Rewind: July 5, 1957

You always remember your first. As the curtain rose on 1955, the Metropolitan Opera presented its first African-American cast members: contralto Marian Anderson as Ulrica in Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera and, three weeks later, baritone Robert McFerrin as Amonasro in Verdi’s Aida. McFerrin was subsequently specially chosen by composer/conductor Virgil Thomson to breathe life into his Five Songs from William Blake—both the singer’s Ravinia and Chicago Symphony Orchestra debuts—on a program of Thomson’s works at Ravinia on July 5, 1957.
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Rewind: June 17, 1957

You can’t miss it. Nestled in the center of Ravinia and gazing upon the festival’s grand entrance is the Martin Theatre, the immaculate Arts and Crafts–style concert hall that has stood since the park first opened in 1904. But over Ravinia’s 113-year history, it hasn’t always been a stage for the premier chamber musicians—and even small orchestras—of the world. During the first decade of the park’s existence, it was largely used for motion pictures.

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Televised 1966 Ravinia Special Is A Blast From The Past

In 1966, LBJ was president, miniskirts were quickly gaining popularity, and Simon and Garfunkel's "The Sound of Silence" became a hit. This was also the year that WBKB aired The Sound of Ravinia, an hour-long television special that showcased the many sides of Ravinia including classical, jazz, opera, pop, and folk music. It aired on Thursday, August 11, and contains footage from four separate concert dates.
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Explore the Gorgeous Artwork of Vintage Ravinia Program Books

The covers of Ravinia's programs from its opening in 1904 through the 1930s were gorgeous “mini-posters” designed by well-known Chicago-area illustrators. I’d run across them in used bookstores and junk shops, where they were usually mixed in with old magazines and comic books. By the time I left for college, I’d been able to gather together most of the run. You’ll notice names like Hamilton King, James McCracken, Stark Davis, and intaglio artist Allan Weary. There’s also a 1930 program cover designed/illustrated by then Chicagoan Hal Foster, who was between Tarzan strip assignments.

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Ravinia Park Depicted Beautifully In These Vintage Program Ads From The '50s And '60s

There is something magical in viewing vintage advertisements, especially from the ’50s and ’60s. From the photographic/illustrative choices to the verbal style of the copy, it’s possible to get a small sense of what culture was like back then. Ravinia’s old program books contain a wealth of these vintage advertisements, with companies pitching such varied products as stereos, records, fashion, pianos, jewelry, and more. Some make overt references to Ravinia, many containing photographs or illustrations of the park itself to make the Ravinia connection that much stronger. The selections in this post focus on these very ads.

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The Management Regrets... but is sometimes witness to history in the making

It happens all the time. A famous, beloved artist falls ill (or, as is sometimes the unpleasant case, gets what may be regarded as a better offer). It even happens at Ravinia. A famous, beloved artist cancels, and management scrambles for an appropriate replacement.

Some cases become memorable, star-making events. Other cases are quickly, even mercifully, forgotten.

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Lucky Maya Lily Lubelfeld has free Ravinia Festival pass for life

Young Maya Lily Lubelfeld of Deerfield will be going to the Ravinia Festival for decades—totally for free. Thanks to being the first local baby born on Aug. 15, 2004—the date Ravinia celebrated the centennial of its 1904 founding—Maya received quite the special baby present.

The day she was born, conductor James Conlon visited Maya and her mother that morning at Rush North Shore Skokie to award the infant the one-and-only lifetime lawn pass ever issued at Ravinia.

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Rewind: July 25, 1936

July 25, 1936: George Gershwin's Sole Ravinia Performance

After the Chicago Symphony Orchestra took residence at Ravinia on July 3, 1936, perhaps the next great highlight of that summer came just a few weeks later. Thousands descended upon the freshly reinaugurated festival in hopes of seeing—but most certainly for the chance to hear—the inimitable pianist, composer, and songwriter George Gershwin.

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Rewind: July 3, 1936

July 3, 1936: The CSO Residency Kicks Off

In 1936 Ravinia and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra began an enthusiastic partnership in presenting history’s greatest music in a uniquely lush and comfortable setting, and 80 years later that dedication is as strong as ever, forming the cornerstone of the festival’s classical mission, which also encompasses chamber music, recitals, kids concerts, Reach*Teach*Play, and Ravinia’s Stean’s Music Institute. Even before the relationship became official the CSO was a regular guest, dating back to 1905 as the Theodore Thomas Orchestra. Over the 17 concerts that compose its residency at Ravinia this summer, the CSO will play works that are just as powerful today as they were during that first season—from Beethoven’s Seventh, Brahms’s Second and Fourth, and Dvořák’s “New World” Symphonies to such orchestral delights as Respighi’s Pines of Rome and Strauss’s Don Juan to the playful swirl of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.

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Louis Armstrong: Ravinia's Spartacus

Armstrong was the first great international star I ever saw in person. The press coverage of his Ravinia debut not only endorsed my choice, but befitted a larger occasion as well. Jazz was still very new to Ravinia then, and it still seemed utterly contradictory to mention the two words in the same sentence. When Benny Goodman had appeared at Ravinia in August 1938, fresh from his triumph at Carnegie Hall earlier that year, the young crowds seemed to frighten the park management, even as the dollars they brought in wiped away an entire season’s deficit in two hours. But it would be 17 years before jazz would be invited back to Ravinia.

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Vintage Stereo Ads Claim To Recreate That Ravinia Sound

I was surprised when I encountered a 1957 ad for the “Ravinia” Webcor turntable with very little information about its connection to Ravinia. At first I thought maybe it was just a coincidence that it shared the name of America’s oldest music festival, but further digging uncovered another ad from 1954 that gets as close as possible to referencing the festival itself without explicitly doing so. It states, “… you have the unmistakable impression that a ‘live’ orchestra is performing in your presence. That’s why the experts call the Ravinia’s performance—‘living presence.’” Coincidence? I think not.

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Ravinia: There and Back Again #2

As winter approaches, we would like to shake up our version of a snow globe to reminisce about summer days.  On August 23, 1974, patrons enjoy the warm summer breeze as The Joffrey Ballet dances Remembrances to music by Richard Wagner and choreographed by Robert Joffrey.

Ravinia: There and Back Again #1

Although Ravinia Park originally served as an upscale destination for passengers of the new Chicago & Milwaukee Electric Railroad in 1904, within a few years it became apparent that the enterprise was not profitable, and the railroad company looked to unload the Highland Park property it owned. Fearing the site would devolve into a cheap amusement park, local residents purchased the land and in 1911 established The Ravinia Company, under whose supervision the park became primarily a summer venue for classical music. Performances of operatic music began to dominate the repertoire, and by the end of the decade Ravinia had established a reputation as summer opera capital of the world. From June 30 to September 3 of 1917, the year this photo was taken, Ravinia presented 54 performances featuring scenes and acts from no fewer than 20 different operas.

'Such Sweet Thunder' Live From Ravinia in 1957

We ran across this clip unearthed by YouTube user 'Reminiscing in Tempo' of a world premiere radio performance of Such Sweet Thunder from the "Shakespearean Suite" with music by Duke Ellington & Billy Strayhorn* from July 1, 1957. While double checking to verify the recording  we found a note buried in the archives is a letter from the booking agent confirming that it’s the first public performance, mentioning that he hopes one of the radio networks will pick it up for national broadcast, which given that we have this recording; CBS did! He also adds a jab at our weather: “Now if there was a way we could get a guarantee that it would not rain, I think we are in business.” Enjoy!

*unable to verify Billy Strayhorn's involvement via program notes.