In 1974, Paul McEachern, then a Trustee of the City Trust Funds, made a very important phone call. He called Grace Casey, Director of the New Hampshire Art Association, and said, "We bought you a great red, white and blue tent. Now present us with a budget and give us a program." That was the beginning.
Scrambling to create that program, Casey enlisted the talents of Theater by the Sea Executive Director Jon Kimball. Combining an already-assembled art exhibit from the New Hampshire Art Association and a production of Peter and the Wolf by the New Hampshire Ballet, the first multi-arts festival at Prescott Park was presented. Free art classes; a silent-film festival and an evening concert by the United States Air Force band were also included.
"The early years were a great experience," said McEachern, a former Portsmouth City counselor and Theater by the Sea board member. "Prescott Park provides a great opportunity for kids to go to the theater, and there are probably just a handful of places like it in the country where you can do that. We are lucky to have one of them. I got exposed to theater and I loved it. I am convinced that the reason Portsmouth is as vital as it is because of the arts. Portsmouth has become a destination because of the arts."
That was in 1974. In sports, Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth's home-run record and Bjorn Borg at 18, is the French Open's youngest winner. On television, The Waltons and Happy Days premiere at home while Chinatown, The Great Gatsby and Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore filled movie theaters. In music, John Denver released Sunshine on my Shoulders while Barbra Streisand remembered The Way We Were. On the Seacoast, family picnicking was not yet a reality on Four Tree Island and Bruce Graves was Mayor of Portsmouth.
Of course the first festival, indeed the park itself, looked quite different in 1974. The trial gardens, created in cooperation with the University of New Hampshire, had yet to be created. The underground sprinklers, which provide life-sustaining water to the thousands of flowers in the park, had yet to be installed and the pier that juts into the Piscataqua River was just an idea. The first festival itself was presented on the lawn near the Liberty Pole, across the park where performances occur today.
By the start of the 1975 season, a 40' x 60' stage had been designed and built by architect Tom Johnson of Milford, NH. Aside from the stage an amplification system and the installation of necessary lighting was also incorporated for nighttime productions. The first full-scale production offered was Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel. So enthused by the plans for the 1975 season that the community and the city's Bicentennial Committee endorsed the festival's enlarged mission: To produce an artistic, intellectual and emotional outlet which best serves the needs of a multi-cultural area.
With the endorsement came the support of the Portsmouth Public Library, Arts Interaction and Strawbery Banke. The Trustees made a two-year commitment to the festival and to Jon Kimball to help make the festival a reality. Guidelines were set to ensure the accessibility and quality of the two full-scale productions that would be produced annually. With a focus on diverse programming, guidelines outlined that all entertainment must be fit for family viewing, that there would be no preferential treatment for spectators and no commercialism.
With the onslaught of inflation in the late 1970's and the increases in production costs due to the festival's productions becoming larger and more lavish, the Trustees began to look elsewhere for the financial support necessary to run the Arts Festival. The first step in this direction was the creation of the current concession stand, which was followed by the first solicitation of donations from spectators in 1981. Because of the expenses involved, the festival moved to producing just one full-scale production while supplementing the season with booked-in events.
All of these events took their place right beside the Josie F. Prescott Memorial Garden, dedicated in 1967. Though not an official part of the arts festival, the garden has provided entertainment and beauty to countless thousands. Maintained by Park Superintendent Thurston Caswell in the early years of the arts festival, and for the past twenty years by park superintendent Michael Warhurst, the gardens have always been a favorite intermission spot to many of festival guests.
Despite the artistic success of the festival, by the end of 1982 the financial picture of the Trustees had not improved. The Trustees had been using capital funds to support the festival but that practice could not continue. In March 1983, Theater by the Sea announced that they would not produce a summer show in the park. The news was late in the season and many in town thought that the festival would close for good.
"We don't bury anything until we're sure the corpse isn't breathing," said board president Julie Fast in the now defunct Portsmouth Magazine. "We are absolutely undone about it. It affects the entire town."
On April 13, 1983 the Prescott Park Arts Festival Inc. was incorporated as a non-profit in the state of New Hampshire. This corporation was put together by Will Berliner, owner of Macro Polo, Julie M. Fast, the Board's first president, Frank Moulton of the NH Art Association, Eileen Foley, the Mayor of Portsmouth and Attorney John R. Maher, later a Trustee of the Trust Funds and judge. It was at this point that the festival started its first moves towards financial independence. A journey that would take more than 15 years.
