Niagara Gazette

July 24, 2013

Artpark looking to recreate magic of opening night

By Thom Jennings
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — “High above the Niagara, tramping through some historic countryside, sounds from Artpark began to drift down, and they were good sounds. Soft Gospel words from the “New Image,” welcomes from the Commedia Dell Art Co. and a lot of electric anticipation rippling through a crowd of first nighters-nice vibes signaling the start of something long dreamed, Artpark.”

That was reviewer Ted R. Hadley’s take on the opening night of Artpark, July 25, 1974.

As Artpark gets set to recreate the magic of that evening tonight as part of its 40th season celebration, the show features pianist Norman Krieger, singer Michele Ragusa and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, plus many other performers, we will look back at the night when it all started.

The ad promoting the show said simply, “Artpark is Thursday,” signaling the birth of an institution in these parts that would become an integral part of Western New York.

Like tonight’s performance, The Buffalo Philharmonic hosted the event in 1974. The headliners were Ethel Merman, Cicely Tyson and Maureen Forrester.

Patrons arriving to the gala were dressed in all types of attire, some in formal wear and others dressed casually in jeans and t-shirts. There were greeters dressed in Shakespearean style costumes and champagne toasts.

Like most gala’s the evening began with a dedication ceremony and a plaque unveiled honoring then former State Senate Majority leader Earl W. Brydges.

The evening was not without its minor glitches as actress Cicely Tyson mistakenly introduced the Buffalo Philharmonic as the “Boston Philharmonic” but all has long since been forgiven for that minor slip of the tongue.

The entire program was designed to display the different types of performances that would be coming to Artpark. There were Broadway melodies from Merman including “Gee, But it’s Great to Be Here” and “I Get a Kick Out of You.” Maureen Forrester sang Mozart’s “non piu di fiori” and the evening ended with a rousing rendition of the “1812 Overture,” followed by a huge fireworks display.

It was a spectacular beginning for a special place, and a time Artpark board member and former Lewiston resident Rose Gellman will never forget.

“We were the luckiest people in Western New York when Artpark opened. The opening night was as magical as any red carpet event in either New York or L.A.”

By design, Artpark was intended to bring world-class entertainment to Western New York, and make it accessible to the masses. Rose called it an opportunity to enjoy “big city” events in a smaller town.

That first performance proved to be exactly that, and there was an indescribable excitement in the air even before the first notes of music played.

“It’s beyond what I can express. That evening we had tremendous pride, enthusiasm, passion for the arts. We can’t live in a world without arts, and that was the beauty of Artpark.”

“When I walked in the amphitheater that night all I could feel was awe. It was like everybody was there and you wanted to talk to them all. It was one big party for everyone to enjoy. There were people from all walks of life attending the event.”

It will be difficult to create that same kind of magic tonight, but as patrons walk into the amphitheater tonight, including Rose Gellman, there will surely be a different sense of pride, one of accomplishment and success for an institution that has thrived. Artpark was then, and is now, and will always be, a verb.

ARTPARK SERIES • This is the third part of a series looking at the past 40 years of Artpark. Look for parts 1 and 2 on our website.

Thom Jennings covers Artpark and the local music scene for the Niagara Gazette.