Turn Up, Tune In: West Park Entertains New Music

Turn Up, Tune In: West Park Entertains New Music

By Ann Wlazelek
Photo By Frank Mitman

When New York’s Four O’Clock Flowers and The Down Hill Strugglers took the stage at Allentown’s West Park band shell during Art-in-the-Park in June, most of the people listening and clapping had no clue they were part of an experiment.

Event organizers wanted to see if musicians other than the park’s popular yet traditional municipal and concert bands could attract even more visitors who would become fans of the scenic little park between Linden and Turner streets, and 15th and West streets.

For the quasi-scientists who planned and sponsored the groups, the answer was a resounding YES!

“I think the old-time folk musicians from Brooklyn brought a great new flavor to Art-in-the-Park which was well suited to the event, the audience and the historic band shell itself,” sponsor Ryan Henriquez said, deeming the added groups “a perfect fit.”

Plenty of children were smiling ear-to-ear, he said, and some adults told him they loved the Flowers’ slide guitar. They called the lead singer’s voice entrancing and remarked at how their parents and grandparents would have enjoyed the Strugglers’ brand of old classics.

Tom Yuracka, president of the West Park Civic Association, the group of volunteers charged with “preserving, protecting, enhancing and promoting” the 105-year-old park and its neighborhood, declared the experiment worth repeating. “There was positive feedback from old and young,” he said. “They considered it a refreshing mix with our usual brand of music.”

The hope is that any new groups interested in performing at West Park look at the band shell schedule and choose a free night, or get in touch with the West Park Civic Association to perform at some of the park’s regular events, such as Art-in-the-Park or “dinner and a movie.”

What the association does not want to do is disrupt, replace or cut short the long-standing, well-attended free concerts by the Allentown, Pioneer, Municipal and Marine bands.

“We want to layer it on, not add new groups at the cost of tradition,” Yuracka said.

Anyone interested in performing in the park or sponsoring a performance would need to apply to the city’s Park and Recreation office (610.437.7757) for a permit, Yuracka said, and check the schedule for an opening. The non-profit Civic Association does not have a fund to pay for such performances but is open to exploring grants, corporate sponsors or private donors for that purpose.

Henriquez, an Allentown native who now lives and works in New York City, became a private donor because of his love of the park and work as a lawyer specializing in entertainment law. While visiting his friend and former Salisbury High School graduate Saleem Saab of Allentown, the two frequented West Park and its stately band shell. “We both recognized it had the potential for even more. While Steel Stacks, Arts Quest and Musikfest were flourishing a few miles down the road, the West Park band shell’s potential just seemed so untapped,” he said.

So the two friends pitched the idea of supplementing the usual music, art and dance that accompanies Art in the Park with musicians from New York. Henriquez had heard both groups perform at The Jalopy Theater, part of a burgeoning roots/folk scene in the gritty waterfront neighborhood of Red Hook. He thought their acoustic-based, joyous roots music would appeal to all ages, and with Saab’s support, brought them to “Art in the Park.”

Guidelines for the type of music and musicians have not been set, but association board members have said they are open to anything appropriate for families.

“The main focus of having a varied music program in West Park is to expose a larger segment of the population to West Park and the beautiful architecture surrounding it,” Yuracka said. “Many of us feel it’s the best place in Allentown to live… not the least of which is free concerts under the trees in the park.”

The West Park Civic Association was created in 1975 by a group of neighbors enamored with the park’s historic band shell, 78 varieties of trees and more than 300 shrubs.  Anyone interested in becoming a member or contributing to association events, including the annual fund-raising house tour, can reach members through the website westpark-ca.org, its e-mail address [email protected] or by calling 610.434.0657.

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