The financial struggle for the now independent festival reached a crisis after the summer of 1984 when Lil' Abner was presented as the main stage production. The cash flow was negative and it looked unlikely that there would be a festival in the summer of 1985. Determined to pick up the festival by its boot straps Jameson French, Anita Freedman, David Choate, Mary Carey Foley and Eileen Foley borrowed $10,000 to keep the festival going. The loan was organized by Tom Manero at Indian Head Bank.
"We all signed for a personal loan," said Eileen Foley, who also admitted she had never told her husband about the loan. "We went to the bank and the only way they would give us the money to get it started was if we all co-signed the paper, and we all did. We really put our necks out, but we felt it was needed. We thought if we could just get it started that it would prove itself. I'll never forget that first night because we were all so excited when we started to hear the people applauding."
To make the festival work, board members and volunteers gave up much of their personal time, as well as donations of money and expertise, to ensure the its success.
"We were down there every single night because we had to prove that it could work," explained Foley as she recounts her memory. "We heated the rolls and steamed the hot dogs every night. The first couple of years were very tough going. After everyone left we would walk around and pick up all the trash on the ground so we wouldn't have to pay someone else to do it. We did a lot of improvising because we had to and we tried everything."
The first few years were hard on all those involved; though no one complained. All of the festival's supporters knew that if they persevered, the hard work would pay off. Many involved were dedicating all of their free time and energy to the project. It was a startling blow when Julie Fast, the board's first president and a book store owner on State Street, died of breast cancer. For many, Julie's dedication to the idea of the festival was enough reason to re-dedicate themselves to the project.
Those early years also served to solidify friendships that have lasted to this day. Many spent their daytime hours practicing their profession only to skip dinner to go and work down at the park.
"The camaraderie amongst the Board members at that time was truly unbelievable," said David Choate, board member from 1984-88 and former board president. "Every Board member pitched in to do an equal share of nights during the summer - whether it was working the concession stand, collecting donations at the gates, working the crowd or whatever else needed to be done."
By the early 1980s, the festival had developed a consistent format of one main-stage musical production with performances on four evenings each week. The musical was complemented by a diverse series of music and dance concerts that emphasized American art forms and which highlighted local performers. Aside from live performances, the arts festival also screened movies including Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Over the years the festival has also offered a full-scale art show featuring the work of local artists.
"We always knew that we had a lot of talent here on the Seacoast," said Grace Casey. "We never could have guessed that it would still be going on 25 years later."
In the early 1980s, many of the names and faces that became synonymous with the festival were leaving their mark. Nancy and Scott Weintruab served in a variety of functions from actor to director to producer to ensure the success of the outdoor festival. Michael Warhurst, who became the head gardener of the park in 1975 and who 24 years later still tends to the famous gardens, booked much of the musical entertainment.
It was music to the ears of festival organizers when in the late-1980s Jameson French, then Chairman of the Greater Piscataqua Community Foundation, started an endowment for the festival with matching funds provided by Portsmouth entrepreneur Joseph Sawtelle. This endowment could be used to support the festival in the future. Though the endowment still exists today, it provides the festival with less than one-half of one percent of its budget.
The arts festival is supported in a variety of ways, but over the years the emphasis has been placed on corporate sponsorship and the donated dollars from those who attend events at the park. Over the years the arts festival has been supported by a virtual "who's who" of the corporate landscape. Liberty Mutual, Portsmouth Regional Hospital, Pepsi, Northland Forest Products, Blake Insurance and The Edgewood Center all have more than a 15-year sponsorship history with the arts festival. These companies, along with more than 100 businesses each year, support a truly unique festival.
What continues to be unique about the arts festival is its reliance on variety and cultural diversity. In 1978 the season included the musical Once Upon A Mattress and performances by the Eastern Brass Quintet, the Argyle Highlanders and the John Wayne movie classic Stagecoach. The 1981 season featured Annie Get Your Gun, children's art classes and a performance by the Electronic Art Ensemble. In 1989, No, No Nanette was presented alongside concerts by the Seacoast Wind Ensemble and Leon Redbone. The 1993 season featured the World War II radio play The Big Broadcast, mime Trent Arterberry and the Marvelettes. 1998 featured Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella, Schoolhouse Rock, Romeo and Juliet and a World Premiere work from Ballet New England.
