After Thoughts -- June 2002
From the Chattanooga Times Free Press, Monday, June 4, 2002 (See reprint of Sid Hetzler's editorial below, in response to this story, published in the Chattanooga paper as guest commentary, Sunday, June 10, 2002 ).
Riverbend Festival celebrates 20 years
By Barry Courter
Associate Features Editor
Sometimes, the simplest of ideas can turn into something grand.
The 1982 brochure for the inaugural Riverbend Festival reads: "Our purpose is to bring Chattanoogans from all walks of life together to have a good time and to savor the good things in our city and our cultural life."
The festival, which kicks off its 20th year on Friday, has grown and gone through more changes than Madonna's hair, but it would be hard to argue that Riverbend has failed to achieve its original goal over the last 20 years.
"The bottom line is that it was always about bringing people together," said City Councilwoman Sally Robinson, a longtime Friends of the Festival board member. "It wasn't about music or revitalization or anything else that it has become."
"It turned into an awakening of what it meant to be a Chattanoogan," she said. "Whether you lived in Red Bank, on Signal Mountain or Lookout Mountain, or whatever your mailing address was, we were all from Chattanooga again."
Chattanoogan Angie Sherrill said she has taken her family to Riverbend almost every year since it began.
"We like going just to see all the different people," she said. "I think it has been a wonderful thing for the city."
Over the last two decades, performers including Ray Charles, Cab Calloway, Bill Cosby, Alabama, Arlo Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Little Richard, Al Green, Bernadette Peters and former Eagle Glenn Frey have performed on the festival's main stage.
And since the beginning of Riverbend, the Bessie Smith Strut has drawn people of all walks of life to M.L. King Boulevard for a huge outdoor barbecue and blues party.
"It was very important that we moved that to MLK, and it wasn't even that we knew who Bessie Smith was," Mrs. Robinson said. "It was because we wanted to take the festival to the people, especially people who might not come to the riverfront."
THE EARLY YEARS
The first Riverbend Festival took place in August 1982 in various locations around town. It featured more than music, though music was the anchor.
The event came about after several community leaders began looking at ways to have some fun and bring people together. A Lyndhurst Foundation grant paid for the original study.
"This was pretty cutting-edge thinking then," said attorney Nelson Irvine, the original executive committee's secretary. "The early discussion was about whether we could do this in Chattanooga. Different groups weren't working together the way they do now. This helped foster that."
The idea for anchoring the festival at Ross's Landing on the river did not come until later. There was no good reason to visit Ross's Landing at that time, and few people did, Mrs. Robinson said.
"It wasn't that it was at Ross's Landing because it was a beautiful park. It was not. Plus, it had a four-lane highway running through it, for goodness sake," she said.
Chamber music concerts were held at the Tivoli Theatre, a hot-air balloon carrying a brass band was launched from Vine Street on the UTC campus and Engel Stadium hosted three fund-raising concerts, all of which lost money.
Ross's Landing eventually was chosen as the primary festival site because "that is where the city began," according to Mr. Robbins.
Exactly what the new festival should be also was under discussion. Mrs. Robinson said many on the board felt the event should mirror arts festivals such as Spoleto in Charleston, S.C. Several organizers went to Charleston in 1981 with then-Mayor Pat Rose to take a look at Spoleto.
Riverbend had an early emphasis on classical music, Mr. Irvine said.
As it turned out, getting people to attend was the easy part, organizers said. Convincing some organizers the event needed to have broader appeal, beyond traditional patrons of arts functions, was the tougher sell, Mrs. Robinson said.
"We found that people just needed an excuse to drop their guard and get out and mix and mingle," she said. "We were astonished at how quickly it took off. We had a hard time selling it to some older people who felt it was risky getting all those people together. There were also some who thought it should be like Spoleto, but those artistic needs were being met better in other ways."
"What we didn't have was an event that appealed in a broad way to all of the citizens," Mr. Robbins said.
The first festival, which was in August and ran from Tuesday to Sunday, included an experimental film series at the Hunter Museum of American Art, a patron's cruise on the Southern Belle, organ recitals at two downtown churches and a fiddle competition.
