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Riverfest hits 30 

After three decades, summer just wouldn’t be summer without Riverfest to kick it off.

 

The symbolism is hard to miss: There, in 1978, at what was the first Riverfest (then called the Summer Arts Festival), what little music there was arrived via the river on a barge.

The American Wind Symphony was touring the region by river, and the Junior League of Little Rock decided to organize a festival around the stopover at Murray Park.

“We probably pulled it together in seven or eight months at the most, but probably six,” says Jane Rogers, who was with the Junior League and was serving as publicity chair for the first festival. “What I remember was, the money [the “RiverMoney” used to buy food and drink] didn’t get to the park until two or three hours after the park opened, we were so disorganized. As big as Riverfest is today, that would be a disaster. It would be a front-page story.”

There would be another 19 festivals before the music at Riverfest took on the look it has today, with dozens of acts on several stages over three days. But that first little festival at Murray Park was enough of a hit, the Junior League decided to do it again. “We formed a board and the next year put on a real festival,” Rogers said.

And they did it again, and again, until turning it over to an independent board to keep running it in bigger and better spaces on both sides of the river. This year’s Riverfest, May 25-27, will be the 30th. Visual artists and music of all genres are combined with family activities for a celebration that many consider the start of the summer. If the weather stays nice, the crowd for the weekend could exceed 250,000 people.

From the Budweiser Clydesdales leading parades over the Main Street Bridge all three days to Flossie’s Funnel Cakes galore on both the Little Rock and North Little Rock riverfronts, the organizers of Riverfest plan for the 30th to be the best yet. An original Riverfest song will be performed during opening night ceremonies by 19-year-old Sydney Price, a Friday night laser light show will light up the river, Batesville-based Bad Boy Mowers will search for its “Bad Girl” spokesmodel Saturday and Sunday, and the festival will conclude on Sunday with the most massive of Osborne Family Fireworks.

The music covers every style: headliners include revered bluesman Keb’ Mo’; ’80s rocker Pat Benatar and husband-guitarist Neil Giraldo; ’90s hitmakers Smash Mouth and Soul Asylum; country acts Montgomery Gentry, Keith Anderson and Blake Shelton; classic rock bands the Georgia Satellites and Marshall Tucker; jam-craze fave Robert Randolph and the Family Band; “American Idol” Ruben Studdard; veteran rapper LL Cool J; new hip-hop act Gym Class Heroes; new rockers the Red Jumpsuit Apparatus; and the godfather of funk, George Clinton, with his P-Funk Allstars.

Games and interactive exhibits are geared to every age, and so are many of the giveaways, from Krispy Kreme donut dipping to cans of Spam. As for noticeable changes: The International Village has moved to Little Rock near the Peabody Hotel and the Budweiser stage in North Little Rock will face east, away from Dickey-Stephens Park, where the Arkansas Travelers will be home playing games that weekend. The North Little Rock bus shuttle will drop fans off in North Little Rock this year, instead of crossing over to Little Rock.

Riverfest officials have calculated that seeing each of the headliners individually would cost more than $600, but a Riverfest ticket runs $10 for the three days ($15 at the gate).

If a festival-goer followed Riverfest executive director DeAnna Shannon around, she’d direct them to a top-five “must see” music lineup of LL Cool J, Robert Randolph, Montgomery Gentry, George Clinton and Keb’ Mo’. Of course, that means moving around, from one side of the river to the other. But that’s half the fun of Riverfest: moving around, people-watching, finding the best deals among the food vendors or trying new ones, such as Texas Skillet. The visual arts have been given bigger space and attention through the new Market Row, both in Little Rock and North Little Rock.

“I’m extremely happy with the overall lineup,” said Shannon. “Once again we are offering a little something for everyone. Gym Class and Red Jumpsuit have the No. 1 and No. 10 songs in their genre right now, so it’s great to offer such current acts at such a great value.”

Making the festival

Shannon credits the 150 year-round volunteers on 30 committees, along with the 2,000 volunteers who help over the weekend, for making Riverfest work the past 30 years. One of those, Jim Sick of the Little Rock parks department has worked all 30, and this one will be his last. The city proclaimed May 3 “Jim Sick Day” and director Stacy Hurst presented Sick with a plaque at the announcement of Riverfest’s schedule that night.

