At the north end of campus, where University Drive meanders past the spacious grassy knolls of the model airplane park, stands a plaque erected in memory of the Mississippi River Festival.
While more than three decades have elapsed since ZZ Top played the final farewell show Aug. 23, 1980, the spirit of the festival continues to live on in the hearts and memories of SIUE students and faculty who heard the spectacle with their own ears and continue to this day to sing along with the songs of yesteryear.
St. Louis Symphony settles on the lawn of fledgling SIUE, MRF is born
According to Lyle Ward, long-time SIUE administrator as well as student-attendee of the MRF, there were two primary factors involved in the inception of the festival. Throughout the 1960s, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra was in dire need of a place to call home for their summer concert series.
The administrators at the newly founded SIU campus in Edwardsville were searching for a way to bring their university high visibility and prominence. The two parties found reconciliation in the other.
“John Rendleman was a champion of the young people. He wanted his students to succeed. Moreover, what was of immense importance to Rendleman was that he believed in trusting his students,” Ward said. “Rendleman and other SIUE admins worked with area executives interested in sponsoring a pop music festival at the same site, in the style of the Monterey Pop Festival and other pop music festivals of the era.”
The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra performed its debut concert at the site June 20, 1969, and would play a total of 17 classical concerts during the opening season. Folk-protest singer Buffy Sainte-Marie opened up the pop music aspect of the festival June 23.
The 1969 season welcomed other pop music acts including the Modern Jazz Trio and two icons of the era: Richie Havens and Joan Baez. Months before Havens played his iconic opening set at Woodstock in upstate New York, he was ushering in the era of the Mississippi River Festival.
View from the lawn
During the 1970s, then-SIUE student David Woesthaus, of Belleville, now a teacher of secondary education, attended numerous events at the MRF and to this day carries with him a treat bag of stories: some sweet, some savory and others altogether bitter and tragic.
Woesthaus said, while the tickets themselves were relatively cheap, the memories created were priceless.
“I remember paying something like $4 to get into the main tent, which is not bad at all considering I saw some of the best acts of the day including Yes, the Doobie Brothers and the Marshall Tucker Band,” Woesthaus said. “I remember seeing someone, maybe James Taylor, during a thunderstorm. The entire amphitheater turned into a muddy mess. It was a mess, but a beautiful mess at that.”
Woesthaus said he specifically remembers the presence of student-employees who worked the festival.
“On the ground level, it was run almost entirely by SIUE students,” Woesthaus said. “Students worked everything from parking to security to concession stands. I mean, talk about a killer summer job.”
John Celuch, then-curator of the Louis Sullivan collection in the Lovejoy Library, said he remembers setting up an art exhibit during the 1970 season.
“I believe it was the first day of the festival that year,” Celuch said. “At the top of the amphitheater near where the concession stand was, I displayed salvaged ornaments from Sullivan’s buildings in Chicago. The collection was relatively new to the university, and it was a perfect opportunity to showcase it.”
Ward said a common misconception about the festival is that it was only a venue for rock concerts.
“Actually, about half of the festival was dedicated to fine arts, and the other half was dedicated to concerts, which is what most people tend to remember,” Ward said. “We brought in numerous dance and theater groups throughout the years. Bob Hope even performed here, which was a personal favorite of mine.”
From its inception, there was widespread concern about the use of alcohol and other illicit drugs. Chancellor Rendleman is remembered as taking a realistic approach to the issue, saying that it should be expected that people should want to drink wine at such at event.
As a result, buses were chartered to and from the festival to safely transport inebriated attendees. Many attendees simply brought their own party supplies for the festival, some legal and others not-so-legal.
Woesthaus said the student-run security did not always keep a handle on the often-raucous crowds.
“On second thought, maybe student security was not the best idea,” Woesthaus said. “There was kind of an anything-goes mentality. People used to get wasted and climb the speaker towers all the time. I remember one guy who jumped off the tower and landed on the people below him. I don’t know how no one got killed or seriously injured. Unfortunately, things did get out of hand sometimes.”
In 1975, long-time festival apprentice Ward took on the position of managing director of the festival and witnessed a unique behind-the-scenes perspective of some of the world’s most famous musicians.
Ward said the circumstances surrounding Harry Chapin’s performance is perhaps one of the most compelling stories to come out of the MRF.
“I remember getting a call from Harry Chapin the day of the concert. He was stuck in New York with a canceled flight, and he wanted to know what he should do,” Ward said. “I told him, ‘We are all here waiting for you. Do what you can to get here. We will wait for you.’ Chapin then boarded a private jet and flew to St. Louis. He ended up making quite the entrance to the festival. To everyone’s elation, he finally arrived on the site in a helicopter and played until 2:30 in the morning — a great show.”
Ward said he remembers how one band in particular reacted backstage after what they considered to be the best show of their careers up to that point.
“The Eagles played to a crowd of about 25,000 people, the size of which they had never performed in front of before,” Ward said. “After the show, I saw them backstage jumping up and down, overjoyed, blown away by the energy of the MRF crowd they had just entertained.”
Ward said a unique aspect of the festival was the interaction between famous musicians and SIUE students.
“More often than not, musicians would hang out with the festival-goers once their act had ended,” Ward said. “It was not at all uncommon in those days to walk into a local bar after a festival event and see a world-famous rockstar having a beer with SIUE students.”
End of the Rendleman Era, decline of the MRF
While opinions and histories vary about the decline and dissolution of the festival, Ward said the beginning of the end of the MRF was the untimely death of former President John Rendleman in 1976.
“Rendleman worked tirelessly year after year lobbying in order to keep the festival on campus. The festival was in no way a financial success, but Rendleman knew how important it was to not only students, but the community at large,” Ward said. “When John died, I suppose the vision of the festival got lost in some way as well.”
Woesthaus said the loss of vision for the festival also reflected a greater trend in society at the time.
“The ’60s were idealistic. There was a common cause with the war in Vietnam and all the social change happening at the time. There was some sense of sticking it to the man,” Woesthaus said. “As we moved into the ’70s, the festival became overly hedonistic with drugs and booze and grew a poor reputation. It was less ‘Let’s stick it to the man’ and more ‘Screw the man, I’m gonna get mine.’ And don’t even get me started about how disco and the new wave music of the ’80s spelled the demise of festivals like the MRF.”
Ward said the final blow came in 1978, when leadership of the festival fell into the hands of the Niederlander Corporation of New York.
“Neiderlander was a for-profit company that put on these huge rock concerts,” Ward said. “They decided to run the MRF more like a business instead of keeping with the original not-for-profit spirit of the festival.”
Woesthaus said, unfortunately, something like the MRF couldn’t exist at SIUE today.
“Things have changed a lot since then. Society has changed. Music culture has changed,” Woesthaus said. “For a while, the MRF was a perfect fit for SIUE, but that time is gone, and I don’t think it’s coming back.”