It actually wasn’t originally meant to be.
In the mid-1990s, Erie was all about riverboat gambling. Okay, maybe we weren’t all about it, but it was a popular topic during those times. Without going into great detail and just to give you a frame of reference, it was the summer of 1996 and the Pennsylvania house judiciary committee was holding hearings to try pass legislation that would make gambling legal in Pennsylvania. Tom Ridge was governor, Ed Rendell, Jr. was mayor of Philadelphia, and Celebrate Erie was known as We Love Erie Days (I just threw that in there for good measure). Much later, we would eventually get our gambling wish; at the time Gov. Ridge promised to veto the bill if passed. There was much opposition in and around the area, and ultimately, the project failed and the riverboat folks packed up their stuff and left.
That was pretty much when Ray Schreckenghost, director of the Port Authority received the call.“The bank that owned the Liberty Park slip at the time called us up and asked if we’d be interested in purchasing it,” Ray explains. “Since the river boat folks so quickly up and left, we were promised a good deal on it.”
The Port would ultimately agree, but at first had no thought of what to do with it. “At this point, Perry’s Landing was operating as a marina, and there were substantial permit requirements as part of the original plan. We came up with a plan to create a park in the area, but we wanted to get rid of the original requirements because they were tied to the riverboat project and had no bearing on what we could do with the space.”
So, with that, Ray and the Port Authority went to the state and asked them for a new permit based on their plan, which was to create an eight-and-a-half acre park at the end of the pier. The state delivered.
Build It and They Will Come
“Afterwards, I called up Dan Dahlkemper and told him we thought it would be great to build an amphitheater at the end of the lake. The city had a ton of sandy soil they were trying to get rid of, and we were able to utilize it for the foundation. At that point we had to figure out the stage – the size and placement.” So they called up the folks at the Erie Philharmonic. “We asked them how big of a stage they needed to fit their entire orchestra, and that’s what we worked with. After that, we started calling up manufacturers, found a great stage cover for a decent price, and we were on our way.”
In order to help cover the costs, Ray thought someone might be interested in the naming rights. “We looked at a bunch of different people and groups and ultimately narrowed it down to Coke and Pepsi vying for the rights. With the sponsorship came all the pouring rights [a.k.a., distributing their product] during the series. Ultimately Pepsi won out and they committed for 10 years. The funds from the sponsorship paid for the bands. It was a win-win for both groups.”
The Birth of the 8 Great
The Port Authority’s marketing director at that time, Rebecca Martin, suggested creating a concert series on their own. According to Robin Waldinger, accountant and event promotions coordinator for the Port Authority, “We decided on Tuesday night because at that time, much wasn’t going on in the area, and we thought we could draw a crowd.” As for the name, “We came up with the name mainly because they wanted to cover the months of July and August. She adds laughing, “It really doesn’t have any great backstory—there’s eight weeks in those two months, and it just rhymed with the word great.”
With that came the birth of 8 Great Tuesdays; I now bring you to the Erie Reader’s third and final cover in a trilogy of summer music festival stories.
The three “Rs” are the major players: Ray, Robin, and now Ron. “We really have a small crew that works the event,” Robin says. “Aside from our core team of three to four, there’s probably only eight to 10 others that help make this possible. One of the key players we couldn’t do without though is Ron Esser, or ‘Moondog’ as we call him.”
Ron is the man behind the music, the one that books all the bands for the event. He spends his time between Pittsburgh and Erie, as he’s also the owner and operator of Moondogs and the Starlite lounge in Pittsburgh. And the ‘captain obvious’ that I so eloquently refer to myself as, I quickly gather is where his nickname derives from.
I spoke with Ron on the phone during his travels between Pittsburgh and Erie. “I’ve been with this group from the beginning, which was about 13 years ago. When we started the series, if we got 500 people, we were elated. Over the years because of hard work by the Port Authority and their dedication to the project, it’s truly grown into a phenom. We try to give as many local bands as we can a chance to play because it’s important to everyone involved to promote the local scene.”
