Midnight madness strikes 'Harry' fans

New York correspondent Sam Thielman sacificed his Friday night to spend it with a host of Muggles at one of the larger release parties for “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.” Here’s his report from the frontlines.

I am discussing literature with Eliot Kaufmann, 11, Jude Costello, 11, and Phoebe Costello, 8. All four of us have studied the previous six Harry Potter books with academic rigor and are confident that:

  • Harry will not die.

  • Snape is actually good.

  • Voldemort will totally bite it.

The three of them will be on their way to Maine for a family vacation this time tomorrow, but they will “read the book for seven hours, cry for three hours, and then we’re there!” according to Eliot.

It’s a little before 10PM on Friday night, and we are four of what must be several thousand people standing outside the Union Square Barnes & Noble in Gotham, one of the chain’s largest outlets and ground zero for a Potter release, with actors dressed up as Dumbledore and Hagrid and guest readings by Broadway actor Jim Dale, who recorded the audiobook.

At the box-office last week, children (of both the literal and figurative type) mobbed multpliexes. This weekend it’s the bookstores’ turn, as Scholastic releases “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” the seventh and final book in the record-breaking franchise.

A large purple double-decker bus arrives with the words “The Knight Bus” painted on it. What is it carrying, though? No one gets out for a few minutes. “It has books in it,” says Eliot. All of us hope that he’s right.

At about 10:15, the harried-looking fire marshal starts letting people into the bookstore. Jude, Phoebe, and Eliot discover that you have to have a gold wristband in order to get a book this evening, but as the store has filled, the criterion has changed from “to get a book” to “to enter the store.” The kids aren’t allowed inside. They, their aunt Anna and the family from Louisiana in front of me disappointedly walk away from the store, presumably to another Barnes and Noble.

I go inside, with my wristband, number 642. All around me are people in robes – formal, everyday, Quidditch – people dressed up as specific characters from the books, and people dressed as creatures from the books, including a strange horselike beast involving a great deal of foam rubber and stilts for all four limbs. He is from Alice Farley Dance Theater, I’m told. I hope he is getting time and a half.

A group of smiling Quidditch players cheerfully grants me an interview – Adrienne Dee, a happy-looking 28-year-old woman with bobbed black hair, glasses, and Hufflepuff robes seems to be the leader of the pack. She’s affianced to Erik Olsen, a Gryffindor, and started reading the books “a week after 9/11.”

“I was depressed,” says Dee. “I needed something and my mother forced me to read the first one.”

I continue to wander. Headmaster Albus Dumbledore, played by a man who is not quite Michael Gambon but makes up for it in enthusiasm, is trotting merrily from facepainting booth to wand-making seminar, smiling and letting people go ahead of him down the escalator with a flourish. His costume and Hagrid’s are arguably better than the costumes in the movies. He speaks with an atrocious parody of an English accent, but the real genius of the plan becomes apparent when he is called upon to do crowd control. “All right, everyone!” he shouts merrily. “Make way, make way! Pretend you are at number 12, Grimmauld Place, and the walls are closing in on you! Squeeze, my friends! You’re doing wonderfully!” Other employees have become apathetic and snappish by this point in the evening, but not Albus. An angry cop had to cart off a recalcitrant teenage boy in handcuffs earlier, but Dumbledore appears to exude far more authority than a badge and handgun. Perhaps it’s the beard.

At 12:01,. Potterites throng the stage where, at the final stroke (the crowd counts down not from 10, which you can do on any old New Year, but from 30) Dale opens a copy of the book, flips quickly to the last page, and looks comically horrified for the cameras. The first 250 people to get their wristbands have lined up at the registers, and the chime of 12:01 is like a starter pistol.

Number 642 finally manages to cram his way into the music department, walk through the endless (but fast-moving) line, and purchase a copy of the book. My roommate, from whom I have been separated, meets me outside. It’s 12:37.

The train back to Queens, where I live, is very, very quiet. There is an entire section of the car in which everyone, including me, is sitting quietly and reading, pausing only to threaten the lives of the aspirationally humorous who burst out “Ron’s dead! Only joking.” The train’s conductor makes a joke about the bat-bogey hex over the PA at 57th St. When I leave the train in Astoria, one of the riders notes that “tonight, everyone’s going to stay in to have a good time.” He’s probably right.

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