Festival In The Park Turns 50

Headliners at Festival in the Park have included Blue Oyster Cult (last year), Little Big Town, Montgomery Gentry, Dixie Chicks, Charlie Daniels, Sly and the Family Stone, etc. 85 national acts over just the last 23 years.

Roanoke’s annual something-for-everyone celebration of music, arts, food and family activities – otherwise known as Festival in the Park – celebrates its golden anniversary this year. Launched in 1969, Festival in the Park traditionally is held on the Memorial Day weekend, ending on the Sunday preceding the holiday itself. That hasn’t changed: Festival in the Park is May 25-27 this year, centered as always in Elmwood Park.

The 50th version of the event will also spread out for the first time onto neighboring Franklin Road and South Jefferson Street, Executive Director Skip Brown said recently at a news conference. That’s also when he recalled a small sidewalk art show adding music in 1968. It worked so well they set up a nonprofit corporation and in 1969 Festival in the Park was born. “The rest is history,” said Brown. Near as he can tell, there is just one other similar event in the country (in Philadelphia) that has run continuously for a longer period of time.

There is free music at the Elmwood Park amphitheater (Brown is a musician himself) and on three other smaller stages. Then there are several ticketed performances, as well. This year’s headliner is the venerable British rock band Foghat (Saturday, May 26), which hit it big decades ago with “Slow Ride.” That also fit with Brown’s goal of finding a big name act that was around as Festival in the Park was just getting started. “They have fans of all ages,” said Brown. Many of the younger set know Slow Ride from the game Guitar Hero. Foghat earned a slew of platinum and gold records. “This is rock royalty coming to Roanoke,” added Brown.

There’s a ticketed country music show on Friday, May 25 (Russell Dickerson, Drake White) and a free performance to end Festival in the Park on Sunday evening, May 27 by – who else? – 1964 The Tribute, who do early Beatles classics like just about no one else, and always fill the park.

The show goes on rain or shine; Brown recalls only one canceled concert at long-gone Victory Stadium “when a tornado went right through the middle of the field. But that was it.” Along the way headliners at Festival in the Park have included Blue Oyster Cult (last year), Little Big Town, Montgomery Gentry, Dixie Chicks, Charlie Daniels, Sly and the Family Stone, etc.  There have been 85 national acts over just the last 23 years, said Brown.

Coming back in 2018 is a juried art show with awards for the artists, a mountain bike exhibition show (“a huge draw,” said Brown), and a 50th anniversary admission button featuring the Mill Mountain Star. The ten dollar buttons (for the ticketed music events) can be purchased online at Roanokefestival.com, at the Berglund Center, or at the festival gate.

“Huge support” from the City of Roanoke and corporate sponsors help keep that button price affordable, said Brown. Proceeds from Festival in the Park (a 501-3c nonprofit) helps underwrite scholarships for college bound students planning further study with a major or minor in a fine arts discipline. There’s also an annual youth art show at the festival.

Meanwhile look for arts and crafts vendors, family-friendly activities, all sorts of food that Brown calls “so varied and so unique,” and free local performers of all ages. Festival in the Park has covered a lot of ground over the past almost-50 years and this year’s version on May 25-27 promises to do the same.

Festival is always looking for volunteers; see the website for more information on how you can help.

Gene Marrano

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