“What good is it to be a city on the river that doesn’t celebrate the river?” Susan Schallhorn laughs as she asks a question she knows the answer to very well, a question she answered in 1977 when she took on the inaugural Summer Arts Festival at Murray Park. The question is laughable, especially as that same celebration this year marks its 40th anniversary under the banner it’s now known as: Riverfest.
A seasonal staple, Riverfest is every bit a part of summertime in Little Rock as lemonade and pink shoulders. Natives know it, transplants know it, even neighboring states know the music and arts festival. Over the years, the event has featured some of the world’s biggest music acts, including Chicago, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Boyz II Men, Carrie Underwood, Snoop Dogg and The Flaming Lips, to name just a few.
But despite strangers on the street being able to spout off this year’s headliners and favorite acts of years past, what many don’t know is that Riverfest originated with, and still is, a large component of the Junior League of Little Rock’s community service-driven objective. In fact, Riverfest itself is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.
“The Junior League has always had a community reputation of bringing groups together and organizing events and highlighting assets in the Little Rock community,” Schallhorn says.
It began with Pittsburg. The American Wind Symphony headquartered there set out on a national waterways tour where the group simply loaded up onto a barge and stopped to play free concerts at cities along their route. When the Junior League learned that Little Rock was on the symphony’s map, they went into action planning the Summer Arts Festival.
With Schallhorn at the helm, the fest featured performances from local arts groups — like the Arkansas Repertory Theatre and Ballet Arkansas — that were just beginning to make names for themselves. The team even worked with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build a dock for the incoming barge, and on the last night parked a wall of 18-wheeler trucks behind performers as a sound stage to keep the music from evaporating into the atmosphere.
The Summer Arts Festival was a huge success — so much so that Junior League decided to throw their weight behind it and bring it back for another year, this time with a new name and date. Now officially called Riverfest, organizers had mercy on attendees and changed it to Memorial Day Weekend instead of hosting it in August.
Riverfest soon outgrew Murray Park, moving downtown in 1982 to the Convention Center Plaza, then the next year to its new home at Julius Breckling Riverfront Park. A short four years later, Riverfest was celebrating its 10th anniversary with Teresa Osam holding the reins.
“At that time, the mission of Riverfest was to provide ‘a festival of the visual and performing arts’,” Osam says. “Yes, it has evolved into something else now, but I believe it has been the catalyst for many of the current dynamic events and activities Little Rock offers throughout the year.”
With Osam as chair, the 1987 fest saw a few big changes that set the course for future events, including securing a sponsorship for the Sunday night fireworks show, transforming it from a modest display to a shut-down-the-Main-Street-Bridge “extravaganza.”
Ten years of growth called for backup, and when the 1987 event wrapped up, the first full-time executive director was hired. That growth also called for a more permanent and professional setting for visiting artists. One of Osam’s proudest moments was the Junior League’s endorsement and the Riverfest Board’s pledge to begin construction of the Riverfest Amphitheater.
“Riverfest has been key to the development of Riverfront Park,” Osam adds, “and ultimately, to the creation of a site worthy of hosting a presidential library.”
About Julius Breckling Riverfront Park
The iconic park is dedicated to and named after former Little Rock Parks and Recreation Director Julius Breckling, who worked tirelessly to secure the 33 acres on the south bank of the Arkansas River for public use, including Riverfest.
Another decade later, Kathleen Joiner was sitting chairman for the 20th anniversary celebration in 1997. Like every Junior League member, Joiner signed up for obligatory Riverfest volunteer shifts every year, but she had also attended back in the Murray Park era. For Joiner, accepting the invitation to chair the event “began a journey that helped shape who I am today and still has a big impact on my life.”
But as any Riverfest chair will tell you, it wasn’t easy. Coordinating thousands of volunteers, vendors, sponsors, performers and city officials quickly turned into a 40-hour volunteer workweek on top of her real job and real life. But as any Riverfest chair will also tell you, it was the human aspect that left a lasting mark.
“I started thinking, and I realized I had no idea who the bands were, what attractions we had, but I remember the people and committee,” Joiner says. “You become a family, and it is really ‘one for all and all for one.’ It is exciting to be a part of something that is bigger than yourself.”
Vickie and Greg Hart — co-chairs of the 30th annual Riverfest in 2007 — couldn’t agree more. The fest is a family affair for the Harts. Not only did Greg’s interaction as the first male Riverfest chair open the door for men to be involved in what was previously a female-led community effort, but their kids have also had multiple volunteer and leadership roles within the fest. Greg even remembers being tracked down at the festival and told he’d better get home because his wife was in labor and their son was on the way.
