VALLEY VOICES: Farewell — After 64 Years

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On Friday, April 9, at 7:30 pm, in the Muskie Auditorium at Mt. Valley High, the River Valley’s venerable Community Concert series concludes its final season.

The concert, a piano recital by Rudolf Budginas, is open to the public. How much are tickets? Admission is free.

“We’re going out with a bang,” Esther Cooper said. “We want to fill that hall.”

Back in 1920, small cities and towns, hungry for culture, were hard put to raise funds sufficient to support concert performances.

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Meanwhile, a Chicago booking agent, Ward French, and his associate, Dema Harshbaarger, had a string of performers thirsty for engagements.

The partners managed to establish a pool of money to pay performers directly for their appearances in those small towns. In turn, local organizations would launch a sales campaign for a season of concerts and send it along to the national Community Concerts organization.

Everybody was happy. Artists were sure of being paid, audiences were sure of being entertained and French was sure of his fees.

The idea took flight. By 1928, French had moved his headquarters to New York City. The concept survived the Depression and World War II.

After the war, Community Concerts organizations proliferated in the United States. Others sprang up in the Caribbean, Canada, Mexico and South America. Community Concerts series crisscrossed Maine — Bangor, Rockland, Lewiston, Augusta and Rumford.

Rumford’s Community Concerts series began in 1946. Concerts took place in the old Stephens High School auditorium, which was reached by a long flight of stairs.

“Not handicap accessible,” Cooper observed. When the new Rumford High School opened in 1970, Community Concerts moved into it, too.

When Stuart and Esther Cooper came to Rumford in 1960, Community Concerts members numbered some 500. For this 2009-2010 season, the number is about half that.

What happened? Television happened. And travel to Portland, Lewiston, or Augusta for concerts is no big deal today, although, Esther pointed out, a ticket for just one concert in Portland can be the price of a season of Community Concerts.

Also, the region’s population has shrunk, a lot.

“Back then,” Esther noted, “the mill hired young people straight out of high school. Menial jobs, but they worked their way up.”

But then, around 1964 or ’65, the mill began hiring out of the state job bank. Many of our young people left to find work elsewhere, and they didn’t come back. Moreover, back in 1960, salaried mill employees were staunch and generous supporters of the series, even if they didn’t attend the concerts.

Not only here but all over the state and the nation, Community Concerts organizations have been fading and folding. There are survivors, some flourishing.

Auburn’s 2009-2010 season opened with a concert by our April 9 guest performer Budginas — age 9, he debuted with the Lithuanian Symphony. There are lively Community Concert organizations in Muskegon, Mich.; Arlington Heights, Mass.; and Tehama County, Calif.

Rumford’s concert series did skip a season back in 1980 when no one stepped up to take on the critical role of campaign chairman. But nature and Esther Cooper abhor a vacuum: Esther, with the help of some 40 or 50 workers, resuscitated the series.

That put Stuart Cooper back to work; he has served as the organization’s treasurer since 1960. (Barbara Smith-Baker puts money in the bank, and Stuart takes it out and pays the bills.) Dee Holman has done the hard work of the campaign chairman for about 10 years. Becky Welsh has served as president for the last several years, and Jennifer Cohen as vice president.

Steadfast, those Community Concerts volunteers. Come salute them and enjoy the series final free concert, Friday, April 9, at 7:30 p.m.

Linda Farr Macgregor is a freelance writer; contact her at jmacgregor1@roadrunner.com

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