The year was 1967. In the very first Super Bowl, the Green Bay Packers beat the Kansas City Chiefs. In May, Elvis Presley married Priscilla Beaulieu in Las Vegas. By summer, more than 100,000 hippies dropped in on San Francisco for the “Summer of Love.” And during the last week of July, a Penn State tradition was born: the first Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts.
That first festival reflected the times. The band “Robin and the Hoods”—a local favorite with Beetles-inspired mop-top haircuts—played. Banners fluttered from trees on the mall. Artists were free to hang their work on the snow fence erected along the wall on the campus side of College Avenue. People of all ages were encouraged to express themselves by painting whatever they wanted to on an old car hauled in for the occasion.
Perhaps most amazingly, the whole event—then a full week of art, films, and live music—was pulled together in just a few months. A small group of volunteers, armed with donations and a $2,000 grant from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, built stages and suspended an old parachute to cover the Allen Street stage. Maintenance workers from Penn State prepared the campus.
From the start, the festival relied on cooperation between town and campus, said Wallis “Wally” Lloyd ’49. As president of the local Chamber of Commerce, Lloyd’s group proposed a summer festival that would bring crowds to town during the quiet stretch between spring commencement and fall football games. Jules Heller, dean of Arts and Architecture, and some of his faculty had been thinking the same thing. Other campus leaders and downtown businessmen quickly joined the fledgling effort.
The festival remained a casual event into the 1970s. Penn State’s noted Hemmingway scholar, Sandra Spanier ’76g, ’81g, who taught high school English and belonged to the Potters Guild at the time, sold her pottery at several festivals. “There were no covered booths back then,” she recalled. “We brought concrete blocks and wood to create shelves for the pottery. None of the artists took credit cards then either.”
Rick Bryant, executive director of the festival since 2005 and a State College native, said the event grew to around 600 artists’ booths at one point. Now there are roughly 300 booths and more than 900 artists from the United States and abroad vie for the coveted spots in what is considered one of the country’s premiere juried shows.
“Today, the festival pumps $14 million into the local economy and fills 6,000 hotel rooms,” Bryant said.
More than 125,000 people, many of them Penn State alumni, visit the five-day festival that costs around $500,000 to produce each year, a far cry from the several thousand that financed the 1967 event. The cost is offset by booth rentals, grants, and sales of buttons required for admittance to some performances.
For the 42nd festival July 9-13, Bryant said some new events will be mixed with old favorites. A live ragtime orchestra in Schwab Auditorium will accompany silent films starring Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. Headline music groups include Los Angeles-based jazz band Lao Tizer and the Celtic group Malinky. The Penn State Alumni Association is sponsoring concerts by Entrain, a New England group that combines rock, blues, calypso, jazz, zydeco, and ska, and local favorite Velveeta, known for covering “cheesy 80s music.” University president Graham Spanier will play washboard with the Phyrst Phamily during their popular Friday night sing-a-long at the Festival Shell.
More information on the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts is available at http://www.arts-festival.com/.
For information on the Alumni Association’s Arts Festival Alumni Weekend, including reservations for lodging in West Halls, check out http://www.alumni.psu.edu/events/reunions/artsfest2008.htm.