Good music, good friends and the warm air is what summer is all about for Nell Burrows and the hundreds of others who chill in the open sky amphitheater at Scotia’s Freedom Park each week for the park’s summer concerts.
What began as a dumping ground for cement and construction materials along the Mohawk River, Freedom Park was transformed into an amphitheater for a festival when Schenectady County was selected as one of 32 statewide locations to host the Bicentennial Barge for four days in July of 1976. The barge was an exhibit that traveled New York waterways during the celebration.
Burrows was an integral part of the first celebration in 1976 and continues to play a vital role in the park festivities now as president of the Freedom Park Foundation.
The Glenville resident said the summer following the bicentennial celebration, she and the rest of the committee sat gazing at the structure one evening.
“We thought, we ought to do something,” she said. “We started with just a few shows on Wednesdays. The first year we had eight shows, and they weren’t all concerts. Louise Boika ran a Miss Freedom Park contest and we had a boxing match at one point.” Burrows said.
The idea back then was to provide cheap family summertime entertainment, and now more than 35 years later, the idea is the same. Families continue to flock the Scotia riverfront for free concerts each summer.
“A lot of people just like to make this their summertime fun because it’s free and it’s good,” said Margo Janack, Freedom Park board member.
Today, the amphitheater is the stage for many genres of music, from polka to classical to rock to musical theater.
Being so close to the river, the park and its stage have seen their share of hardship thanks to Mother Nature.
“In the mid-1990s, we had one of the 100-year floods. The icebergs came up high and slid under the stage and took out about a third of the supports,” Burrows said. “The next summer we had to cancel anything that involved dancing or bouncing.”
Fortunately, the village received a grant to build a new and improved stage, said Burrows.
“Jim Denney was mayor at the time. He called me up sounding annoyed saying, ‘We put all this money into the stage – do more shows,’ ” Burrows laughed.
It was then the concerts went from being only on Wednesdays to include Saturdays and eventually Sundays.
“We now have 34 shows scheduled three days a week, and sometimes a fourth,” Burrows said.
Opening night this year brought more than 2,000 people to the park.
“I think it was the combination of Hair of the Dog, which is happy music and appeals to all age groups, and it was the first nice night in a while,” Burrows said.
Janack said typically, a couple hundred to 500 people can be expected at the shows.
“We try to put together a schedule that has something for everyone,” Burrows said, adding that the rock bands usually draw the largest crowds. The classical series will bring 500 to 600 people.
Janack added that people usually pay money to see the Wister Quartet, made of up four members of the Philadelphia Orchestra, but the group performs for free at the park on Aug. 18.
“It’s big-time talent playing locally for free,” she said. “We have The Audiostars coming up who always draw a crowd. On the other end of the spectrum at the end of July, the Joey Thomas Big Band pulls in a very big crowd – both 20-somethings and their grandparents,” Burrows said.
This year, the park will feature Schenectady Light Opera Company’s “High School Musical” performance on Aug. 14, 15 and 17.
“It’s a fun environment. You can get a bite to eat at Jumpin’ Jacks or bring your own coolers. There are a lot of children. Everyone is invited to dance on the dance floor. You see little kids all the way up to seniors get out and boogie,” Janack said.
To this day, both Burrows and Janack said the goal continues to be safe family entertainment.
“Because we are free, early and local, I think we appeal to lots of families with young children and seniors,” Burrows said. “We have a no alcohol and no smoking rules in the park, so it’s a very attractive and safe place for people to bring children.”
Burrows said they have resisted selling alcohol at the shows as other local concert venues abandon dry policies.
“They get some of their income from selling beer. We have always resisted that. We will make it up someplace else. It’s not that kind of venue. I’m reading in the paper about one dead and people arrested at the Phish concert, that’s not us,” Burrows said.
Janack said community is what Freedom Park is all about.
“We welcome everyone to enjoy the free shows. Keep the bad language, alcohol and smoking at home – that’s all,” she said. “There isn’t a lot of good stuff that’s free anymore, but this is it,” Burrows said.
Tonight’s July 17 concert will feature the Audiostars at 7 p.m. On Saturday, July 20, Erin Harkes, a local singer and songwriter whose voice has been compared to that of Janis Joplin, will perform at 7 p.m.
For more information and a complete concert schedule, visit www.freedomparkscotia.com.