During the summer of 1991, "Thelma & Louise" was packing 'em inside the movie theaters, David Lynch's "Twin Peaks" was leaving TV watchers confused, and Christine McAvoy was set to watch her husband Ray McAvoy perform at Grandview Park's historic Bandshell.

"Ray was playing in a band called 'The Sharks,'" said McAvoy, a photographer for G.R. Linblade & Co. "'The Sharks' were the opening act for a festival called Saturday in the Park."

Started "as sort of a lark" by friends David Bernstein and Adam Feiges, Saturday in the Park initially was just a way to stage a free outdoor concert in a venue that wasn't seeing much use at the time.

Fast forward 25 years. It's grown into a premier event among summer music festivals, drawing audiences estimated to exceed 25,000.

"Twenty-five years ago, I went in there not knowing what to expect," McAvoy said. "By the time the last act played, I knew I'd be coming back every year."

Since 1991, McAvoy has become a SITP diehard by attending every year. She even became the event's official photographer, capturing candid images of both performers and fellow concert-goers  for nearly two decades.

She isn't alone.

Chris Jensen and Beth Harms attended the initial SITP and have been regulars ever since.

Indeed, the Sioux City couple hosts an annual party following the concert at their nearby house.

"People always ask if Beth and I bought our home simply because it's across the street from Grandview Park," Jensen said. "No, when we moved here in 1997, it was just a happy coincidence."

Still, the locale was ideal for Jensen. Linda Santi, on the other hand, had to travel great distances to make it to Saturday in the Park for each of its 25 years.

"I lived and worked in New Orleans for more than 15 years," said Santi, a Sioux City resident who recently moved back to town. "Being able to come back to SITP meant the summer could officially begin."

"I wouldn't miss it for anything in the world," she added.

Headliners in the dark

Like McAvoy, Santi initially came to see The Sharks. Still, she was impressed by that year's lineup that including such high profile acts like Buckwheat Zydeco and blues legend Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown.

"Right from the start, you knew that (Bernstein and Feiges) knew how to put on a good show," Santi said.

That is, if you could actually see the acts on the Bandshell stage.

"I remember the first year, they didn't have lights hung up on the Bandshell," McAvoy recalled. "That meant the last few acts pretty much played in the dark. Nobody cared since they were expected to be a part of the event."

According to McAvoy, the initial audience numbered in the "low thousands."

"It wasn't until Carlos Santana came (in 1993) that SITP really exploded," she said.

'Something for everybody'

Like McAvoy, Beth Harms listening to Santana scorch the Bandshell with a blistering set. Similarly, she remembers the smoother sounds of the Neville Brothers.

"That's the key to SITP," she said. "There's something for everybody."

"Except for the country music fan, that is," Harms said, not sounding too disappointed.

Jensen said performers often hear good word-of-mouth about the festival.

"There's always a great vibe from the audience," he said. "That encouraged the artists to put on a better show."

'The audience is the engine' to SITP

McAvoy said "the audience is the engine" to SITP's success.

"It's a great place to people-watch," she said. "Let's leave it at that."

Sometimes, it's the performers who make for the best audience, Santi said.

"I'll always remember (New Orleans-based rock band) Cowboy Mouth's (lead singer) Fred LeBlanc grooving to (rock and roll pioneer) Chuck Berry when they both played in 2006," she remembered. "After all, you won't see Cowboy Mouth and Chuck Berry sharing too many concert stages together."

Santi also recalled blues guitarist Taj Mahal (the 1996 headliner) and said he would've played SITP years earlier if he had known how beautiful Grandview Park was.

A case of Midwestern hospitality

This doesn't surprise McAvoy, who has attended festivals around the country.

"At other big festivals, audiences are herded in like cattle and shows are held in big football fields," she said. "On the other hand, SITP is held in a beautiful park and the performers are welcomed in with plenty of Midwestern hospitality."

Big names and 'sleeper acts'

So many top-named acts have graced SITP, but Harms said one of her favorites was a little-known Washington D.C.-based ensemble called Saffire -- the Uppity Blues Women.

"They were amazing," she said, recalling the group's 1995 set.

Although she has great memories of Santana, the Brian Setzer Orchestra and other high-profile headliners, McAvoy said it was the little-known neo-soul band from Los Angeles that really blew her away.

"Fitz and the Tantrums (in 2010) were just phenomenal," she said. "They had great energy and gave it their all."

McAvoy said the act taking the stage at 5 p.m. is sometimes the "sleeper act."

"They set the mood for the big names," she said, noting that "gypsy punk" group Gogol Bordello will hold that slot for this year's show. "They're the act that always gets people moving."

A quarter of a century of fun

After the SITP fireworks, Jensen and Harms play host to friends and, sometimes, well-connected strangers at a special after-party.

And each year, the couple create an elaborate theme to the house party.

"It's part of the fun," Jensen said. "It brings out our creativity, I guess."

Even though, Santi has had to travel across the country to see SITP every year, she has no regrets.

"I've lived in Sioux City and I've lived in New Orleans," she said. "New Orleans has its (Fourth of July weekend) Essence music festival, but I much prefer SITP."

For McAvoy, the show is fun, both onstage and in the audience.

"You have great entertainers, great audiences and a beautiful setting in the summertime," she said. "It's perfect."

Jensen is even more philosophical, comparing SITP with a famous Alan Jay Lerner-Frederick Loewe musical.

"(SITP) is like 'Brigadoon' -- which is a Scottish village that only appears for one day every hundred years or so," he said. "At least with SITP, it occurs one day every year."


Food and Lifestyles reporter

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