By Chuck Allen
Temple University Ambler
For 13 years, the music played on.
In 1968, the Temple University Music Festival and Institute was born. The university had recognized that the growth of performing arts could become an asset. But it was looking for an effective way to tie that growth into its educational mission. So when Temple decided to open the Music Festival and Institute, it was with two goals in mind.
First, the Institute would serve as a school for young professional musicians. Close to 300 students from across the country enrolled that first year. Private instruction was offered to these budding musicians. In addition, students often performed at recitals helping them become accustomed to performing on stage. This Institute would serve as a center for discovering and training musicians and talent for many years to come.
Second, the university would hold an annual summer music festival. This would be to display the talented performers from the institute, as well as bring in other talented musicians from across the country. The home of the festival was to be the newly completed amphitheater, a 3,000-seat outdoor facility located behind Temple University Ambler’s commuter lot on Meetinghouse Road. The 500-seat Campus Theater (located at the back of the campus) was used for smaller events, such as chamber music and several institute concerts.
The university was ready to show off its new and impressive investment. Now, it just hoped the community would understand the importance of it.
"Large universities have become a home for the performing arts," said Dr. David L. Stone, then Dean of the College of Music, "and the community as a whole must understand the performing arts contribution to community welfare."
Temple’s message was heard loud and clear. The festival’s first session ran from June 24 until August 4, 1968. It was billed as "42 Evenings of Musical Excellence," and excellence it did produce. That first session saw nationally known acts such as Ella Fitzgerald, Van Cliburn, Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington take the stage. As word of the festival began to spread, audiences grew larger and larger for each performance. Ticket prices ranged from $2 for student recitals to as much as $7 for the national acts.
After the close of the first session, the festival was deemed a huge success. International musicians were making their American debuts at Temple. National musicians were lining up to play. The institute was helping music students further develop their talents. Temple could not have envisioned a better start.
A small message in their 1968 brochure may have stated their optimism about the future of the festival: "It is Temple University’s anticipation that the quality of this Festival and Institute will become a matter of pride for the State of Pennsylvania."
The ten seasons of the Music Festival produced the same results. It became the summer home of the Pittsburgh Symphony. The Pennsylvania Ballet made regular appearances on stage. Student recitals became more regular. But the festival did not lose its national appeal either.
The amphitheater would host the likes of Herbie Mann, Joan Baez, the Four Seasons, and the return of Ella Fitzgerald. It would also help to boost the early careers of performers like Dionne Warwick, Johnny Mathis and comedian Bill Cosby. It would later showcase then-popular national acts like the Electric Light Orchestra (ELO).
The festival had developed into exactly what Temple had hoped it would. In addition to entertaining thousands and thousands of people, it was bringing the university tons of national and international exposure. People were traveling hundreds of miles to perform or watch a show. These visitors would end up leaving with a favorable impression of the university, and especially the Ambler Campus. James M. Shea, then Vice-President for University Relations, would later suggest that the Music Festival and Institute might be partly responsible for the growth of the campus.
However, in early 1980, The Medium (the Ambler Campus newspaper) reported the Music Festival and Institute was facing an uncertain future. It reported the festival had been losing money for many years in a row. Teri Ceraso, then-Business Manager for the Festival, announced that efforts to increase outside funding of the Festival were ongoing. It was their hope that an increase in private donations would allow the Festival to continue on.
But later that year, then-Temple University President Marvin Wachman announced that for the first time in 14 years, the Festival would be shut down. It was now a growing financial burden, and the university needed to cut money to keep some tenured faculty positions. Before the Board of Trustees voted to officially shut it down, the university explored several options to attempt to keep the Festival running. Nothing could be worked out. The university did, however, appoint a panel to study possible future use of the Festival.
Around the same time, the Valley Forge Music Festival filed a lawsuit against the university, alleging that Temple (a non-profit, non-taxed subsidized entity) was “unfair competition.” It charged that the university was illegally using state funds intended for educational purposes to produce the Festival. The university denied the charges, but the lawsuit was later dropped. That was due to the 1981 announcement from the university that the Festival was "dead."
"The Festival is dead," said Shea in the November 18, 1981 issue of The Medium. "It did not run last season and there are no immediate plans for this year or the future."
Raymond C. Whittaker, then-Director of Public Relations for the Festival and campus, would later state the Festival was in serious debt from 13 seasons of performances. Studies revealed there was simply not enough public funding to continue. Many were saddened by the announcement. Whittaker would later say he thought the Festival was "the greatest thing Temple University had going for it…and I don’t know if anything can replace it." Then-Ambler Campus Dean Sydney Halpern stated the Festival had helped build Temple’s image in the community.
It would be a few years before talk of reviving the Festival began. In 1984, then-Acting Dean Walter Gershenfeld was interested in getting the Festival back up and running. Then-Temple University President Peter Liacouras appointed a feasibility committee to look into restarting the Festival. Next, new Ambler Dean James Blackhurst continued inquiring about the revival in 1985, but stated that Temple was taking a cautious approach. Meetings and committees would meet off and on again for the next few years, but the university simply couldn’t justify reopening the Festival. By then, the amphitheater had been vacant for many years and just the cleaning and maintenance of the building would have been tremendously costly.
In 1990, a group called the Temple Arts Festival Committee formed. Made up of community members from Upper Dublin, the committee attempted to raise enough money to once again conduct a feasibility study on resurrecting the Festival. Just a few years later, however, a fire ravaged the amphitheater, rendering the building unusable.
The fire may have destroyed the physical remnants of the Music Festival and Institute, but the spirit of it lives on. In the time the festival did run, it helped bring a university respect, and helped build a campus' reputation.
There is still a lingering sound though. That is the sound of the opportunity the Ambler Campus provides. The same opportunity it provided the young musicians. The same opportunity it provides for the students today.
The Music Festival and Institute may be gone, but for some, it will never be forgotten.
And the music will always play on.
Temple University Ambler's exhibit, "Progressive Women in Horticulture: A Driving Force in Philadelphia - 1904 through 1924," a comprehensive salute to a group of women that changed history, won Best of Show in the Academic Educational Category at the 2005 Philadelphia Flower Show with a perfect score of 100 from the judges.
Learn more about the award-winning exhibit here.