Right around the beginning of the series, the Port Authority brought the Army Field Band and Chorus in to perform. Ray tells me, “That’s when we found out all the problems: parking, access to the park, and other small things. So, we knew we immediately needed to take care of those issues.”
Ultimately the group sophisticated themselves with the operation. “We put together a shuttle service with EMTA, and we got our liquor license,” Ray adds. The Port actually had to have a new law written to cover their license. Ray goes on, “We are the only third-class city Port Authority liquor license in Pennsylvania for an open air amphitheater without seating. We got that passed, and we were able to start selling beer, which has ultimately become one of our greater revenue generators since.” I inquired whether distributors got exclusivity. “When it comes to alcohol, it is actually against the law to sell exclusively when you have a liquor license. However, we did give Pepsi exclusive pouring rights as our naming sponsor and we’ve pretty much had the same food vendors over the last five to 10 years. With that group, if they sign with us two years in a row, we do give them exclusivity. We don’t have a lot of room for vendors so we do what we can to support each other because we want to keep them there.”
But what was once Pepsi, is now Burger King. “Pepsi’s agreement was for 10 years. After that Burger King stepped in and committed for seven years. We are in our third year with them, and they’ve done many great things to engage the crowd even more. They often bring T-shirt guns and they would shoot out the T-shirts. If the kids wore them the next week they’d invite them on the stage. They’ve been incredibly great to work with.”
I gather – having done the math – that the Port has hosted 96 bands for the 8 Great Tuesday night series. Given that number, and the fact that the group is entertaining thousands of people every week, I figure there have to be stories that most of us may not be privy to. For both Robin and Ray, The Guess Who concert is probably most memorable.
“During the set up for the concert, there was this incredible downburst,” Robin says. “We all ended up in this small 10-by-10 storage shed to protect us from the weather. We kept looking out, hoping it would pass, and at one point I look out and see one of the docks from Perry’s Landing floating by.” Ray jumps in, “The storm was crazy—although it ripped off one of the docks, it didn’t touch anything else. It did quickly pass through, and we immediately got to work. We lucked out because the weather was great for the concert.”
And The Guess Who stayed long after. “We couldn’t get rid of them until Friday,” Ray tells me. We played golf with them and the following night we took them to Jr’s Last Laugh for the dueling pianos. However, the piano player and the singer got on stage, grabbed a guitar, and did the concert all over again. The audience had no idea what was coming. Some of the other groups would head out downtown after the concert – the crooked i or other bars. You just never know what they’re going to do.”
Back in 2006, when Rick Derringer was set to play, the show almost didn’t go on. And, if you don’t know him, one of his claims to fame is his band, The McCoys. They recorded the No.1 hit “Hang On Sloopy” in the summer of 1965, knocking “Yesterday” by The Beatles out of the top spot. “When Derringer came to visit, his bass player’s guitar did not arrive on the same flight,” Robin shares. “It actually got put onto a later flight into Erie, and he absolutely refused to play without it. John Mulligan, our facilities person, had to have another employee race to the airport and retrieve it.”
Thankfully, the bass was retrieved and the show went on. “Personally, for me, it was one of my greatest experiences because I had to bring Derringer and his band to the park for sound check. I was sitting on the edge of the stage and Derringer started playing some amazing songs that he cannot or does not perform during his show. It is something I will always treasure!”
The three Rs also have big designs for the future - if they can get the funds, which come through sponsors, vendors, and the state. “We do want to expand the area and put up picnic shelters and benches and create a larger seating area,” Ray explains. But as for his dream project? “There’s a million-dollar concession stand we’d like to build with restrooms and a deck area on top. And of course I’d love to bring in Gordon Lightfoot.”
And they’ve tried other projects that haven’t quite worked as well as hoped. “There’s always so much going on around the concert,” Ray adds. “We have the playground for the kids, and the volleyball courts. In the winter, we also tried creating an ice skating rink, but there was no way to keep the ice smooth. They just don’t work surrounded by open lake air.”
