By Thom Jennings
Niagara Gazette — “Artpark. An extension of that time in Western history when artists journeyed from one place to another, singing songs, making plays, painting a portrait-on the open road, in the open space. When once upon a time these things were not taken as ponderously as they are today, but that is the whole idea of Artpark.”
That is how former Niagara Gazette society editor Grace Russo Barbor described Artpark back in 1974. In two weeks, the park gets ready to commemorate its 40th season with a special concert recreating their opening night, July 24, 1974.
In 1974, there was no Tuesday in the Park or Coors Light Wednesdays but the concert calendar in August of 1974 did include Blue Oyster Cult and Buddy Guy, both of them return to Artpark this year.
The history of Artpark can be neatly placed into three eras. The years of conception and growth, the years of decline and near failure, and the resurgence at the turn of the century, which brings us to the present day and a thriving organization run by Artpark & Company.
At the helm of the ship is President George Osborne, who took on the job as president of Artpark in 1999.
It was a sunny afternoon when I arrived at the trailer that houses Osborne’s office next to the large amphitheater. He is not only Artpark’s leader, he is their resident historian and biggest cheerleader. Our hour-long conversation provided a wealth of material about the venue.
We began with his first impressions of Artpark when he arrived there in 1999.
“Artpark had a great reputation. To see the huge theater for the first time was impressive. The grounds were nice and I was into the visual arts stuff and I was excited about coming here, but after a week of digging into the financials I found out they were six months behind paying everybody.”
Osborne, along with Artpark’s accountant Daniel Cantara (who currently serves as senior executive vice president at First Niagara), pored over the books in an effort to get Artpark on solid financial ground.
Osborne trimmed the fat and made some tough decisions to keep the park afloat, all the while looking toward the future and opportunities to expand the use of the facility. One model was to use free events to attract people.
“It started very small, but they were very popular. The first two years we did shows on the theatre plaza with a tiny stage and local bands. Each night we would have a food themed night, Italian, German or Polish. The caterers would dream up dishes and we had a buffet line. We made money on the food and the beer.”
They moved the event to the current location of the Tuesday and Wednesday shows, which up to that point had been underutilized because the sun beat down on it and it became very hot in the afternoon.
As the event grew, they booked the best local bands, including Switch, a popular Western New York Beatles tribute band that has since disbanded (founder John Connelly is currently a member of The BBC Band).
“It was successful but we needed to jump start it and decided to go for national acts. The first national act we had there was Rik Emmett from the popular Canadian band Triumph. Then little by little we got bigger and bigger crowds, but what made it really happen was the V.I.P boxes on the top bow.”
There are 21 full-size V.I.P boxes and currently there is a waiting list to obtain one. Osborne hopes to plan a two-tiered clubhouse to allow for more sponsors.
Over the years, the free shows featuring national acts became larger. What started out as a low-key event in a parking lot that attracted four or five hundred people, evolved into rock concerts that drew crowds estimated as high as 30,000.
With the big crowds came unanticipated problems with traffic flow and noise. It created tension between the venue and Village of Lewiston officials and residents.
“The year we did Lynyrd Skynyrd and ZZ Top back-to-back almost overwhelmed the village, and it created a perfect opportunity for us to renovate and find a way to limit the crowds so they wouldn’t be overwhelmed with traffic jams caused by 20,000 fans. There were people that didn’t even make it into the theatre.”
The solution was to charge a small admission and limit the amount of tickets sold.
“The small admission charge did a few things, including us not having to base our decision on which crowd will drink more beer when we book an act. Take Chicago for instance, that crowd won’t drink nearly as much as Lynyrd Skynyrd’s crowd.”
It also has allowed Artpark to purchase video screens, and accommodate state of the art stage productions.
There is also ways to notify the public of sellouts to alleviate the traffic and the attendance is capped at 10,000. Thus, issues with the Village of Lewiston are now virtually non-existent.ARTPARK'S ANNIVERSARY This is the first of a three-part series on the history of Artpark leading up to July 25's 40th anniversary concert recreating opening night in 1974. Part two will run next Thursday. Thom Jennings covers the local music scene and Artpark for the Niagara Gazette.