The Chattanooga-Hamilton County Bicentennial Library hosted events for kids, and a children's film festival was held at Kirkman High School. Downtown businesses such as the Brass Register, the Gazebo, Dr. Sage's and Scrappy's, all now closed, were listed on festival programs as places to go after the music at Ross's Landing.
There have been many changes over the years, including the dropping of daytime activities such as the Children's Festival, the film series and the boat/ski/jet ski races on the river.
"We have always been willing to change and adjust," Mrs. Robinson said. "Some things just didn't work."
Riverbend Festival 2002 starts Friday and continues uninterrupted through June 16. For the first time in more than a decade, there will be no night off.
More than 100 artists, including street performers, local musicians, regional acts and international superstars will perform.
More than 500,000 people are expected to attend and pump almost $14.8 million into the local economy, according to Executive Director Chip Baker.
Those who helped get Riverbend started said they like to feel they played a part in the revitalization of downtown, even if that was not their intent.
"It certainly provided an outlook and a focus for people to get energized about the city itself, and it brought a lot of people together," Mr. Irvine said. "That's the beauty of this. It brings us all together and helps us to trust and know each other.
"It is way more than a party with good-time music."
E-mail Barry Courter at bcourter [@] timesfreepress.com
Sid Hetzler's response, published in Perspective section, page F2, Sunday, June 10, 2002:
The Riverbend Festival after 20 Years (Commentary with photo)
Your newspaper's June 4th story on the 20th anniversary of the Riverbend Festival with interviews of Nelson Irvine and Mickey Robbins, two of the original four founders, and Sally Robinson about the festival's origin and early years raises more questions than it answers about why we bothered to start a town festival in Chattanooga.
The whole story is actually much more complex, but the article covered some of the essential points and made it clear that Riverbend was created in 1982 by a group of local people, not a New York arts consultant for the 1981 Five Nights in Chattanooga series. This has confused many people, including the Riverbend staff, for a long time and I hope at some point an accurate history will be given that includes the key role of numerous local people and organizations. My own notes and archives, from my time in 1980-81 as chairman of the organizing committee, are available to the curious.
For me, the shift from talk in 1980, after visits to Charleston's Spoleto and Austria's Salzburg festivals, to action began with the May 5, 1981 draft proposal that Mickey Robbins and I submitted to Rick Montague at the Lyndhurst Foundation for a study grant. We certainly focused on the then "after six" empty downtown as a primary problem that a town arts festival would address as well as the proposed festival's essential artistic nature. It was not to be a commercial event, as Mrs. Robinson was quoted as saying, merely one to "bring people together."
Our ideas about a festival for Chattanooga were never so simplistic. We emphasized
about 10 major goals, ranging from economic development to celebrating local artists to improved racial relations.
Most of the founders seem to have forgotten that the Lyndhurst Foundation generously funded an extensive research process in the summer of 1981 that included Mayor Rose's visit to Charleston's Spoleto Festival USA, a New York consultant's research, "The Making of a Festival," and several local planning seminars led by newly arrived UTC drama professor Fred Beringer.
This process resulted in a document, "Proposal for Funding to Establish a Chattanooga Festival," that we all agreed in November 1981 would be our consensus recommendation to the Lyndhurst for funding policy and philosophical guidelines. Had it been followed, we would have had the kind of wide ranging, diverse, culturally significant town festival that numerous cities around the world have produced with visionary artistic, political and economic leadership.
Even within the small group of people who struggled with the idea of a larger scale festival than ever before attempted in Chattanooga, except for several in the 1890s, conflict quickly emerged over its idea, purposes, and volunteer and professional leadership. This has never been resolved.
It seems to me the nature of a town festival is to contain conflicting ideas and activities within its structure.
I call this a "festival of differences," which is why Charleston's Spoleto Festival was and is an important model for me and others who visited it in its early years in this country. To me, Riverbend remains more a "festival of sameness," a festival of limited variety compared to other town festivals, such as Salzburg, that showcase all arts forms and artists and many other activities in many venues.
