When labor unrest jeopardized her labor of love, Lurene Frantz had to think fast.
It was 1978, her first year serving as the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts director. Penn State workers went on strike, and this spelled trouble.
Back then, most of the festival took place along College Avenue and on campus with the university providing support services. Frantz had a crisis on her hands.
“The campus was the focus, and clearly if the service personnel, who are the backbone of getting these kind of events done, weren’t available, we had to move it,” she recalled. “It was a really wild time.”
But the show had to go on, so solutions were found — a tent on a fraternity lawn, storefront displays, a vacant gas station for the artists’ headquarters, a parking lot performance stage, street food booths, children’s events in the Central Parklet. Out of necessity, the festival grew, becoming the forerunner of today’s sprawling downtown extravaganza.
“It changed the focus of what we could do with the festival,” Frantz said.
From 11 years as director, five before that leading children’s events and other volunteer experiences, she maintains a wealth of Arts Fest stories. Now, some are part of an ongoing Centre County Historical Society exhibition commemorating the festival’s golden anniversary.
“Arts Festival at Fifty: Stories of the Early Days” presents an interactive retrospective of the festival’s heritage back to its 1967 debut. Running until Oct. 15, the exhibition at Centre Furnace Mansion features festival pictures from noted local photographers Dick Brown and Pat Little; posters, banners and other memorabilia; and interviews with organizers, participants and artists.
There’s much to display, but the society and its partners, the festival and the Art Alliance of Central Pennsylvania, want more. As final festival preparations count down to Wednesday, exhibition organizers are inviting the public to contribute festival stories either at the mansion or online at CentreHistory.org.
“We’re looking for the stories,” said Johanna Sedgwick, the society’s marketing and events coordinator. “We know they’re out there. Everyone has Arts Fest stories.”
Like Frantz, Pam Lautsch reminisced for the exhibition. Her longtime festival association includes more than 25 years and counting as the sidewalk sale coordinator.
Not surprisingly, some of her fondest recollections center on enduring friendships with exhibitors.
“It’s hard to summarize one event, but I can say in a kind of silly way, it’s been my once-a-year BFFs coming back,” Lautsch said. “It’s the relationships I’ve developed with the artists.”
Even better now, she can keep in touch between reunions, thanks to social media.
“It used to be in the early days, I only saw them when they showed up,” she said. “Nowadays, you can maintain the relationships from afar.”
One of her Arts Fest stories, though, didn’t happen at the festival.
She was in a New Mexico laundromat after finishing a hike. As luck would have it, her only clean shirt touted Arts Fest. When traveling, she likes wearing Penn State or festival shirts to spark conversations, and that day, she again found success.
Other patrons, noticing her apparel, remarked they had been to the festival and loved it. Soon, they were chatting about State College; instant pals. It all felt familiar to Lautsch. In her experience, Arts Fest shirts often draw in alumni or former residents — a testament to the festival’s popularity and reputation.
“People relate to it,” Lautsch said. “I find that very warming, that they remember the events. They remember those parts of their lives when they were in State College.”
For Frantz, the festival generated enough stories to fill her own exhibition.
There was the time First Lady Ginny Thornburgh, the wife of Gov. Dick Thornburgh, came up from Harrisburg to see the festival. Frantz arranged a special itinerary, starting with refreshments at Penn State’s University House, then the president’s home.
“It was just a wonderful day, a great opportunity,” Frantz said. “It just made us feel special, and it was nice to show off the town.”
As if they happened last month, myriad festival moments stand out for her — expanding the early children’s events and displays, helping launch the Ambassadors and Trash Crew programs, working with Penn State crews to store art safely overnight in Sackett Building for artists with campus booths, to name a few.
Along the way, she befriended scores of volunteers, artists and performers who helped make her Arts Fest summers a “life-altering” experience.
“I got to work with so many people I wouldn’t have had a chance to meet,” Frantz said.
In a few days, downtown will come alive for the 50th Arts Fest, and a fresh batch of stories will be minted. Perhaps some will be preserved for posterity. The Centre County Historical Society hopes to collect enough festival tales and photos for a permanent archive after the exhibition ends.
To that end, Lautsch urges people to share stories, big or small.
“Just any memory,” she said. “Any memory is important because that little note is what you’ve taken away from the festival. Those little notes are valuable to us.”
Chris Rosenblum writes about local people, places and events. Send ideas to chrisrosenblum@comcast .net.
If you go:
What: “Arts Festival at Fifty: Stories of the Early Days” exhibition
Where: Centre County Historical Society, Centre Furnace Mansion
When: Normal exhibition hours are 1-4 p.m. Sunday, Wednesday and Friday, but for Arts Fest, the exhibition will be open daily Wednesday to Sunday. The mansion grounds also will display past festival banners during the festival.
How to participate: Festival stories can be contributed online at www.centrehistory.org or at the exhibition. To lend a photo for digital scanning, contact Executive Director Mary Sorensen at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 234-4779.