Thursday, August 13, 2009

Ken Maiuri of the Gazette writes about Mountain Park

Jimmy Page (with the Yardbirds) had "an Indian robe on ... he was standing five feet away from our hands, and he never looked at his guitar once, he just kept looking at the ceiling," recalled Ray Mason with a laugh.

"There's a lot of history here," said entrepreneur Eric Suher last Friday morning, standing on a grassy ridge that was once part of Holyoke's Mountain Park amusement park.

For 90 years it was a favorite Valley family destination full of rides, food, games, dances and live entertainment. After a slow dismantling, the remnants spent two dead decades overtaken by weeds, spray paint and the elements, a graveyard of piles of paint-faded wood, a ghost park.

This weekend Suher, who also owns the Iron Horse Entertainment Group, starts the next chapter of Mountain Park's story, giving the abandoned area a new life as a live-music venue.

The new Mountain Park's central feature will be a large natural amphitheater, its stage located where the park's original merry-go-round stood at the beginning of the last century.

Things kick off Saturday at 2 p.m. with a free festival, featuring a string of acts who might otherwise headline their own shows at one of the other IHEG venues (The Calvin, Pearl Street, Iron Horse, The Basement).

The day-long event includes blues guitarist/singer/songwriter Sonny Landreth, critically acclaimed Daptone recording artists Naomi Shelton and the Gospel Queens, blues guitarist Johnny A., Boston's funky nine-piece Rubblebucket Orchestra and popular Springfield mainstays the Frank Manzi Band. It's an "open hose" of sorts, giving the community a chance to see the new space and some strong live music.

On Sunday, Mountain Park holds its first prime-time concert, featuring The Decemberists, a highly popular Portland, Ore., band some have described as "library pop" thanks to frontman/songwriter Colin Meloy's love of folk tales and story-like lyrics, as well as clothing and vocabulary from an earlier era. The band has a flair for the theatrical, making them the perfect act to kick off the new venue, which in its earlier life had its own theater company, The Valley Players.

Park gates will open for The Decemberists concert at 5:30 p.m. and showtime is at 7 p.m. Ohio rock trio Heartless Bastards will start the show. "Low back" chairs and blankets are allowed, and free parking is included with the ticket price.

Suher invited a few reporters to get a look at the park-in-progress last week, and as cars pulled up, the businessman was already there under the serious summer sun, talking on a cell phone with one hand and holding a note-filled legal pad in the other. Tractors dotted the landscape and lurched calmly throughout the property, getting things ready.

The new Mountain Park has been in the works for two-and-a-half years - "The city's been very cooperative," said Suher, a Holyoke native himself - and he was visibly jazzed to see the physical progress finally being made.

Leading around a small group, he pointed out some of what would be happening with the property before the opening weekend (power lines would be run underground to keep sight lines clear and open, for example) and what additional work would be done before the 2010 concert season begins (the park's old picnic grove will be fully refurbished; landscaped pathways will snake scenically throughout the property, on which sits a huge volcanic rock, the park's oldest remaining artifact).

The steel Picnic Pavilion (built in 1971), the only salvageable element left over from the amusement park, will abut the stage and house the concession stands.

Though this season is truncated by summer's end right around the corner, next year's entertainment calendar at Mountain Park (scheduled to start around Memorial Day and end by October 1) will be a "full slate of events," Suher said.

Like every Holyoke native over a certain age, Suher's childhood is intertwined with Mountain Park. He saw his share of free shows on the midway, and he recalled how the park's Stardust Ballroom was destroyed by a gas explosion just hours before his older brother's senior prom was supposed to take place in the building.

In its heyday, the Stardust Ballroom was a huge destination for longtime Valley rocker Ray Mason, another Holyoke native, who saw countless mind-blowing shows there in the '60s from his usual vantage point: right up front, being pushed against the stage by the throng.

Two highlights of Mason's Mountain Park concertgoing era were the Animals (one vivid memory involves guitarist Hilton Valentine attempting to sing a backing vocal, then reconsidering after getting shocked by blue sparks shooting out of the microphone) and The Yardbirds, featuring the soon-to-be-legendary guitarist Jimmy Page, who had "an Indian robe on ... he was standing five feet away from our hands, and he never looked at his guitar once, he just kept looking at the ceiling," recalled Mason with a laugh.

The ballroom and amusement park are long gone, but for the first time in more than 20 years, live shows will return to that mountainous location. Thrilling music memories are a cherished part of Mountain Park's history, and now they won't have to be just a thing of the past.

Ken Maiuri

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