How The Riverbend Festival Really Got Its Start

Tuesday, June 9, 2009 - by Sid Hetzler

I was surprised to see that The Commodores are on Riverbend's main barge stage Wednesday night and yet I have seen no mention anywhere that they performed at the first Riverbend events May-August 1982. You'd think this would make an interesting feature story for the Festival press office to pass on to the media - if, that is, the FoF knew its own history.

I've sent out a few emails and maybe an editor will catch it for a quick human interest side bar. For me, the band's reappearance brings back good memories of Riverbend's beginnings.

An interview with this talented band, if any of the original players remain, would be an interesting tie-in to the early days of the struggling festival and to its original ideas of downtown revitalization, not just of riverfront development for investors. Now, no one seems to know what happened at Riverbend's beginning or care very much, my fellow organizers tell me. But I keep thinking those early workers should have some recognition, and I mean the first working board, not the organizing one that I chaired from June 1981-2.

The Commodores were one of three acts performing at Engel Stadium at the first Riverbend events during the summer of 1982, when the festival began. The Krystal sponsored these three events as part of its 50th anniversary, building on Lyndhurst support, and I believe co-organizers Nelson Irvine and Mickey Robbins have copies of that poster; mine burned in my August 07 home fire with other original founding records.

The other two acts were the Beach Boys on Memorial Day 1982 and Rick Springfield followed that July. Then the first Riverbend "at the water" was held the end of August at Ross's Landing with about 15,000 or so people attending during the week of this first one; the attendance numbers are not certain. Contrary to the official Riverbend history on their page, the 1981 Five Nights in Chattanooga had nothing to do with Riverbend except, in looking back, as a bad model, since the three ticketed summer acts in 1982 lost the fledgling festival about $100,000 under executive director Bruce Storey's leadership, based on comments from the first officers.

Storey produced the Five Nights concerts directly for the Lyndhurst Foundation, which later pushed our new Friends of Festival board to hire him as a promoter based on that curious no-charge experiment in urban animation to see if blacks and whites could gather without violence. The Lyndhurst's Riverbend archives make it clear Mr. Jack Lupton saw the Five Nights project as a one-time experiment but wanted the foundation out of the concert business with its potential for liability lawsuits and that a "citizen's group should be found."

There was no Five Nights connection with their support for our Friends of the Festival group, which started with a proposal from me and Mickey Robbins May 5, 1981. This won us a $26,000 planning grant, larger than another foundation test grant for a Chamber of Commerce weekend downtown festival similar to past limited efforts by the Allied Arts organization.

Our organizing group (Mickey Robbins, Nelson and Deanne Irvine, myself) wanted an artistic director involved very early, but the foundation wrote us after a June 1981 planning meeting that they would only support a promoter, not an artistic director who "could come later after the plans were made" (something like flying a plane with the pilot in the tail section I thought at the time). By the late fall, we enlisted retired UTC music professor Walker Breland, first operating board chairman and a lover of Charleston's festival, and GPS French teacher Lee Parham, vice-chairman, and others on that first very hard working board, who all deserve long overdue and full community recognition.

Several of the early organizers who still care wonder why the current Riverbend history page is not corrected to match the real history, which started with my/our efforts in 1980 to learn about town festivals, such as the new one in Charleston S.C., Spoleto USA. Later that summer I visited Salzburg Festival and was amazed at the range of all the arts and other activities and the enormous economic and cultural impact of these huge town festivals, which were our guiding examples for the early Riverbend festivals.

After a dinner at my home in September 1980 for some friends and arts leaders to brainstorm the possibility of such a large festival for Chattanooga, I talked these examples up all the fall of 1980 and spring 1981, to the point that Allied Arts leaders warned me and Mickey Robbins not to continue to push this since it might "dilute" their fundraising efforts. We persisted.

I suppose Commissioner Robinson's "history" on the Riverbend official web page reflects her memories or what someone uninformed wrote for her. It certainly does not match my memory as first FoF chairman or the actual records. She and others really only became active after the four of us received a Lyndhurst matching grant of $60,000 for operating funds starting in the fall of 1981. So, she and other current FoF board members, such as Hugh Moore, may not have known what was actually happening before that time. Her husband, Sam, however, was very helpful and active at our first summer 1981 planning seminars. He would remember these sessions for about 30 interested citizens, which culminated with a BBQ, Beer, Bluejeans and Bach celebration (the essence of our original inclusive idea) at Sharon Mills' home to celebrate the beginning of a new kind of comprehensive festival for Chattanooga. We dreamed of festivals such as Salzburg that made the city a tourist destination six weeks every summer...and a financial bonanza like a second Christmas shopping season for all merchants.

We did our homework. With the $26,000 Lyndhurst planning grant in May 1981, we had brought in three national festival experts for our festival seminars held at the Chamber of Commerce, concluded with a planning and goal-setting session led by new UTC drama professor Fred Beringer. With the planning grant we also took Mayor and Mrs. Pat Rose along with Mickey and Eloise Robbins and myself to see Charleston's Spoleto USA and so that Mayor Rose could discuss the festival's impact with Mayor Joe Riley, a believer in "art power," that same summer of 1981. All of that was vital to gaining key support for a major Chattanooga town festival.

The official Riverbend history web page really should be more accurate in my opinion as it leaves out the visionary, hard working "heroes" of the early Riverbends. Yes, I was inspired by reading in the Chattanooga Times in May 1980 about Charleston's 21-day Spoleto Festival and by working to get a Chattanooga town festival started. But the now unknown tough work was done by the early full boards that followed our planning efforts, especially after the financial losses of the Engel Stadium concerts when the whole thing almost ended. It's really not clear to me who and how it was saved, but no doubt the Lyndhurst Foundation deserves most of the credit along with Breland and Parham. Much of this is in my 1990 Emory University dissertation on town festivals but the FoF management has not responded to these historical materials when offered. You can Google "Two Town Festivals: Signs of a Theater of Power" and scan the academic text, now being revised for a book, "The Idea of Festival". And anyone can read through the Lyndhurst archives at UNC at Chapel Hill NC and get the full story from the original documents. I wish these local urban history records (or copies) were in Chattanooga, since they explain much about why Chattanooga is becoming what it is becoming. More archival material is at the Chattanooga Public Library, including early programs and publicity.

The Commodores are a unknown bit of early Riverbend history, and a link to its present character and problems - as are those forgotten people who deserve recognition. Personally I've always been proud to have helped put the festival energy in motion starting in 1980, sad that it changed its character and mission after the first few exciting years, but glad it has continued in some form after a difficult start and challenging situations. Maybe a comprehensive Chattanooga town arts festival will emerge from the many new performance and street spaces that downtown offers today, a new festival that will have the social, cultural and economic impact of festivals such as Charleston's and Salzburg's powerful engines of change. Or, when Riverbend opens its gates and opens stages all over town, our dream will begin again with new players on all the stages.

Sid Hetzler, Ph.D
Split Tree Participatory Arts Center
Chickamauga, Ga.

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