“Riverfest is much more than the music, food and cost of a ticket. It is a group of dedicated individuals from many walks of life who give of their time, talents and energy for much more than one weekend,” Vickie says. “They realize that Riverfest may not change the world, but for one weekend it brings families, friends, neighbors and strangers together to share in some great entertainment in a beautiful setting.”
Riverfest is more than a great volunteer opportunity, too. The festival pumps an estimated $33 million into the local economy through businesses like restaurants and hotels. And with its status as a standalone non-profit, Riverfest, Inc. has donated more than $1 million directly to projects in the downtown area.
“Having the event on the river has brought people in from all over the state, nation and world,” Greg says. “The economic impact is not only felt here in Little Rock, but surrounding areas as well. When that happens, opportunities open for development, from the interactions that people have to experiences they have had here and ones they hope to have in the future.”
Even more changes were in store for the festival over the years. From 2002–2010, Riverfest needed even more room and expanded to the North Shore Riverwalk in North Little Rock and east to the Clinton Presidential Park in 2009.
Then in 2013, when the Riverfest Amphitheater marked its 25th anniversary, Riverfest, Inc. donated $150,000 to aid in repairing the stage’s heavily damaged roof, providing downtown Little Rock with the newly renovated, newly named First Security Amphitheater.
Though the fest looks different now as its own separate intity, Junior League members continue to hold standing positions on the Riverfest Board of Directors, as well as provide a festival chairman and volunteers.
And now Riverfest celebrates its 40th year, this year with Catherine Cole as chair. A Junior League member since 2003, she first got involved with the ins and outs of the festival in 2009. “I’ll admit I was a little hesitant when I got roped into working the kid zone,” Cole laughs, “but I had a ball! I was hooked.”
She’s been on the planning committee ever since and served as co-chair in 2016 when the festival saw its biggest change to date: splitting into two separate events, Riverfest and Springfest.
The idea behind Springfest was to take all of the children’s activities and entertainment and contain them to one full, free day in April. According to Cole, a big part of the decision was to have a kid-friendly event that anyone could afford to attend. Two years in, and families have come out in droves, making it already a new local favorite event.
Friday, June 2: Cage the Elephant / Billy Currington / Grouplove / Colt Ford / Jon Bellion / Dylan Scott
Saturday, June 3: Wiz Khalifa / Justin Moore / Cold War Kids / Cody Jinks / Moon Taxi / Craig Campbell / The Joy Formidable / Cody Canada & The Departed / Seratones / Split Lip Rayfield / Tank and The Bangas / The Wildflower Revue / Dazz & Brie / Runaway Planet
Sunday, June 4: Morris Day & The Time / Amasa Hines / Here Come the Mummies / Andy Frasco & The U.N. / Big Piph & Tomorrow Maybe / The Hip Abduction / Brother Moses / DeFrance / Joan / Vintage Pistol / Jack Ferrara
As for Riverfest, the split was coupled with the decision to no longer hold the event on Memorial Day Weekend in an effort to focus on providing a top-tier music experience. This allowed funds to go toward bigger musical acts who were much easier to book when the concert date wasn’t on a national holiday. Osam even sees the new Riverfest weekend as becoming its own local holiday.
“The goal is to always keep Riverfest current, to keep it moving forward,” Cole says, which is critical as they listen to concerns and work out the kinks from the big split, like scheduling shows on Friday and Saturday instead of Saturday and Sunday.
She, too, grew up spending her Memorial Day Weekends in Riverfront Park and has witnessed first-hand not only the growth of the festival, but the revitalization of downtown Little Rock — in thanks partially to Riverfest.
“It’s been amazing to watch,” she says. “This festival has been able to boost so many positive things for Little Rock and the community here. That’s why opening night is such an amazing sight to see, to watch people walk through those gates with such excitement and joy.”
One way organizers are hoping to bring the happy is with its 40th anniversary bash on Sunday, the last day of the 2017 festival. The event is designed to stir up nostalgia by bringing back activities like kids’ crafts, ice cream, local bands and even an attempt at a new Guinness World Record, all to thank the community for 40 years of fun.
Susan Schallhorn is immensely proud of the trail blazed by Riverfest and Junior League. “It evolved like every good thing does if given the chance,” she says.
She can vividly remember standing on the banks of the Arkansas River in August, covered in sweat and dirt, surrounded by her team, smiling broadly as passers-by asked what would be at next year’s festival.
“No, we didn’t really know what we were getting into, but we knew it was the beginning of something great.”