Suzanne Surbeck

Summer 1992. Bill Clinton is running for President. The Internet is still in its infancy, and only birds tweet.

That same summer, David Ippolito picked up his guitar and walked to New York’s Central Park. He stopped and asked a few people sitting on The Hill, overlooking the Lake’s western shore, if they would mind if he sang a few songs. They didn’t and a New York City institution was born. Now in their 20th summer and still at the same spot, albeit with a changed skyline, Ippolito’s performances are remarkably unchanged, just him and his guitar, with occasional guest singers, connecting with countless New Yorkers and visitors in a genuinely individual way.

Also untouched is his indestructible belief that this is exactly what he was meant to do, to be “That Guitar Man From Central Park.”

“Even though I didn’t know it from the very beginning, the reason I’m there, the purpose, has remained exactly the same,” he says. “On Saturday afternoon I’m supposed to be there sharing music and stories and wonderful feelings with thousands of people and that’s never changed at all.”

Writer Edward Grimm, author of “Riverside Park: The Splendid Sliver,” and his wife Flavia have been coming to The Hill for 14 years. "We love his music, his lyrics and his personality," says Grimm during one recent concert. “He involves his audience in everything he does. His music has both humor and feeling. He’s just amazing.”

Ippolito, who refers to himself as a “possibility junkie,” doesn’t like to think of the crowd as a formal audience and the weekend events as concerts. “Back in the sixties they used a word called a ‘Happening’ and that word went away but it’s the best way to describe what happens out there on a Saturday afternoon. I just happen to be the guy right in the middle of it with the guitar.”

The format of Ippolito’s “Happenings” varies little from week to week. He encourages the crowd to sing along, and tells them if they were told they couldn’t sing then they should “Sing louder!” Another trademark moment is the celebration of couples who have just been married in the Park. Many a bride and groom have danced on the sidewalk at the bottom of The Hill to Ippolito’s rendition of Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love with You” with the crowd joining in.

Another tradition is tossing granola bars to the crowd, which evolved from a day in 1992 when Ippolito tossed a package of Oreo cookies to a mother and child on The Hill. The crowd’s zealousness for the granola bars came to a new height earlier this summer when a woman missed catching one, flipping her kayak over in the Lake. Filmmaker Dean Love, who is working on a documentary about Ippolito, chivalrously came to the woman’s aid, leaping into the water to rescue her and apparently the granola bar.

“Every single weekend out there is special in its own way for different reasons,” says Ippolito. “There are two words that I’ve put together now – typically amazing. So many memorable things happen every single week that I’m out there and there’s no telling what it’s going to be.”

Along with people who come almost every weekend, many return years later. “I think the last weekend I was in New York I spent here,” says Liz Bernreuter, who had last heard Ippolito during the summer of 2000 and now lives in Phoenix, Arizona. “I have a lot of his CDs on my iPod and I enjoy listening to his tunes in the car when I’m driving around.”

This concert is her first time back. “I was in Washington on business so I figured I’d hop up here for the weekend so I could come to this. It has been so long since I was here – it was an emotional time when I left New York and it’s somewhat therapeutic to be back, by myself, just absorbing the city and my surroundings.”

One thing that is constantly evolving is Ippolito’s song selection, a combination of those written and performed by others and ones he’s created himself.

“I’m still playing classic rock and roll but over 20 years there have been a lot of great, great songs written that I didn’t write,” he says. “If I love a song, I’ll try to cover it, if I love a story I’ll try to tell it.” Ippolito’s own music includes “The People on the Hill,” ‘Tom Cruise Scares Me,” a satire on famous people in the news which has ever changing lyrics, and “City Song,” his love letter to New York.

Along with singing in the Park, Ippolito is also developing a Broadway show, which he hopes will tell his story, including his deeply felt political beliefs, through his music. Among the project’s backers is Academy and Tony Award winner Tony Walton, who, with his wife, appears in a video promoting it on Ippolito’s website.

“We’ve got 20 years worth of music that speaks to what’s going on in this country and going on in the world,” Ippolito says. “This play will tell the story of all of us I hope and by all of us I mean people of reason, people who are just trying to find their way, but it will also speak to what’s going on in the world and the country.”

And how would Ippolito sum up the last 20 years of being the guy with the guitar at the Happenings in Central Park?

“It’s a work in progress,” he says, laughing. Then he pauses, continuing “It’s been and it continues to be an amazing ride. It fills me with indescribable gratitude and indescribable wonder to have been able to do what I know I’m meant to be doing for 20 years. It’s a pretty extraordinary thing to do in a life to be ‘That Guitar Man From Central Park.’”