A couple attends a Richmond Symphony performance in June 1966. Courtesy Richmond Times-Dispatch Collection, the Valentine.
The 60th anniversary season of the Festival of Arts at Dogwood Dell closes this month with performances and music that suit the reason why this summer season of entertainment started.
The Monty Python musical “Spamalot,” directed by Joe Pabst, completes its run Aug. 5 and 6. The River City Party Band will enliven the evening of Aug. 12, and world-traveling Richmond jazz group Plunky and Oneness will make up for a previously rained-out performance Aug. 19. (Bandleader J. Plunky Branch is also marking the publication of his memoir, “Plunky: Juju Jazz Funk & Oneness,” this summer.) The Latin Jazz & Salsa Festival follows on Aug. 20, and the season ends on a high note Aug. 27 with Opera in the Park.
This roster of varied groups may seem now almost routine, but the tradition that began in 1956 is sustained by the union of vision and volunteers. Performances at Dogwood Dell arose from the efforts of the late Rose Kaufman Banks. She formed half of the midcentury city’s preeminent performing arts couple: Leslie Banks worked behind the scenes with set construction and lighting for several companies, while Rose’s influence in Richmond’s parks and recreation department brought support to entertainment pageants, school programs and community shows.
Dogwood Dell and the Carillon, built to memorialize Virginia’s World War I dead, were intended to be part of a Richmond civic center with a unified arts space. That concept got as far as the conversion of the existing slope into a 2,400-seat, terraced amphitheater created with cobblestones from city streets. The first seasons brought out popular musicals and operas such as “Oklahoma,” “The Music Man,” “La Traviata” and “Carmen.” In its early years, says Dogwood Dell program specialist Barbara Brock, “the Festival of Arts was wide-sweeping, encompassing not only theater, music and dance, but a number of art shows, featuring several by [Virginia Commonwealth University] students and therapeutic recreation participants, as well as local amateur and professional artists.”
One of the best-known actors from the Richmond area, Blair Underwood, performed as one of Judas’ tormenters in the 1983 production “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Three years later, Underwood joined the ensemble cast of “L.A. Law.” Singer Jason Mraz starred in a production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” and Steve Kelley, who became a standup comic and political cartoonist, performed in “Kismet.”
Today, shows at the Dell still give performers the chance to get the feel of a big stage and an enthusiastic crowd on a memorable summer evening, lightning bugs and all.
For performance times and details, contact 646-1437 or visit www.richmondgov.com/parks/programmingdogwooddell.aspx.