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Fifty Years of Blossom Pop Music Memories

Tina Turner is part of a constellation of Blossom stars (courtesy Janet Macoska)

What do the Cleveland Orchestra, Chance the Rapper, Alice Cooper, Toby Keith, Aretha Franklin, Jimmy Buffett, Radiohead, and Kacey Musgraves have in common?  They have all performed on the stage of Blossom Music Center over the past 50 years. Blossom has hosted top performers from the worlds of classical, country, hip hop and rock, on its concert stage nestled in the heart of Cuyahoga Valley National Park.  We begin a three-part look this summer at Northeast Ohio’s famed outdoor performance venue with a focus on popular music.   

Blossom Music Center architect Peter van Dijk said his mandate was to create a summer performance venue for the Cleveland Orchestra.  But, as the project developed, that focus expanded.

Peter van Dijk, Blossom Music Center architect (David Staruch / ideastream)

“The first manager, he came up with the idea, ‘You know, we could fill this place up on the days that the Orchestra’s not playing,’” van Dijk said.

Less than a week after the orchestra made its Blossom debut, folk singers Judy Collins and Arlo Guthrie inaugurated the center as a pop music venue on Tuesday, July 23, 1968.  Newspaper accounts reported the attendance at over 7,300, almost 1,500 more than Blossom’s classical opening night, the previous Friday. 

Ron Syroid was Blossom’s original director of ushering, and he said an eclectic mix of pop artists was booked during the first few years.

“They brought in [performers from the TV show] "Laugh-In," they brought in ballet, as well as Liberace, Louis Armstrong and Joan Baez,” he said.  “It was a real mixed bag.”

Ron Syroid, original director of ushering at Blossom Music center (Mary Fecteau / ideastream)

Syroid said there were learning curves during those early days.  For one, touring performers had to learn where exactly this new venue was located.  North Hampton Township in suburban Akron wasn’t easy to find on the map.  In fact, the New York-based rock band Vanilla Fudge mistakenly showed up 190 miles away in North Hampton, Ohio (near Springfield) on July 8, 1969. The band had to fly in for their performance by helicopter.  The show got started four hours late.  A teenaged Michael Stanley was among the approximately 6,000 fans who showed up that night.  Despite the wait, he recalled it as a peaceful evening.

“It was just the whole experience of having that many like-minded people together in a nice setting, and it all ended up being okay,” he said.  “It was the first time the counter culture was breaking loose a little bit.”

Musician and disc jockey Michael Stanley recalls selling out four nights in a row at Blossom. (Mary Fecteau / ideastream)

Stanley would go on to form his own rock band, which, to this day, holds the consecutive-night attendance record at Blossom.  The Michael Stanley Band sold-out four nights in a row in August 1982. 

“People always say, ‘I can’t believe you guys sold-out so many concerts,’” Stanley said.  “We were just as amazed as anybody else.”

Florida-based singer Jimmy Buffett said a sold-out performance at Blossom left an indelible memory for him, early in his career.  Buffett said he was averaging a few thousand people at his shows in the late 1970s.

Musician Jimmy Buffett has an indelible early memory of performing at Blossom. (Jean-Marie Papoi / ideastream)

“To me that was a big crowd,” he said. 

Then came a performance at Blossom.  

“We were coming in, and I saw this guy on the side of the road with a sign that said, ‘Need Tickets,’' Buffet said.  "And I went, ‘What’s he here for?  There are plenty of tickets.’  And we went in and it was sold out.  It went that quick and I went, ‘Whoa!'”

Photographer Janet Macoska has shot many performers at Blossom Music Center over the past 40 years.  She says the journey out to the isolated, wooded grounds of Blossom is an important part of the experience.

Janet Macoska has photographed stars at Blossom for 40 years. (Mary Fecteau / ideastream)

“I think the fact that it is a ways out, let’s you concentrate on the music a lot more,” she said.  “You have to get out of your daily existence and go to a place that’s totally different.  It’s not in a little boxed venue. It’s kind of like a mini vacation.”

Music fan Michael Parish of Bedford Heights was struck by the acoustics of Blossom at a Sade concert.

Michael Parish loves the way the sound washes up the lawn at Blossom. (Mary Fecteau / ideastream)

For an outdoor pavilion, it’s rare to find where you don’t have the reverb,” he said.  “The sounds washed right up the hill to you.  It was very enjoyable, being outside.” 

Jennifer Gehring is another local fan who likes sitting on the lawn and listening to those sounds.  But, at a recent concert, she added that it’s more than the music.

Jennifer Gehring says one of the best parts of Blossom is the party on the lawn (Jean-Marie Papoi /ideastream)

The party is right up here on the lawn,” she said, pointing to some fellow fans, one blanket over.  “We just met these people, they parked next to us.  We’re all making friends."

That’s a key element to the Blossom experience, according to Mike Shea, president and CEO of Alternative Press magazine.

“I think why people like Blossom so much is because it provides a communal experience that I think today we don’t get enough of,” Shea said.

ideastream coverage of Blossom Music Center's 50th anniversary will continue throughout this summer.  It's all part of an ideastream special, Blossom Music Center: 50 Years & Counting, set to air September 24 at 8 p.m. on WVIZ.

David C. Barnett was a senior arts & culture reporter for Ideastream Public Media. He retired in October 2022.