Musikfest at 30: Getting together
If you lived in the Lehigh Valley 30 years ago this month, you might remember hearing about a small festival with a German-sounding name that was being held for the first time under the bridge on the north side of the Lehigh River in historic Bethlehem. It was being promoted as a way to bring the community together, and to encourage people to visit the Christmas City beyond just the December holiday.
If you went to Musikfest that first weekend, you would remember that festivities were pretty much limited to the large white tent where polka bands played almost non-stop, and an enthusiastic crowd of people danced and ate and drank. Up on Main Street, however, you'd never guess anything was going on.
A week later it was a different story. Some downtown merchants set up tables and chairs on the sidewalks, and others manned makeshift booths to sell food and other merchandise to the hundreds of people Musikfest was already attracting. There was no going back.
Thirty years later, Musikfest is now the nation's largest free music festival, and that milestone and the many people who helped make it possible were honored at special opening ceremonies held last Friday night. Jeff Parks, the visionary who helped create Musikfest, ArtsQuest and Steel Stacks, presided over the ceremonies, but shared the spotlight with Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan.
In a special announcement, Callahan told the surprised audience that a part of South Bethlehem's Third Street from the Banana Factory to Steel Stacks was being renamed "Linny's Mile" in honor of philanthropist Marlene "Linny" Fowler, who died in February. Fowler was a major benefactor to ArtsQuest and its many projects in Bethlehem that benefit minority and disadvantaged children.
Also receiving special posthumous recognition was John E. Walson Jr., whose multi-media Service Electric Co. televises both Musikfest and the Iron Pigs minor league baseball games. Walson's contributions were credited with helping make Musikfest what it is today.
Callahan, who is serving his 10th and last year as mayor, was in for a surprise of his own during the ceremonies, when he was presented with a glass replica of the iron furnaces, which he and Parks worked to preserve after the Bethlehem Steel plant closed. Parks praised Callahan and the city government for its cooperation over the years.
"Steel Stacks is a classic example of what can happen when entities work together," Parks said. Callahan in turn credited the 10-day festival with helping "reinvent this old steel town" which is "far better for Musikfest."
Noting that the price of admission to Musikfest is the same as it was 30 years ago - free - Parks said, "It wouldn't have been possible without our wonderful volunteers and sponsors, who this year have donated $2.5 million in cash and in-kind services." Among those 130 different sponsors, three were presented with the Founder's Award for their outstanding contributions.
The awards went to Darlington Exterior Services for years of power washing of public places, to the Hotel Bethlehem for providing accommodations for performers for the past 26 years, and to St. Luke's University Health Network for its contributions to all events for almost three decades.
Among the thousands of Musikfest volunteers over the years, 23 have served the entire 30 years of the event. Special recognition was given to Paul Fistner, who then read the names of the other triple-decade volunteers.
In keeping with tradition, singer-songwriter John Gorka, who was the very first person to perform at Musikfest, was on stage at the 30th-year opening ceremonies to sing The Youngblood's "Get Together." This was the song the Moravian College graduate opened Musikfest with in 1984.