"I have always found that the disciplines in the arts should not be separated," said Jon Kimball during the festival's 20th anniversary. "An actor can learn from a sculptor, a sculptor can learn from a violinist and a violinist can learn from a dancer."
Learning has almost always been a part of the arts festival's history. Initially, art classes were the backbone of the festival. For more than 10 years classes were presented in a variety of mediums including sculpture, ceramics, silk screen printmaking, collage and more. Free interactive demonstrations were sponsored by the New Hampshire Art Association in the early 1990s. The performing arts were also represented in the early years with classes in acting, voice, dance, theater and design. Those classes were resurrected in 1997 with the addition of the Prescott Park Arts Festival Academy, an intense four-week training session for young performers.
In its 29-year history the arts festival has had many milestones not only for the park, but also for the Seacoast. In 1991, folk activist Richie Havens attracted 7,000 people to the park in a single performance. Those large numbers have also been recorded for performances of The Wizard of Oz and Annie. Early rockers Danny and the Juniors, the Marvelettes and Herb Reed and the Platters have all performed at the park. The Mamas and the Papas and Peter, Paul and Mary performed at arts festival fundraisers off site. The festival has also presented more than 7,000 square-feet of the AIDS Memorial Quilt in 1996, New Hampshire's largest display.
The festival has also played host to performers and friends from around the world. Opera Comique from Portsmouth, England; the Ayrshire Fiddle Orchestra, from Ayrshire Scotland and the Hampshire Youth Orchestra from Hampshire, England have all performed at the park. The English influence can also be felt in The Piscataqua Faire - A Renaissance on the Waterfront, a three-day interactive event added in 1997 and featuring more than 20 shows daily at neighboring Pierce Island Park.
"My favorite thing is the incredibly magical experience of enjoying a community musical on a clear summer night, under the stars with the moon glistening on the Piscataqua River," said David Solomon, board president in 1994.
Over the years the festival has both flourished and seen hard times. Due to unusually inclement weather and some bad decision making, the festival almost closed for good in 1983, 1987 and 1994. Despite the success of the previous years, the festival was still struggling to find that right financial balance. Thanks to increased sponsorship, increased programming and swelling attendance, the arts festival has for the first time in its history become self-sufficient since 1995.
Of course, over the years there have been many that have held the reigns of the festival. Without their guidance and vision, the arts festival might just be a memory. Executive Directors Jon Kimball, Jamie Batson, Richard Sabol, Michael Greenblatt and George Hosker Jr. among others, have all made invaluable contributions to the quality of life here on the Seacoast.
The festival has varied in length from six to eight weeks and over the years has expanded both its reach and its scope. Currently the arts festival presents more than 100 events annually featuring all local talent. Aside from presenting shows, the festival now produces the majority of its presentations. Since 1995 the festival has also produced and become the home of the Seacoast Jazz Festival, The New Hampshire Shakespeare Festival, The Folk and Acoustic Festival, The Percussive Dance Festival and The Piscataqua Faire - A Renaissance on the Waterfront. In 1997 the festival updated its mission.
The Purpose of the Prescott Park Arts Festival is to provide a financially accessible, quality multi-arts festival to a diverse audience. Implicit in this charge is the exercise of cultural leadership, sensitivity to the community and fiscal responsibility.
Aside from its cultural contributions, the Prescott Park Arts Festival also greatly adds to the Economy of the Seacoast. In 1993 the firm of Davidson-Peterson Associates, Inc. conducted a visitor's survey at the park. They concluded that each visitor spends an average of $400.00 on food, lodging and incidentals while here in Portsmouth. More than 50 percent of the visitors say they come to town solely to attend arts festival events. Estimates of the festival's impact on the community are that it generates $12 million annually for the area.
But the festival's real mission is to present a wide variety of family-friendly programming. All of this is done without the benefit of a fixed admission. As a matter of fact, so many people attend festival events with their family that most residents of the Seacoast experience their first live performance at Prescott Park.
"Where could you get more pleasure in Portsmouth than to be in Prescott Park where you can see people of all ages enjoy all the wonderful talent that we have here on the Seacoast," said Anita Freedman, former president and arts festival board member and worker for 25 years. "I think Prescott Park is the best thing the City of Portsmouth gives to its people. It is truly the jewel of the Seacoast."