Although Liberty Park has a capacity of 5,000, even a bad weather day still draws quite a crowd. According to Ray, “It did rain for Ron Yarosz one year, and we probably only got about 2,000 people.” I think in my book, 2,000 people is still quite a number. “Plus, we do get a lot of out-of-towners, people from other areas that can’t believe our concerts are actually free. They’ll call to see how much the tickets cost and when we tell them it’s free, they still don’t at first comprehend that. They can’t understand why we’re not charging for some of the acts we bring in. Many of the folks also get there early to just camp out, sit around and chat with their friends, or just relax and read until the concerts start.”
Ray and Peggy Fitzgerald are two Erieites that are regular concert goers. “We’ve been going to them since the beginning, and we love it,” Ray tells me on the phone, and adds chuckling, “Granted, we love some more than others - depending on the style of music.” One of Ray’s personal favorites is country western artist Don Williams. “I remember the night well. It was so cold, but it was such a great performance we couldn’t leave. I’ve also heard one of the best military bands ever during their concert series and trust me, I’ve seen many of them over the years.”
They do make it a point to get there early. “We like to grab our regular spot, and it’s just great to see all the people go by. It really doesn’t matter your age—it’s always fun to people watch. There are so many great side performances going on. We’ve seen hula-hoopers and swing dancers in front of the stage. It’s really just a fun place to be.”
Jerry and Roseanne Stork are also avid lovers of the series and good friends to the Fitzgeralds. “We’ve also been going for years,” they both tell me on the phone. Jerry adds, “I have noticed that Burger King really does a great job in engaging the audience. They give out a lot of prizes and T-shirts, and in fact my wife got one and wore it to the next concert. They ended up picking her out of the crowd and gave her a prize for wearing the T-shirt. That was fun for us.”
Regardless of age, people do indeed love the new level of engagement and those free T-shirts, and this testimonial confirms that.
Although they love all the concerts, they are particular about what they truly enjoy listening to. “At our age we really aren’t into the hard-rock stuff,” Jerry adds jokingly. “But I just turn my hearing aid down.” I laugh as he tells me this. “Plus, we go to hang out with our friends.” As for their favorite band so far? “Oh we have so many. They have had some great acts. I remember the Red Elvises, which are a Russian-American rock ‘n’ roll band - they were pretty great.” In addition to the hearing aid comment, I can pick up he’s a bit of a jokester, since he closes by telling me, “It’s also great because it doesn’t cost anything. ‘Free’ is a magic word. Anything with ‘early bird specials’ or ‘free’ always gets us.”
The concert series is now in its 13th year. During its 10th anniversary, the Port revamped their logo, which is still utilize today. And while you may have seen some of these groups, they always try to bring in new acts, and this year is no different. According to Robin, “I guess if there’s a theme, we’re really covering music from the different decades.” And as I learn the bands, I realize they do cover quite an array. “Our debut concert will feature The Wailers.” Yes, The Wailers, the ones that backed Bob Marley—the “No Woman No Cry,” “Three Little Birds,” and “I Shot the Sherriff” ones. Although they did make their Erie debut back in 2004 for Celebrate Erie, the rain hurt the gathering. Hopefully this time, they can hope for some better weather.
In addition, fan favorites Jake’s Blues and Ron Yarosz will also perform.
I connected with Jake via email only to learn he is currently halfway across the world. “I am always grateful for the opportunity to play such a great stage. When a local band works hard to put together a big show, and the fans show up to support us, that’s really what is all about for us – supporting the local scene. Not only is the atmosphere incredible being on the water, but nothing brings friends together like a great outdoor summer event.”
While drawing well-known acts from across the country is an impressive feat for the series, booking artists from our own backyard and keeping it local is something our city takes pride in. Anytime Erie can promote its talented local music scene or patronize local shops or restaurants, we as a community recognize the importance of recognizing talent from within, especially since playing these concerts can become a tradition for some bands.
