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Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts: A Cultural Olympics

by on July 11, 2011 5:44 AM

Editor's note: Adam Smeltz is on vacation. In place of his regular Monday column, we offer, in advance of this week's Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts, memories of past Arts Festivals by longtime festival volunteer and Penn State archivist Jackie R. Esposito.

"This year (1967) we only scratched the surface. ... In years to come, when people want to know what is going on in the arts, they will come to central Pennsylvania to find out."

That assessment by Dr. Jules Heller, then dean of Arts and Architecture at Penn State, appeared immediately following the very first Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts. Dr. Heller was extraordinarily right. Forty-four years later, the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts is the place to come to learn about the arts, to enjoy your summer days in State College and to create your own family memories.

Starting as a collaborative, nine-day event, the Arts Fest grew out of a desire to feature talent and creative expertise during "those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer" in State College. Co-sponsored by the College of Arts and Architecture and the State College Chamber of Commerce, the first fest was opened by then-Gov. Raymond Shafer landing in his helicopter on the Old Main lawn. He joined State College Mayor Chauncey P. Lang, Penn State President Eric Walker and festival chairmen in cutting the ceremonial opening ribbon.

Shafer declared the programs in theater, music, art and film "excellent" and he expressed the hope that the event would give rise to a "cultural Olympics involving all of Pennsylvania's young people." How prescient Shafer and the original Fest developers were.

Musical performances were held downtown and on campus just as today. Films were shown at the Festival Theatre, WPSX studios and Chambers Building, while theatrical performances were held in the State College Hotel Banquet Room, Boal Barn Community Theatre, Nittany Lion Inn lounge and Schwab Auditorium. The art works, in five categories (painting, sculpture, graphics, ceramics and photography) were displayed on snow fencing placed across The Wall along College Avenue.

Prizes for Best in Show, Best by a Professional, Best by a Semi-Professional and Best by an Amateur were awarded by jurors Will Barnet (New York artist), Donald Wright (assistant professor of art at Penn State Altoona) and David Milby (art Instructor at Penn State Ogontz). In addition to the "Best" awards, each artistic field offered awards for first, second and third place. Additional artistic exhibitions were found at Schlow and Pattee libraries, HUB Galleries and in store windows throughout downtown.

The idea of an arts festival was launched, it was extremely popular and a tradition had begun.

The Arts Fest is built on many of its own traditions: Lanny Sommese posters, Earthtones Sunday concerts, sand sculptures, water features discreetly placed throughout landscaping areas, artists and craftspeople, diverse schedule of musical performances, children's activities and events, Italian street painting, chicken-on-a-stick and, perhaps most importantly, individual attendees' summer memories.

My earliest memories of Arts Fest involve my daughters participating in the Teddy Bear Parade held on the HUB lawn and Central Parklet. They brought their favorite stuffed animals – Friend Bear and Mickey Mouse – to be hugged by the official bear host. They marched to a sing-a-long medley of bear songs with a cadre of other children who finally had a moment to frolic amid the many creations made by their older siblings and being sold during Children's Day. The event was joyful, raucous and filled with grin-filled parents and smiling kids clamoring to be part of the unfettered happiness.

For more years than I care to remember, my daughters and I along with a small army of family members have volunteered for the Arts Fest as information aides in the booth on the corner of College Avenue and Allen Street. Working evenings from 5-9 p.m. affords us the opportunity of sharing our knowledge of tasty eateries, event schedules, local history and answering the most frequently asked question: Where is the most convenient restroom?

The info booth is also the best people-watching venue for the entire festival. Almost every Arts Fest attendee passes by in all manner of costume (or fashion), carrying their well-earned purchases, licking their dripping ice cream cones and chattering wildly with their friends and family. These are the most alive moments of the fest and often the funniest from the point of the casual info booth attendant.

Some of my favorite Arts Fest casual observations:

  • There will be an evening rainstorm that floods the artisan's booths on campus.
  • These same storms cause young people to dance in the streets with little or no inhibition.
  • Even in the age of cell phones, husbands will lose wives, kids will misplace their parents and whole families will forget which local restaurant is the meeting place for dinner.
  • Nonetheless, few of these misbegotten tourists are terribly distressed because they are enjoying their time at the fest and sooner or later all group members will be reunited. More frustrating for the routine fest-goer is forgetting where and when their favorite band is playing or artist's work is displayed and bemoaning the degradation of their mental faculties on hot, summer days.

Early fest developers envisioned a few days in the middle of the Penn State summer semester to stop, take a break and enjoy the arts. They were 100 percent correct. The Arts Fest allows State Collegians to enjoy the view, savor the myriad wonders art encompasses, laugh with old and new friends, join a sing-a-long on the Old Main lawn and, in general, take a breath and create long-standing memories of their own.

Jackie R. Esposito is archivist and head of records management services at Penn State; a State College resident and community volunteer since 1985; and Mom to two fantastic daughters.
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