These and other various documents are available from any of us on the founding committee and possibly at the Riverbend office. You can see a full copy of the May 5 proposal from which all the effort stemmed on my web site for my electronic book, "The Idea of Festival," at: http://www.splittree.org/STFPress.htm (use caps). This includes excerpts from the November proposal and other useful historical documents and sources, including articles from your newspaper that reflect the continuing arguments over the origin and intentions of the founding members.
Having had the good fortune to be able to reflect more deeply on the nature and origins of festivals, such as Riverbend, in preparation for the writing of my 1990 Emory University doctoral dissertation on a theory of festivals, I urge the paper to devote more space to a series of articles that reflects the true complexity of the original Chattanooga festival creators' set of purposes and the degree to which it has fallen short of those purposes. It has not failed but has not yet succeeded.
I see two hopeful signs for positive change in this 20th Riverbend program, the gospel/no alcohol night and the new Chattanooga Symphony night, that suggest a move toward the more complex town festival that we had in mind from the beginning. It is time for the festival to move from the river front to all the city's theaters, churches, parks, streets, lobbies, and live up to its original broader vision of diversity. And it is time for the city's public leaders to consider their own role in a broadened festival that serves all the interests of the community.
As Mr. Irvine said in the article: Riverbend "is way more than a party with good-time music." But Riverbend will need more professional artistic leadership to become "way more" than the largely commercial event it has become. And it will need stronger political leadership, such as Mayor Joe Riley of Charleston has provided, to allow a festival's "art power," as Riley calls it, to be a primary engine of cultural change for the Chattanooga area. The city did not remain at the river landing, and neither should its festival.
Sid Hetzler, PhD
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Lalah Hightower, a dance friend and music therapist in Atlanta, Georgia, wrote a brief overview to readers after she helped revised the 1990 Emory dissertation in 1999 into this new, more comprehensive framework. Her comments add insight and her own framing to this book's purposes. I deeply appreciate her willingness to use her 1999 summer vacation to edit and reorganize my conclusions of ten years earlier, most of which has held up to intensive continued festival research. Some of my earlier concepts have been superceded by lessons from my own small festivals at Split Tree Farm at Chickamauga, Georgia, 15 miles south of Chattanooga.. Happily, the deep idea of festival remains a mystery, although I have made some effort to create a framing that may be helpful to those who produce and participate in festivals in any way. Each of you is invited to submit contributions to this web page book from your own experience that add your interpretation or experience of festivals to what I have offered. All versions of these works are copyrighted and none of it may be copied or distributed without written permission of Split Tree Press and myself.
If you have come to this work, it is probable that you share with me a love of festivals. Festivals are massive gatherings of like-minded folks in search of fun and entertainment. Or are they? What about festivals that draw a small but socially diverse group in search of political, intellectual or religious enlightenment? Or a medium sized ensemble who are different in background but share a common passion -- dance, perhaps, or Cajun cooking, or Shakespeare?
How can so many different kinds of group events fall under the same semantic heading? Well, this book would argue that some such gatherings shouldn't be called festivals at all.
Defining festival is one goal here; a second is learning to open our senses to the messages inherent in a festival, messages consciously and unconsciously sent by the festival organizers, messages generated from the act of "festivaling" itself.
The clearest way to learn both what a festival actually is and what a festival tells us is by looking at particular examples, formulating some reasonable hypotheses based on what is seen, and then applying these ideas to other festivals to see if they hold up. And if you are Sid Hetzler, you might also produce your own festival at his Split Tree Farm to watch the elements in interplay with one another and to learn how a festival functions and teaches and lives. And just to enjoy all the activities with good friends.
I mentioned "elements in interplay" above. The microscope used for looking closely at the first two festivals (Spoleto Festival U.S.A. in Charleston, SC, and the Riverbend Festival in Chattanooga, TN) has three eye pieces, those of place, force, and ideal. A festival, looked at dispassionately, is a complicated tangle of signs and symbols that are all related to and produced by these three things: where the festival happens (place), who is running it (force), and for what purpose (ideal). Observations about each of these things lead to an understanding of larger patterns, patterns which are then identifiable in other situations.
