloth from party delegates. But Barbieri’s role, as well. Barbieri had the ultimate townie cred: He grew up here, he controlled city patronage, he dressed like a sharpie. But less known was the fact that he too had attended Yale —though he felt like an outsider there and resented the way people looked down on him.
Logue qualified for a primary. He defeated Guida and served two two-year terms. Insider and outsider factions have continued jostling for power within the Democratic Party ever since, competing over claims to authenticity and independence from the Blue Mother.
Gitlin, meanwhile, kept gigging. He has remained here all these years pursuing a dual career: as a musician and as a researcher and teacher about cities and suburbs (among other subjects). He and his wife Ginny Bales have been playing for weddings and parties and other public events for decades as leaders of the Bales-Gitlin Band. Gitlin, meanwhile, has watched New Haven and its suburbs evolve, written some books, taught courses about it at Yale, where today he is a lecturer in history and runs the Howard R. Lamar Center for the Study of Frontiers & Borders.
Click on the above audio file or the Facebook Live video below to hear the full interview with Jay Gitlin on WNHH FM’s “Dateline New Haven,” which includes extensive discussion about urban renewal, New Haven’s development, and the relationship between cities and suburbs. The genesis of the design of the hyrda-headed Dixwell-Goffe-Whalley-Elm-Broadway-Tower Parkway intersection is also discussed. The discussion about the Park Plaza gig begins at the 43-minute mark.