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90 years of Community Concerts in Lancaster: From Nelson Eddy to Ladysmith Black Mambazo

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The 90th anniversary of Community Concerts. Sampling of programs. Thursday, September 5, 2019

In the last 90 years, the Lancaster Community Concert Association has brought a lot of fine music and dance to the area.

Nelson Eddy, Rudolph Serkin, the Boston Pops Orchestra, the musical “1776” (in 1976, of course), the American Boychoir, Shanghai Opera Symphony Chorus, the Tamburitzans, River City Brass Band, the Chinese Golden Dragon Acrobats and Ladysmith Black Mambazo have all performed at Community Concerts.

This is just the tip of the tip of the Community Concert iceberg, which crashed into Lancaster in 1929, bringing much-needed culture and entertainment with it.

“The origin of Community Concerts was that very small cities and communities could not afford to bring big names to their town,” says Brad Igou, a former board president of Lancaster Community Concerts. “So this one central organization came together, and they would handle all the bookings.”

Each community which belonged to Community Concerts could look at the available acts, check their rates and then create a season from it.

By all being together under an umbrella organization, the acts were less expensive than they would have been separately.

“We started in 1929, and we think we were the second community in the country to join,” says May Roth, current president of the board.

The idea was people would subscribe to a season of concerts. Single tickets were not available until recently.

Originally, the season was three shows, now it’s six.

Prices were low enough that most people could afford a whole season of tickets.

That is still true today.

Individual tickets tend to be $20 for students and $30 for adults. But if you buy the season package, the total cost is only $75.


A colorful history

Through the years, Community Concerts have done well in Lancaster. There wasn’t much competition in 1929. Pretty much none, in fact, except for the Fulton Opera House, which was in decline. It was big news when someone like Nelson Eddy, a star on the rise, came for a concert in 1933.

Soprano Jeanette Vreeland and pianist Jose Iturbe also were on the bill that season.

“We like people to subscribe so they can take a chance on an artist they might not know,” Roth says.

“Eclectic is the word,” Igou says. “We (feature) performers from all over the world. You never know what you’re going to see.”

Igou and Roth do worry about an aging audience and competition from other arts organizations. Unlike 1929, Lancaster is now buzzing with activity.

“I think we have found our niche with international acts,” Igou says, “But people’s habits have changed. People don’t want to commit. That’s why we began selling the single tickets.”

Community Concerts performed at McCaskey High School for decades, but about 20 years ago, they were moved to Lancaster Mennonite High School Fine Arts Center.

“Most artists love playing at our venue,” Igou says. “A shoutout goes to Ryan Rohrer, the technical director at LMHS. He pulls together whatever the artists need.”


International incidents

Of course, complications can occur.

Igou remembers a violinist went to McCaskey instead of LMHS. He just made the concert in time.

The Chinese Acrobats were at LMHS and they brought their woks with them.

“They were cooking food backstage, and the basketball team was playing a game in the gym. One of the hoops the act used caught fire. People in the audience thought it was part of the act. Rohrer suddenly realized if they didn’t do something fast, the sprinkler system would turn on and everyone would be soaked.

“They managed to turn the smoke alarms off just in time,” Igou recalls.

Then there was the time the Orchestra of Russia wanted paid in cash.

That was $12,000 in cash.

Igou left work early, brought an attache case to the bank and took out the money.

“I felt like I was on a secret mission,” he recalls with a laugh.

Weather can sometimes wreak havoc. The 50 members of the National Dance Company of Siberia were heading to a concert in North Carolina when a ferocious snowstorm hit.

“They got there and the venue was closed,” Igou says. “Then they headed to Lancaster, but a road in Virginia was blocked. They were on the road for 24 hours. They arrived in the nick of time, and they were phenomenal. They didn’t miss a beat.”

Roth loves being surprised and even amazed by the artists.

A pushy manager kept bugging her to book Accordion Virtuosi, a group featuring 40 accordion players.

“I thought, I don’t even like one accordion,” Roth recalls with a laugh. “But I agreed to go see a concert, and they were amazing. Just incredible.”

Like everyone else in the organization, Igou and Roth are volunteers. They don’t even get free tickets.

“There are a lot of rewards (of being involved in Community Concerts),” Roth says. “I have made friends throughout the whole world and met some incredible artists.”

And she’s been enjoying the concerts for decades.

“Just about every concert is the best concert ever,” Roth says with a big smile. “Go out, take a chance.”