by C. J. Hirschfield – Gather ‘round, young‘uns, while I tell you the story of a magical event that was born way back in the early eighties, the likes of which we haven’t seen here in Oakland since. It was billed as a multicultural extravaganza, with art-making, foods, sports, art, dance, a flower show—and music. Oh, what music! And all of it was free!
The first-ever Festival at the Lake was held in 1982, in Lake Merritt’s Lakeside Park, in the heart of the city. Key to its creation was Willie Brown, Jr., who had become California’s first African American Speaker of the Assembly just one year earlier (he became San Francisco’s mayor in 1996). Speaker Brown was a major political force, and it had come to his attention (thanks to the efforts of the Lake Merritt Garden Society) that while state money had been made available to other agricultural districts for the purpose of holding county fairs, Oakland had been left out. Thus it came to pass that the State of California, Division of Fairs and Expositions, mounted the first annual Festival at the Lake in a park that had recently been plagued by crime.
“The entire park was transformed into a wonderland of fabulous food, booths, and nonstop performances on four stages,” says Doug McKechnie, who programmed all of the musical acts for the years 1982–84. In each of those years, there was an average of 24 performers each day. Local music writer/critic Lee Hildebrand, who had covered jazz, R&B and blues music since 1968, suggested entertainers. (A fundraiser was held last year for the now-ailing journalist that featured a who’s-who of Bay Area musicians).
McKechnie recalls contacting such local luminaries as blues performers John Lee Hooker and Maxine Howard, Latin jazz great Pete Escovedo, jazz guitarist Ray Obiedo, Queen Ida (who won her first Grammy Award the same year she performed) and her Bon Temps Zydeco Band, and many others. “Not one person said ‘no,’” he recalls, even though they were offered only a modest honorarium to perform. He believes this is because the event was free to all. “Everybody gave. They weren’t there to get; they were there to give,” he says. He recalls that the spirit of the event took over the hearts of both the performers and the crew.
His favorite visual? Seeing Troyce Key, Oakland blues rocker and owner at the time of the legendary Eli’s Mile High Club, drive up to the stage in a classic convertible singing his “I Gotta Cadillac” signature song.
The festival’s first year featured Pete Escovedo and his twenty-something daughter, Sheila, before she became Sheila E. Only two years after her Festival performance in 1982 her career took off with the release of her first solo album, The Glamorous Life. She’s now a renowned drummer, singer, songwriter, author, and one of the founders of Elevate Oakland, a nonprofit that works to bring culturally vibrant art and music programs to Oakland’s youth.
Jazz/R&B performer Napata Mero was featured at the Festival in 1984. Prior to that, she was the first African American to perform in San Francisco’s legendary Beach Blanket Babylon review, which only recently ended its historic and successful run. Her understudy at the time? Ledesi, who moved to Oakland when she was in middle school, and is now a celebrated R&B and jazz recording artist.
Mero currently lives half of the year in Oakland (by the lake) and half in Paris, and has performed on five continents. She also recalls Festival at the Lake fondly. “I was excited to perform before an audience where I worked and lived,” she says. “I remember how enthusiastic and excited all of the performers were to be part of it.”
The range in styles of music represented in those years was remarkable; from dulcimer to Dixieland; funk to folk; bluegrass, mariachi, Afro-Cuban, ragtime, Brazilian, and on and on.
One of my own favorite memories in 1984 was seeing Oakland legend and Congolese dancer/drummer/choreographer Malonga Casquelourd, in whose name the former Alice Arts Center was dedicated after his death in 2003. He and his dynamic Fua dia Conga troupe brought the house down.
The final Festival at the Lake was held in 1997, due to an $80,000 debt, combined with a brawl that took place outside of the event’s gates.
McKechnie feels that charging for the event and separating it with a gate changed everything. “Once you put a fence up, you create a sense of “them” and “us,” and it’s alienating,” he says.
Mero thinks that a post-pandemic event like Festival at the Lake could help with mending and healing. “With all that we’ve been through this year, we could all be lifted by this kind of gathering.”
Editor’s Note: The aerial photo, the photo of Napata Mero and the photo below of C. J. sporting a 1984 Festival Staff t-shirt are all from Wernher Krutein’s PhotoVault.com website where you can peruse nearly four hundred Festival at the Lake photos. In addition, at this link, you can view a 1984 Festival program and seven festival posters courtesy of Don Asher whose company, Golden Gate Print and Media Services printed them from 1991 through 1997.
C. J. Hirschfield recently retired after 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry where she produced two series, ran San Francisco’s public access channel, and advocated on behalf of the industry. She has penned a weekly column for the Piedmont Post for 13 years, and now writes regularly for EatDrinkFilms and Splash Pad News. She holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.
Hirschfield currently lives in Adams Point and serves on the programming team for the Appreciating Diversity Film Series showing free documentaries in Oakland and Piedmont, as well as on the advisory board of Youth Beat, a youth media training program that provides low-income Oakland students with the tools and opportunities they need to thrive in today’s workforce.