“It’s become a tradition, and I feel great pride because it’s Erie’s own thing,” Jake confirms. “Other cities have their own regular programs, but we have 8 Great Tuesdays. I have had the opportunity to open shows for many nationally known artists. But nothing compares to hitting the stage down on the waterfront. We get to see familiar faces and rock out for night! The energy that the crowd brings and the incredible atmosphere that surrounds us. What’s better than that?”
A few weeks into the series, Ron Yarosz and the Vehicle will open for Bill Warton “The Sauce Boss.” Warton is a slide guitar blues artist that wears a chef’s hat on stage and cooks a big pot of gumbo while he plays, adding ingredients throughout the concert and then serves it up at the end of his performance.
Ron, who’s played 8 Great Tuesdays so many times he could be considered as the fourth R, tells me, “I’ve seen this guy numerous times in Pittsburgh. He’s awesome. He’s also performed at the old Docksider a couple of times. The crowd loves him, and I don’t think anyone could be disappointed seeing this guy in action.”
Ron has been going to 8 Great series long before he started playing them. “I played Moondogs in Pittsburgh years back and that’s how I got to know Ron Esser and some of the other crew. In years past, I’ve played an acoustic solo gig, with my band the Vehicle, and a tribute band to the Allman Brothers. I love working with everyone—the sound company is great and there probably isn’t a better venue in Erie as far as I’m concerned.” When he’s not playing, he still attends the shows. “Sometimes I’ll go by boat and hang out on the water. Usually I’ll take my kids down with me. It’s a great family environment.”
The rest of the headliners for the summer, in no particular order include: William Dell and Wee Jams, a long-running Pittsburgh group with horns that plays vintage-sounding 1950s and 1960s rock; Midnight Special, covering classics from the 1970s and 1980s including Led Zeppelin, Queen, Journey, and Styx; Sponge, a 1990s Detroit grunge/alternative band known for “Have You Seen Mary;” The Igniters, a rhythm and blues/soul/root group; One World Tribe, a personal favorite of mine that combines Hip Hop, Reggae, Funk, Latin Music and World Music genres.
An ‘8 Great’ Escape
All of what I just told you are literal bits and pieces of all that encompasses 8 Great Tuesdays. Throughout you’ve learned the history and the key players, you’ve heard from some fans and musicians about their experiences, and you know what the group hopes to offer in the future. You’ve learned the music is designed to appeal to all ages, and the environment that surrounds the stage is created for the young and young at heart. The camaraderie amongst friends – whether it’s little ones playing on the playground, teenagers partaking in a funnel cake and Coke, or adults grabbing a beer and camping out with their blanket and chairs – that it is all part of the scene, and ultimately, you realize there literally is something for everyone.
And now that you know everything you really need to - allow me to leave you with this:
You’ve arrived at the park on a comfortably warm and beautiful Tuesday night. After chatting with a few friends and grabbing a drink, you lay out your blanket that you’ve set up a little ways back from the stage, close enough to see the musicians but far enough away to take in all the sights and sounds. There’s a cool breeze in the air, one that feels great because of the heat, but also windy enough to help move the sails that go by on the lake in front of you. It’s getting later, and you start to notice the cerulean blue sky and its bright yellow sphere transition into ambient hues of orange and deeper shades of red that foreshadow the coming of night, until that very moment when as if all at once the lake seems to swallow the sun and the small bits of stardust in the dark blue sky just magically appear as the breeze carries the smell of funnel cakes to where you sit on the lawn in awe.
In the midst of all this, you’ve managed to tune out all the sounds around you except for the amazing slide blues guitarist playing on the stage in front of you. You listen to the grand transitions in pitch alongside the incredible melody he’s developing as the steel bar moves along the guitar’s strings without ever lifting off. You wonder what it’s like to play such an instrument, and for a moment, you wish you had stuck with the music lessons your parents once made you take. And then after you walk through those memories, you think, this time out loud to your friend next to you, that you could literally do this every day.
And in turn, she agrees, having not heard anything that had just gone on in your head but knowing exactly what you had just been thinking.
And that, my friends, is just one-eighth of 8 Great Tuesdays.
For a full schedule of openers and dates, be sure to go to www.porterie.org/8-great-tuesdays/.
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