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.
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."