By Donald Liebenson
“Overture, curtains, lights
This is it, you'll hit the heights
And oh what heights we'll hit
On with the show, this is it.”
Readers of a certain age will instantly recognize The Bugs Bunny Show theme song. I think of it every year on the opening of a new Ravinia season.
As a lifelong Highland Parker, one of the things I cherish about Ravinia is that it is one of a handful of childhood icons still in operation. Woolworth, Garnett’s department store, Stash’s, Fell Company, Grant & Grant record store, Big Z Burgers, Chandler’s; all gone. But Ravinia is still making indelible musical memories.
Opening night is an opportune time to reflect on seasons past. My thoughts immediately go to August 5, 1970: Janis Joplin. Prior to the concert, my parents took us for dinner at the Frontier Inn (also long gone; now Bluegrass). From our vantage point, we could see out the window police officers from a reported seven suburbs mobilizing at the Highland Park Police Station and forming a convoy to the park where they no doubt expected an Altamont-like melee (the police would be out in force the next year for Ravinia’s presentation of Jesus Christ Superstar, which attracted almost 19,000 people, topping the previous record held by Judy Collins).
Growing up, I eagerly awaited the arrival of the Ravinia schedule to mark the shows I didn’t want to miss—Iron Butterfly, B.B. King, Ike and Tina Turner… My parents struck a deal with their children; they would accompany us to the rock concerts if we would accompany them to the jazz and classical shows. Not a bad deal: I got to broaden my musical horizons and see and hear Louis Armstrong, Tony Bennett, Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Seiji Ozawa, and Beverly Sills.
There’s a lifetime of Ravinia memories to replay:
1967: The Association introduced one of their hits: “Here’s a song Jerry wrote after he received a letter from the draft board—‘No Fair at All.’
1970: Procol Harum. My first Ravinia concert I attended on my own without parental supervision. Took the train. The conductor pretended the train didn’t stop at the park. I got that a lot that summer.
1972: Folk singer Melanie canceled. In her place, Howlin’ Wolf. This is called counter-programming
1999: Caetano Veloso makes Ravinia a stop on his first US tour. I’m still dancing to “How Beautiful Can a Being Be.”
2002: Back-to-back “Soliloquys” from Carousel. First up, Frank Sinatra Jr. The next night, John Raitt, Bonnie’s dad, who originated the role of Billy Bigelow on Broadway. He wrecked me.
2006: Elaine Stritch killing it on “Woke Up This Morning” from The Sopranos in her cabaret show in the Martin Theatre.
2009: The indefatigable Tom Jones unwilted by scorching temperatures.
2010: Dueling divas Audra McDonald and Patti LuPone in concert.
2017: Mind blown by performance art marching band Mucca Pazza.
2018: Now I’m getting concert recommendations from my adult son. Snarky Puppy!
What heights America’s oldest outdoor music festival will hit this summer remains to be seen, but between Ramsey Lewis on May 31 and Disney’s Coco on September 15 (more than 140 events in all), there is, to quote a Stephen Sondheim lyric, “something for everyone.”
On with the show, this is it.