Even with a leaner budget and the lack of a national headliner, the Summer Arts Festival has been pulling in stronger crowds than ever as the annual festival enters its final weekend, said Chris Moore, the man who’s organized 41 of the 47 festivals.
“The community will support what they value. To be able to know what that is, you’ve got to listen,” said Moore, who officially retires at festival’s end on Sunday. “I’d like to think I’ve been able to bring the community what it wants.”
On the surface, Moore has worked a dream job since 1974 as executive director of the Springfield Arts Council, seemingly spending his days brokering to bring everyone from Rosemary Clooney and Carol Channing to the Gin Blossoms and the Village People to either Kuss Auditorium or the admission-free festival stage in Veterans Park.
“My mom and dad were always afraid I’d never be able to earn a living doing this,” Moore, 65, said. “You know how parents are. But, for many years, I wondered if I’d ever be able to retire.”
What he won’t miss when he retires is all the stuff required to actually keep a nonprofit organization afloat.
The council’s Summer Arts Festival has annually provided between three and six weeks of free entertainment — regardless of the economy — but is made possible with sponsorships and grants Moore and others have had to chase down.
“The thing I’m most proud of is being able to maintain a balanced budget,” he said. “I won’t miss the responsibility of doing that.”
It goes without saying that after 41 outdoor festivals, he also won’t miss the weather.
That June and July weather — be it a downpour, a derecho or just ungodly heat — is a big factor in why Moore didn’t seek more big-name entertainers for the festival stage.
“I don’t think the festival is the place to sock $25,000 into something that could be rained out,” he explained.
But, even from the beginning, the festival has mixed its nationally known stars with locally produced musicals and, as of late, tribute bands.
Through the years, the park has hosted the likes of Duke Ellington, John Legend, Trisha Yearwood and Blake Shelton, and the concept is always the same — no matter your age, race or ability to drop even $1 into the hat, come on down.
For jazz legend Ellington in 1971, “There were people hanging from the trees,” Moore said.
The success of the festival, though, creates unique challenges, especially when the arts council shifts to selling tickets for its indoor series of shows at Kuss Auditorium.
“The blessing and curse of the festival is that it’s free,” Moore said. “At some level, you question whether or not the festival being free leads to people assuming that the arts are free.”
A Fairborn native whose parents faithfully drove over to attend Hillside Avenue Church of God in Springfield, Moore first was tapped to manage the 1973 festival.
“I inherited something that the community already valued highly,” he said. “My responsibility has been to be its caretaker for the next 41 festivals.”
In 1974, after two years of teaching vocal music in the public schools, he was hired to become the full-time director of the newly named Springfield Arts Council.
“In those years, arts councils were trying to create identities for themselves,” Moore said.
In addition to the festival, the local arts council began a school program that continues to this day. From there, in 1981, the council began presenting popular entertainment, first at Memorial Hall and now at Kuss.
“Without question, he’s a real stalwart figure in our field,” Stuart Secttor, executive director of the Clark State Performing Arts Center, said of Moore. “It’s a fun job, but it has many challenges.”
With Moore, “His hard work is evident in all he’s done,” Secttor said. “To stay anywhere these days for as long as he has is something admirable.”
Along the way for Moore, there have been both highs, like presenting the famed Moiseyev Dance Company of Russia, and lows, like presenting comedian Howie Mandel.
“He was so incredibly offensive,” Moore said of Mandel’s show. “He was vicious. It was an evening I don’t care to remember. Dick Kuss (the now-late benefactor whose name is on the auditorium) refused to give us his donation that year.”
Springfield News-Sun reporter Andrew McGinn has covered the positive aspects of the community for nearly 15 years, from its arts offerings to the lives of local veterans.