It all began on a chilly fall evening at the 1983 annual meeting of the Perry County Council of the Arts.
That’s how Carol Vracarich, former PCCA executive director, recalls the beginning of the Little Buffalo Festival of the Arts.
“Chairperson Joan Holman was about to adjourn the meeting when treasurer Kevin Novinger suggested we go to work on an arts festival,” she said. “After a spirited discussion, we agreed to explore the idea for a festival to occur in the fall of 1984.”
This month marks the 35th anniversary of that idea, as well as the 25th anniversary of a remarkable community effort to build a new stage before the first one disintegrated. But more on that later.
In the early days, the biggest issue, naturally, was money—where to get it, how to get it, etc.
Meetings were held around Vracarich’s kitchen table, and eventually, funding was obtained through state grants, advertising and donations. In later years, a team of volunteers would bake turkeys and hams, and this became the “fixins” for the famous Buffalo Pitas booth. Volunteers were recruited to help out, and they formed the core of what became the annual event.
“A WWII weapons carrier, stored at the park and modified with piping that provided a frame, became the main stage,” said Carol’s husband, Tom. “It held up for nine years. Anyone who walked by the jerry-rigged stage at the 1992 festival knew the stage would not pass safety standards in Pennsylvania or anywhere else. Something had to be done.”
A partnership formed between Tom Vracarich and former state Sen. Bill Moore, that year’s festival chairman. The two agreed that the festival needed a permanent stage before the 10th anniversary, the following year.
Moore pledged to coordinate the fundraising, while Vracarich agreed to lead a volunteer labor force. This developed into a community-based effort of more than 60 residents from Perry County and surrounding areas who called themselves, “the Buffaloes.”
A steering committee formed and developed a public/private partnership to design and construct a concert pavilion under the auspices of the PCCA. After several iterations, the PCCA board and the park staff approved the stage design.
Step one consisted of digging holes for the concrete base—hand-dug with no power tools. However, strong thunderstorms flooded and collapsed the holes week after week, so the project finished three weeks behind schedule.
“The long-awaited, and much-anticipated, erection of the stage came next,” Tom Vracarich said. “The first to go up was the ‘mother of all trusses.’”
Workers held their breath as it was lifted into place onto two hemlock columns. It fit! Volunteers secured the delicately suspended trusses, while the ground crew attached the supports.
Perry County artist Scotty Brown sketched the scene. Her piece was produced on individual certificates given to each of the volunteers. Dave Snyder, then president of the Central Pennsylvania Blues Society, wrote the song “Truss Builders Blues” in time for the celebration party.
August arrived and, with the shell in place, the race to finish by the third weekend in September continued.
“At the top of the list was the roof, which needed a complexly crafted extension,” Vracarich said. “In one morning, the roof was shingled by another volunteer contractor.”
The balance of August, and three weeks into September, wrapped up the project with cedar dressing rooms, high-powered electrical capacity and more.
As darkness fell and the evening stage lights were installed, several Buffaloes walked up the hill to view the scene from above the park. On the stage, actor Ray Manlove appeared as a miniature figure, reciting Shakespeare and clearly audible from the breast of the dam.
By Saturday morning, the Moore Pavilion was ready for its first performance. The two-day festival drew 8,000 visitors and consisted of a juried art show, poetry readings, workshops and regional and national entertainers.
The first performer was Marie Mazziotti. She was followed by the Eaken Trio and Arlo Guthrie, said current Buffalo President Tony Oliveri.
This year, the festival takes place Oct. 6, the festival’s 35th year. It will be celebrated with a number of acts including Creative Spirit Fusion Dance and Music, The Billy Price Band, YAM YAM and headliner, The Cris Jacobs Band. There will also be food, workshops, kids’ activities, a writer’s nook and more.
“Thousands enjoyed that first day, and the stage stands proudly 25 years later as a tribute to the work and perseverance of those early Buffaloes, who will be introduced at this year’s festival,” Oliveri said.
The Little Buffalo Festival will be held on Oct. 6 at Little Buffalo State Park, noon to 6 p.m. Admission and parking are free although donations are accepted. For more information, visit www.littlebuffalofestival.com.
For information about the Perry County Council of the Arts, call 717-567-7023 or visit www.perrycountyarts.org.