One year after Easter in the Park almost fell victim to alleged homophobia, Cedar Springs Merchants Association breathes new life into annual event
Easter in the Park is Dallas’ celebration of spring.
Mark Howard, an openly gay marketing manager who lives a few blocks from Lee Park, said he’s attended the event for 16 years.
Combine the colors of nature with colorful bonnets and costumed pets, he said, and it represents the best of Dallas.
“The park becomes a melting pot of people — grandparents, babies, the gay community — all mixing together for a joyous occasion,” he said.
This year, a year after the Cedar Springs Merchants Association stepped in to resurrect an event that its former sponsor almost destroyed, the annual celebration will get a makeover.
In other years, rain has kept the Dallas Symphony Orchestra away. But for the first time since 1966, the orchestra will not perform in Lee Park on Sunday, April 8, due to budget cuts.
Instead, bands will perform throughout the afternoon, and the Kroger Pooch Parade will take place as usual.
“Bring picnic lunches,” said CSMA Executive Director Scott Whittall. “We’ve expanded the food and beer booths, and we’re selling wine and mimosas for the first time.”
Chris Shull, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s manager of publications, said that the symphony’s problem this year was budgeting from the city, and the DSO hopes the funding would be restored so it could return next year.
In its budget-cutting frenzy last summer, the City Council slashed funds to the DSO, allowing the symphony to stage four of the usual six outdoor concerts. Easter in the Park, the most expensive of the outdoor concerts because of holiday overtime costs, was one of two annual performances carved from the orchestra’s schedule this year.
For a number of years, the Turtle Creek Association was the organization that worked with the Lee Park Conservancy, the nonprofit organization that runs the park, to stage the event.
Last year, TCA withdrew from Easter in the Park about a month before the event to stage an alternative “family-friendly” event they called “Creek Craze” a week before.
When charges of homophobia began flying, members of the TCA board said that family meant all families.
TCA tried to move the Pooch Parade to Creek Craze and asked conservative radio personality Jody Dean to emcee.
In a compromise, TCA renamed its animal event “the Pet Costume Contest,” and Easter in the Park kept the Pooch Parade, with comedian Paul Williams as emcee.
Sparsely attended, underfunded and disorganized, Creek Craze was an overwhelming disaster. Lee Park Conservancy director John Williams vowed that was the last of that event.
As soon as the city realized that the DSO was scheduled to perform on Easter, but without its usual community organizer, the mayor’s office approached the Cedar Springs Merchants Association.
Whittall said he received a frantic call from Acting Mayor Dwaine Caraway asking the CSMA to save Easter in the Park.
The DSO had $70,000 budgeted to cover its appearance, but that didn’t include planning and funding for the Pooch Parade, police protection, city permits, street closings, vendors or cleanup crew.
Dave Berryman, who helps stage the Alan Ross Texas Freedom Parade and other Oak Lawn events, and the CSMA stepped in. Berryman secured new sources of funding and lined up vendors. Caraway’s office worked with CSMA to facilitate permits.
This year, Berryman and CSMA had the full year to plan Easter in the Park and has known DSO wouldn’t be participating since last summer.
“We got quotes and everything lined up months in advance,” Berryman said. He said there was none of the panic that preceded last year’s Easter event.
Whittall said the symphony has actually played only once or twice in the last five years because of rain or threat of rain, so he sees this as a reinvigorated Easter in the Park.
“People come rain or shine,” he said, but the symphony actually hasn’t been there much recently.
This year, CSMA secured a covered stage so bands and singers can perform rain or shine. He said he hoped that next year they would find a larger covered stage to accommodate an orchestra, whether the DSO or another performs.
“This year we’ll have a massive pet pavilion — pet rescues, pet adoptions and the SPCA,” Whittall said.
Berryman said the pet rescues will be set up along Turtle Creek Boulevard on the eastbound lanes while the Pooch Parade takes place in the westbound. The judges will have a tent on the street.
The vendors will be in the park.
Berryman said everyone is welcome to bring picnic baskets, “But there are no glass containers in the park.”
Carrie Ivy, a retail store manager, goes to Easter in the Park every year with her partner.
Her favorite part of the day is the animals, but she said that on Easter, rather than going to church, “It’s a less formal way to be in God’s graces.”
She called the event inclusive, casual and her favorite thing to do in the park.
“There’s no better way to spend the holiday,” she said.
