Gail Bernstein may not have been a member of the Saturday in the Park committee during the festival’s first year of development, but she still had a job to do.
While co-founders Adam Feiges and Dave Bernstein were busy rounding up sponsors and all the other preparations for the outdoor music festival, she helped her son spread the word about Saturday in the Park. Gail Bernstein was tasked with driving her teenaged son, Ben, and his band around town with a large inflatable gorilla in a pink polka dot bikini.
Yes, you read that correctly. This actually happened. And it worked, too.
“They would inflate the gorilla and play music standing between its legs – it was that big,” said Gail Bernstein. “We’d go out to the mall or the Chamber of Commerce. They would play music to advertise Saturday in the Park.”
That image likely left a lasting impression on Siouxlanders who were just getting introduced to what would become a 27-year tradition at Grandview Park; a tradition that Gail Bernstein would take part in some way every year since then.
Plenty of other Saturday in the Park memories stick out to Gail Bernstein.
Of all the bands and musicians that have performed at Sioux City’s music festival, Tito Puente, The King of Latin Music, was her absolute favorite. A particular incident helped solidify that decision. At live shows, Puente liked his bandmates to wear coordinated outfits. But Puente’s plane was late, Gail Bernstein said, and the band did not have their luggage.
“But then we gave them all Saturday in the Park shirts,” she said. “They played their set in Saturday in the Park shirts. He was so appreciative and just a nice man.”
As someone who often floats around backstage, Gail Bernstein has the pleasure of meeting or getting to know certain artists scheduled to perform the Main Stage. She also picked up on a few details from star performers.
B.B. King, she remembered, had lots of smoked salmon and Heineken available before the show. But that wasn’t for The King of Blues.
“That was for his road manager – I think his name was Sherman – and he was an older gentleman and he’d been with B.B. for a long, long time,” said Gail Bernstein. “Those things were for him. And B.B. was really, really nice about greeting people. After his set he’d go on the bus and people could line up and visit with him and get an autograph or go on the bus and see him.”
During the festival, Gail Bernstein and other volunteers will often be in charge of hospitality and taking care of the artists. She laughed remembering how a blues singer was impressed that she was given a hearty chicken dinner as opposed to fair food like the hot dogs she had grown accustomed to eating at outdoor festivals.
“She just couldn’t believe that we treated her so well,” said Gail Bernstein. “The Bandshell is very interesting to work in.”
Especially when bands have odd requests. Although she never had to separate M&Ms, she did comply with a band’s demand of a framed picture of the Rat Pack. While it was a strange request, Gail Bernstein went ahead and found a photo of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop posing together.
“I did it,” she said. “I framed it and put it in the room.”
Mary Ann Johnson has her fair share of Saturday in the Park memories, too. But around this time of the year, Johnson thinks about the work that’s involved in creating the festival. As a member of the Saturday in the Park committee for backstage and catering, Johnson can’t help but think of the experience as a job.
“There is a multitude of things that go into planning this thing,” she said. “But memories do come up of course.”
Like how she got involved with Saturday in the Park. Johnson remembered how she and her husband volunteered the first year after seeing a notice in the newspaper.
“We showed up to volunteer and we were put on the fence crew with John Gray,” said Johnson. “He was amazing and really made me feel welcome. He helped us a lot and we’ve been there ever since.”
Seeing the potential in Sioux City festival, Johnson continued to volunteer and eventually found her way into catering and backstage duties. From her experience, the bands have been great to work with.
“They love our Bandshell and they love our park,” she said. “They get here and they’re very tired most of the time. A lot of them have driven through the night, traveling on tour buses all summer or fly from one airport to another. They’re just kind of a little dazed.”
But once they arrive, she added, they’re relaxed and enjoy their time. Many will often stay after their set times to listen to the other bands scheduled to play after them.
“One year Michael Franti was playing hacky sack with the crowd – it was really cool,” she said. “Some bands are just a blast.”
There isn’t too much time for Johnson and her crew to relax the day of the festival. For them, it’s a work day. But the experience still creates interesting memories to say the least. For instance, when Gogol Bordello performed in 2015, one of the band members brought out a slab of salo, a Slavic-based food consisting of cured slabs of pork fatback.
“It’s some sort of Russian delicacy served with fresh garlic slices,” said Johnson with a laugh. “So here he is in our main catering area at a dining table in between meals slicing up this salo and fresh garlic. The whole catering area smelled like that for the rest of the day!”
Johnson and her staff often learn small, insignificant details about the artists as well. When the now departed rock ‘n’ roll legend Chuck Berry performed the Bandshell Stage, Johnson learned how the musician prepared his coffee
“He takes five little pouches of sugar to one cup of coffee,” she said. “When I brought it to him he just looked up at me and smiled and said, ‘I have a sweet tooth.’”
Johnson’s favorite Saturday in the Park memory is something a little bit more personal. It was in 2008 when Phil Lesh & Friends performed the Bandshell Stage.
“Phil Lesh was my brother’s favorite artist,” she said. “I asked Phil if he would be willing to meet my brother and he said sure. I got my brother back to see him. My brother is now gone. But that was an awesome memory. The artists are so cool; most of them are just awesome.”
New memories are made every year – both in front of the stage and behind it. The music and performances could likely instill images and experiences festival attendees will keep with them for years to come.
They will come in many forms. It might be a memorable interaction with a musician or a brief game of hacky sack with a performer behind the Bandshell. Or perhaps all it takes is a giant inflatable gorilla in a polka dot bikini.