Initially, you'll read interviews with some of the early organizers of the Spoleto Festival U.S.A. to get a feel for the realities of a festival's beginning. Then, each festival is individually examined in light of one of the three elements. Place: in what ways does a festival's location affect how the festival is shaped? Why was this particular place chosen? What do environmental cues add to and tell us about the festival experience? Force: what is the role of an artistic director? What happens if there is no one person, no one vision, to guide the festival's development? Ideal: Is the event planned as a means of exposing attendees to new ideas or of reinforcing existing ones? Are profits a high priority? From here, later chapters draw out the broader social implications discovered from an up close look.
You may be reading this book because you, too, love to go to festivals. Does this book then represent more than you want to know? Perhaps. But your experience of the festival will be changed -- your eyes opened, even -- after reading what is contained here.
August 13, 1999
Atlanta, Georgia USA
Chattanooga Times Free-Press
|Friday, June 15, 2485|
Sticklers for pin-collecting
By Jan Galletta
A Riverbend regular from the first, Irby Park covered the festival for 17 years as a reporter and joined the ranks of its volunteers when he retired from his newspaper job in January 1999.
He never considered himself a collector of Riverbend kitsch until, in a fit of spring cleaning, he was making his drawers neat as a pin and found -- pins. There was one for every year from 1983, when festival organizers initiated the little fasten-on admission badges. He had duplicates of most.
"I had just tossed it all in a drawer,'' he said of a stash that also includes souvenir programs, vendor tokens, lanyards, parking passes and even a pair of festival-logo earrings.
"When I started getting it all organized, I decided to display the pins on the wall.''
Mounted and framed, the array runs the gamut from the earliest pins with swirling, river-wave designs to later circle-shaped emblems with fireworks and stars. Among the most eye-catching is a collection within the collection: The four different-colored triangles that were used in 1985.
This year's design, which boasts a guitar with comet detail, includes a commemorative message reminding wearers that this is Riverbend's "20th Anniversary.''
It's the creative handiwork of Lee Heidel, who has been the festival's official pin-and-poster designer since 1986.
His fellow Signal Mountain resident, Tom Davidson, 58, said his complete collection of Riverbend pins came about by accident.
"I enjoyed the first one so much that I kept going back to the festival every year, so I've got all the pins. At first, they used arm bands,'' he said.
Mr. Davidson, who served several years as a festival volunteer, sports his pins on a ball cap that he described as "my official party hat."
"I wear it all the time, not just to Riverbend,'' he said.
No stranger to pin collecting, Mr. Park, 69, has saved and swapped pins from 40 years' worth of Lions Club conventions.
He wears many of the fancier, metal variety of Lions Club pins on a heavy fleece vest, but warned, "you wouldn't want to try to go through a metal detector with that on.''
The Riverbend pins are mere plastic. But with time, they have earned a niche in the collectors market, according to Mr. Park.
"They (the Friends of the Festival organizers) had a pin-valuation chart a couple of years ago, and I wrote down the estimated prices,'' he said.
According to his chart, the first Riverbend pin fetches from $80-$100. At $60, second-priciest is 1984's triple-wave pin in red, blue and white. But the chart suggests that even the most recent year's renditions are worth $20, if only a buyer can be found.
Mr. Davidson said he has never been approached about selling any of his pins, but he did trade some duplicates for what he called "steelys-- the 'uppity-up,' metal Riverbend pins.
"I wouldn't sell any of my pins. I think the Riverbend Festival is the most people-friendly thing they have in town,'' he said.
Mr. Park said he isn't interested in selling his souvenir pins either. What's more, he doesn't plan on displaying any beyond next year's model.
"I'm stopping the pin display in 2002,'' he said. "Twenty is plenty.''
E-mail Jan Galletta at jgalletta [@] timesfreepress.com
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