It was the biggest birthday bash of the decade. The Statue of Liberty turned 100 in 1986, and became the centerpiece of a four-day Liberty Weekend extravaganza unlike anything Americans had seen before. Although Miss Liberty's actual birthday was in October, the celebration was scheduled to coincide with Independence Day, July 4. But before she could preside over the festivities Miss Liberty needed a facelift. Chaired by Lee Iacocca, the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation collected $250 million in private donations to spend on renovations.
For a nation of immigrants and descendants of immigrants the statue remained the single most potent symbol of what America stood for -- a new beginning for the world's "huddled masses." The melting pot nature of the nation's 240 million population was an enduring strength. According to 1980 census figures, nearly 50 million Americans (22 percent) were of English ancestry, while 49 million claimed a German heritage. There were 40 million with Irish roots (twelve times Ireland's population), 21 million African-Americans, 13 million of French descent, 12 million Italian-Americans, 10 million with a Scottish background, 8.2 million Polish-Americans and 7.7 million Mexican-Americans.
The statue's restoration took five years and proved to be a grueling engineering and architectural challenge. An immense scaffold was erected around the 12-story edifice so that workers could scrub clean every exterior inch of the copper "Mother of Exiles." The original torch flame had been replaced in 1916; now the replacement was removed and a new copper flame covered with one pound of 24-karat gold leaf was secured in its place. A lot of interior work had to be done;layers of interior paint were removed with liquid nitrogen, the 1,800 armature bars securing the copper exterior to its superstructure were replaced with steel bars, and an open spiral staircase replaced the old enclosed stair tower. The monumental task required the efforts of four top architectural and engineering firms, a host of contracters, and an army of 500 highly skilled laborers. Ellis Island, a half-mile away, was also refurbished. Long abandoned, the 33-building complex through which 17 million immigrants had passed would reopen with an exhibition area and conference center.
The $32 million Liberty Weekend gala was orchestrated by producer David Wolper, whose credits included Roots, The Thorn Birds, North and South and numerous documentaries, as well as the opening and closing ceremonies of the 1984 Olympics. Broadcast rights were sold to ABC for $10 million, and the network sold $30 million worth of commercial spots. The event was kicked off on July 3, with nearly 3,000 restoration sponsors and 1,000 members of the media from 40 nations joining President Reagan on Governors Island for Miss Liberty's grand unveiling, while celebrities like Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor and Neil Diamond participated in the salute. At Ellis Island, Chief Justice Warren Burger administered the oath of citizenship to 13,000 people via satellite feed from three cities. That evening Reagan pressed a button which sent a mile-long laser beam across New York Harbor from Governors Island to Liberty Island to activate Miss Liberty's floodlights. The president then led a chorus of "America the Beautiful" and presented Medals of Liberty to twelve naturalized Americans, including Irving Berlin, Bob Hope, Henry Kissinger, Dr. Albert Sabin and Itzhak Perlman.
On July 4, Reagan boarded the battleship USS Iowa to watch 33 naval vessels from fourteen nations pass in review and fire 21-gun salutes. Then 22 tall ships sailed majestically up the Hudson River. That night, a $2 million fireworks display -- 20 tons of pyrotechnics launched from 42 barges -- illuminated the sky above Miss Liberty for a magical half-hour. The following day, Nancy Reagan led 100 French and American schoolkids on the first tour through the renovated statue, while a two-day conference on the meaning of liberty got underway at New York's Marriott Marquis. On Sunday, July 6, sports legends Muhammad Ali, Billie Jean King and Hank Aaron participated in a spectacle at the Meadowlands Sports Complex, where Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill and others put on a skating exhibition. That evening, closing ceremonies employed a cast of 12,000 including Charlton Heston, Willie Nelson, Gene Kelly, the Four Tops and the Pointer Sisters, as well as 200 Elvis impersonators, a gospel choir, a drill team, 300 jazzercise dancers, 200 square dancers, and the Statue of Liberty All-American Marching Band.
As host for Liberty Weekend, New York City accommodated 6 million spectators. For security purposes, 75 Coast Guard vessels patrolled the bay while police helicopters circled overhead and 15,000 NYPD officers worked extra hours to keep the peace ashore. Everyone wanted to share in the bounty; prostitutes in Uncle Sam costumes tried to entice 20,000 foreign sailors who were in port for the occasion, while drug pushers offered joints rolled in red, white and blue paper.
According to at least one analysis, the renovation of Miss Liberty served as a metaphor for the restoration of the American Dream that, according to Reagan and his supporters, had occurred in the 1980s. The U.S. had been redeemed from the economic doldrums of the previous decade, which had also witnessed the peoples' loss of faith in themselves and in their government. Miss Liberty became "a monument to the values espoused by Ronald Reagan." But others argued that the American Dream as envisioned by the president and sold in the Liberty fund-raising advertisements was a myth.
There were some who criticized the shlock and glitz of the pageant, considering it to be, as Time's Richard Stengel put it, the "most overdone pseudo-event in history." They complained that the gala was more about making money than celebrating freedom. Skeptics relished polls showing that a majority of Americans wanted immigration quotas reduced. Illegal immigration was a hot topic at the time, with over 1 million illegal aliens arrested annually. (The same poll revealed that the Statue of Liberty was the public's favorite national symbol, surpassing even Old Glory.) David Wolper was compared to P.T. Barnum, though he shunned any personal profit from the event. Excessive or not, Liberty Weekend was an event to remember. A world audience of 1.5 billion people watched as the refurbished Statue of Liberty presided over a celebration of America's past and future, "keeping faith," as Reagan said, "with a dream of long ago and guiding millions still to a future of peace and freedom." Perhaps the most telling image of the entire affair was the photo of an Italian-American worker balanced on scaffolding and leaning over to kiss Miss Liberty's forehead.