Forest Hills promoter, president gear up for concerts
by Holly Bieler
May 26, 2015 | 13793 views | 0 0 comments | 227 227 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Promoter Mike Luba and Westside Tennis Club President Roland Meier at the stadium.
Promoter Mike Luba and Westside Tennis Club President Roland Meier at the stadium.
Seated next to each other in the sprawling Forest Hills Stadium just days before the likes of Ed Sheeran and The Who are slated to take the stage, Mike Luba and Roland Meier make for an odd-looking pair.

Clad in jeans and a faded sweatshirt, a light smattering of stubble inching up his face, Luba looks every bit the Manhattan-dwelling concert promoter, which he is. The Swiss-born Meier, who has served as the West Side Tennis Club’s president since 2012, sits erect to Luba’s slight slouch, Polo perfectly pressed and his face appearing never to have hosted a stray hair in his life.

Aside from, say, a casting call for character actors to play tennis club presidents and concert promoters, one might assume the two wouldn’t have much reason to end up in the same place, let alone spend time together. However for the past two years Luba and Meier have worked in tandem to pull off the Forest Hills Concert Series, one of the most successful events to hit Queens in years.

During a tour of the stadium last week, as construction crews rushed to finish up last-minute touches to the venue before the first concert on May 28, Meier and Luba discussed how they arrived at this juncture; a road they said was paved by tremendous hard work, deep trust, and moments of incredible serendipity.

Luba said that growing up on Long Island he had always been aware of the legendary venue, which hosted music greats such as Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles beginning in the 1960s, before cost issues ultimately closed down concerts in the 90s. Working as a location scout years later, Luba was tasked with finding a unique venue for pop group Phoenix’s next New York show, and instantly remembered Forest Hills Stadium.

“I cold-called the club and Bob Ingersole [tennis director of the Westside Tennis Club] happened to pick up,” Luba recalled. “He said ‘Your timing is relatively miraculous because last night, the club voted that the stadium shouldn’t be destroyed.’”

Luba visited the club the next day, and although it was obvious the venue would need to undergo massive repairs to hold a concert, with seating largely fallen into disrepair and the grounds littered with compost piles, he says he didn’t leave discouraged.

Lingering doubts were further quelled just a few hours later, when Luba met up with old friends from his high school tennis team.

“We get together once a year and we were going around saying what we were doing, and I was like ‘Well, I’m trying to figure out how to renovate Forest Hills,’” he said. “The old captain of our team runs a giant hedge fund and was like ‘I love music, I love tennis, I’ll fund it.’ We were pretty hammered at this point, but he went home and talked to his wife, and the next day he was still in.”

Despite that early vote of confidence, the club was still hesitant, skeptical of reintroducing musical acts after a flurry of community complaints plagued the stadium in the 90s.

“Before Roland and Bob, I think the club was hesitant and fearful,” he said. “The guys in the 90s came and went and kind of did a crappy job.”

However, with the aid of a negotiating team, the club forged ahead with a deal allowing Luba to renovate the club and hold concerts, a process which solidified trust between the two.

“We took an incredible amount of meetings,” said Meier. “I think the trust was established during the negotiations because it was a give-and-take anyways.”

Still, Luba says there was always a fear that his risk could ultimately be for naught.

“The speech [to investors] was you have to be willing to take the money [for renovations], put it in a suitcase, and torch it,” he said. “Because it wasn’t even like we were starting with zero, we were starting at less than zero. At that point, we could have been in for one show, and if it didn’t work out, the community could have shut it down.”

It was a risky gambit, he concedes, which was assuaged a bit by his trust in Meier. “I trusted him from day one,” Luba says.

After millions of dollars in repairs, including replacing new seating, adding guardrails and patching up concrete throughout the stadium, the series opened with a Mumford & Sons concert in August 2013 to sold-out crowds.

That concert and the venue’s first series last year, which featured bands such as The Zac Brown Band, has not been without controversy. Last summer, numerous residents complained about noise and crowding issues, and the Department of Environmental Protection issued a noise violation during an encore by The Replacements.

However the public reaction ahead of this year’s concerts appears to be considerably more tepid, especially in light of new sound mitigation measures that have been installed throughout the venue.

As crews finish up those measures and tend to a host of other fixes before Ed Sheeran and The Who kick off the series this weekend, both Meier and Luba said they’re looking towards the club’s future.

Perhaps they’ll install an ice-skating rink in the winter, Luba said, or host smaller classical musical events, posited Meier.

“The next step would be a master plan,” said Meier. “What are we going to use this structure for? We know now we have concerts, tennis, but we could also have a museum here or squash courts.”

As of now, though, they’re focused on making sure this year’s events are as good as they can be. They’ve just launched an internship program, Luba said, which local students are welcome to apply for. And they want to see the last of the series’ tickets scooped up, with a few remaining tickets available for most shows, an irony not lost on either.

“It went from complete and total fear [in the community] to now people assume every show is sold out,” said Luba.

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