The festival can also look back to the leadership of executive directors Jane Rogers and Van Tilbury through the 1990s for growing Riverfest into an attraction that draws fans from more than 28 states. And the Junior League oversight through the 1980s led to the building of the amphitheater out of funds raised by the festival.

Jane Rogers has missed just one Riverfest in 30 years. She was there when the barge pulled in to Murray Park with the Wind Symphony 30 years ago, chaired the festival for the Junior League in 1986, and then took the role as the first executive director in 1990 when the festival was weaned from the Junior League and became incorporated.

“It was a wonderful, wonderful job,” Rogers said. “It’s so gratifying to see where Riverfest is today. I felt like when I was involved in Riverfest in 1986, definitely at the time the focus was a family festival. It was not a music festival. We had music entertainment but it was entertainment for the family. We stayed true to that until I stepped down and Van saw the possibility of a music festival. He took it to the next level focusing on the music.”

Rogers and Entergy Corp. were putting together a video of highlights from the 1993 Riverfest when she met Tilbury, who was working that summer as an Entergy intern and worked on the film project. When Rogers was ready to step away in 1996, she called Tilbury, a Heber Springs native who was helping run festivals throughout the South for a company in Alabama. Tilbury had learned there that entertainment, specifically music, kept at low cost drove festival attendance.

Tilbury’s first move in the summer of 1996 was to ask the board for 10 items, which included increasing the entertainment budget by $100,000, adding a performing stage, hiring an ad agency, starting a website and increasing admission from $1 to $3 for the entire festival. He also suggested moving the date off Memorial Day weekend.

“They approved all but the changing of the date, which I’m glad they did. Now, it’s the start of the summer for 200,000 people and has been for 30 years,” Tilbury said. The $100,000 entertainment budget in 1996 has grown to $2.4 million for 2007. The attendance doubled from 1996 to 1999. Riverfest added local radio collaboration, acquired a six-figure sponsor and added more cash sponsorship, which in turn drove the entertainment budget higher to acquire more popular acts.

“For those who say it’s not a family-oriented event anymore … with the expansion of the entertainment budget and adding a stage and really focusing on the music, it became a festival that appealed to the entire family, not just young children,” Tilbury said. “When I came, the festival was ripe for the formula that was so successful in the Southeast. Riverfest had everything, all the structure in place, all the volunteer base, price, visual art and family activities when I came. All it really needed was an increase in the entertainment budget, a focus on radio and TV sponsors, and I knew the cash sponsorship would follow. The board grabbed my vision and it exploded.

“I didn’t do it alone. It’s a huge volunteer operation.”

Tilbury attends these days as a fan. He and some friends will work the Bud Stage on Saturday.

“I can bring my girls Emily and Elizabeth down,” Tilbury said. “They don’t really know that daddy was a part of this, they just come down, face paint, finger cast, eat great food and watch fireworks. It’s really fulfilling to me to share it with them, and peel off for a day and be a stage grunt.”

Choppy waves earlier in this decade threatened Riverfest’s momentum. Downtown growth began changing Riverfest’s layout significantly, and the festival decided to reach across the river to North Little Rock. Two executive directors left Riverfest in midstream after Tilbury moved on to the private sector, before Tilbury’s able office assistant, Shannon, who had moved from a part-time position she took 10 years ago to director of operations, was handed the executive director’s reins and kept the festival on course.

“The smiles on the festival-goers’ faces make all of the hard work worthwhile,” Shannon said.

Rogers says, “Every year at this time, I know what’s going on and the hard work that is going on. My knees get weak thinking about it … We go down there and I have a big smile on my face when we get down there, knowing what it has taken to put on the festival, the volunteers that have given all their time to make it successful.”

Tilbury observed the 1996 festival, then began planning for the 20th anniversary that summer. “And here it is, the 30th,” he said.

“I’m proud of what DeAnna has done and happy the event has kept its roots in volunteerism and committees and a working board, and keeping a low ticket price while continuing the raise the bar with entertainment. I think it’s become the model for festivals across the country.”

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