Concert in Lee Park on Easter Sunday was a hit from the beginning — in 1966
In a Monday, April 11, 1966 front-page story, Dallas Morning News writer Kent Biffle recounted the first Easter in the Park event under the headline, “Open-air ‘Bravo’ Won By Lee Park Concert.”
Biffle wrote that people sat “spellbound amid the blooming azaleas and Houston-like humidity.”
Later that night, golf-ball-sized hail and tornadoes ripped through the area, according to another front page story that day. But the concert was an overwhelming success.
Biffle wrote that no “jetliners roared overhead” during the performance. “Love Field pilots chose to use a different runway rather than disturb the concert that lay below their favorite route.”
Love Field was the city’s main airport at the time. DFW Airport wouldn’t open for almost another decade.
Dallas police blocked off Turtle Creek Boulevard in front of the park at 2:30 p.m., and that first concert was disturbed only by a freight train that passed on the M-K-T tracks at 3:15 p.m. Those railroad tracks a block from Lee Park followed the route that is now the Katy Trail.
Under the direction of Conductor Donald Jahanos, the orchestra performed Rosenkavalier for the first Lee Park concert in a new $10,000 bandshell set up in front of the then-much-smaller Arlington Hall. The park’s landmark structure, built in 1931 as a replica of General Robert E. Lee’s home in Arlington, Va., was renovated to more than double its size in the late 1980s.
The $3,000 cost of the concert was underwritten by local businessmen. With overtime pay for a holiday performance, the price tag for the annual performance has risen to more than $70,000.
In 1967, Biffle covered the second annual Easter concert, too. Orchestra members worried about the threat of rain and the possibility of no one wanting to sit in wet grass, he reported. But more than 5,000 did attend, many wearing Easter bonnets. Oak Lawn Merchants Association sponsored the concert, and Dr. Pepper paid the bill.
In April 1968, Hair opened on Broadway, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, and huge protests against the Vietnam War shut down Columbia University and a number of other schools. Dallas was quieter but not immune to changes going on around the country.
The DMN description of Easter in the Park that year was written by a colorful young writer named Marlyn Schwartz, who later became one of the paper’s best-loved columnists. Her writing contrasted with Biffle’s rather stiff accounts as she depicted a rapidly changing Oak Lawn.
“The scene at Lee Park wasn’t exactly the Easter Parade Irving Berlin had in mind,” Schwartz wrote.
One hippie pointed out a man in a black costume and said, “Neat,” according to Schwartz’s account. The hippie’s boyfriend, exasperated, explained that it wasn’t a costume. That was a policeman.
“Mama Cass-looking individuals ran trippingly along Turtle Creek in their mumus,” Schwartz continued. “A bunch of hippies held a tree-shinnying contest up the tallest tree in the park.”
People played a game — trying to pick out which of the “long-hairs” were boys and which were girls.
While the actual Pooch Parade — with costumes and judges awarding prizes — didn’t become a formal part of Oak Lawn’s Easter tradition until the 1980s, dogs had become a fixture of Easter in the Park by 1968.
Schwartz wrote that “just about everybody and his dog stretched out on the grass” to listen to the DSO concert while a “giggling Guru” walked his Pekingese.
The next year, Schwartz returned to Lee Park where she described the scene: “Cameras were almost as plentiful as the azaleas and everyone seemed intent upon being snapped as a flower child.”
In 1970, the newspaper reported that the DSO missed its park date for the first time because of cold weather. The concert moved to Memorial Auditorium Theatre, which is now part of the Dallas Convention Center.
The following year, older attendees complained about Conductor Anshel Brusilow’s choice of music, which included the Beatles’ “My Sweet Lord” and selections from Jesus Christ Superstar.
“The preconcert took on the aspect of a pet parade as many of the audience brought along their pets to soak up a little of the low-80s-temperatures.”
Brusilow also taught at Southern Methodist University and has been conductor of the Richardson Symphony Orchestra for the last 20 years.
By 1973, Easter in the Park had become a tradition that merited nothing more than a mention in another story about the holiday. The 1974 story centered on Mayor Wes Wise coming on stage in the middle of the free concert, berating Dallas businesses for not contributing to the arts and asking concertgoers to make a $5 or $10 contribution to the virtually bankrupt orchestra whose members had not been paid for five weeks.
By the following year, the only jets flying overhead were Southwest’s. The orchestra’s debts were contained and again Easter in the Park only rated a mention when the concert moved from Lee Park to Fair Park Music Hall because of rain.
— David Taffet
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 6, 2012.