Lebanon >> Twenty-five years ago, some said the idea of a free community concert - especially if it were sacred music - would never get enough support to pay for itself in Lebanon.
Now the Music in the Park series is so well-received sometimes people are turned away because the Veteran's Memorial Amphitheater in Coleman Park can't hold any more people.
Chuck Musser, current president of the Music in the Park non-profit incorporation, recalls working with then-prominent businessman Frank Herb on the concert idea in 1990. Herb was bothered that the amphitheater wasn't being used after it was constructed 13 years earlier. When Musser proposed not just community concerts but sacred music concerts in the facility as well, he recalls Herb telling him he didn't think it would generate enough support to pay for it.
Musser was focused on getting performers who played on a national stage.
A few weeks later the men talked again, and Herb challenged Musser to try and get the financial support of the business community to bring these acts in.
The business and arts communities stepped forward and Music in the Park leased the facility from the Coleman Park board. The park is owned by the City of Lebanon.
In the early years, business backing, the generosity of individuals and the free-will offering taken at the concerts covered the cost of putting the season on, but not by much.
"We have never one year been in the red," Musser said. "In the early years we might have had $100 in the bank" at the end of the season.
Today, 36 percent of the Music in the Park budget comes from donations by area businesses and interested individuals. The rest comes from the what is offered by the patrons of the event.
Music in the Park draws patrons from all over south-central Pennyslvania as well as Long Island, N.Y., New Jersey and Maryland. Once a year the board passes out a survey to concert-goers and that's how they get an idea of where folks come from, and what performers should be invited back in two years.
The program is successful for a variety of reasons.
First, the quality of the performances. Musicians are booked at least a year in advance and are nationally recognized. Their names alone draw people to the concerts from several states.
The quality of the amphitheater also factors in.
"We have musicians saying what a great facility, with the sound system and the lights," Musser said. Patrons appreciate the open-air seating - you can bring a lawn chair, a blanket or sit on one of the ledges in the seating area, which was contoured by the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources two years ago to improve the facility.
When it comes to the comfort of the patron, the concert is hard to beat. There is no "gates open" time. Musser said for some acts you can find folks at the amphitheater at noon for concerts that "pack out" the facility. From experience, Musser can tell how full the venue will be based on the crowd size at 5 p.m.
Concert-goers can also bring their own seating, food and drink.
At the conclusion of the evening, the Music in the Park board pays Lebanon Fire Police to help with traffic exiting Coleman Park to keep things safe and moving for concert-goers and local traffic as the two meet on Route 72 at the entrance/exit to the park.
In the 2014 season the concerts averaged 700 attending, with 2,500 a night at the sacred music concerts.
"It shows we're meeting a need in the community," Musser said.
This season, the Music in the Park group is on the giving - not receiving - end of anniversary gifts.
License plate numbers will be announced during the events and the winners will receive a prize. It could be a CD or DVD related to the performance, or gift certificates for local services from grocery shopping to pedicures, or a voucher for a local bus trip.
The pattern for the type of concert in the summer series is this: The first and third concerts of the month are community concerts; the second, fourth and fifth concerts are sacred concerts.
For the first time, this year there is one change to the original scheduled for 2015. The first concert of the year is Tom Strohman Third Stream on June 7. The original act cancelled.
Concerts are held every Sunday from June 7 to Aug. 30 except for Sunday, July 5 -- because that's the rain date for Lebanon City's fireworks.
This year the performers of the first, second, third, fifth and seventh concerts are now veterans of the Music in the Park event. When groups are very well received, the board will invite them back in two years or later. Musser said the summer series is too short to bring folks back year after year.
As is every year, volunteers are needed. Folks are needed to help with parking, product sales (merchandise offered by the performers), to collect the free-will offering, or to help with technology end of things (lighting, sound, etc.)
How many volunteers does it take?
"There's never enough," Musser said with a chuckle.
If you would like to volunteer in some way, visit www.musicinthepark.net, phone 270-7285 or drop a note to PO Box 651, Lebanon, PA, 17042.