When the curtain rises, the crowds roll in for local shows


As the warm summer season approaches, the temperate month of June brings with it the promise of surf, sun and lounging poolside. But what do many find themselves doing on summer nights? Looking for entertainment, of course! And they can find just that at two local platforms: the long-running entertainment venue of the Bethany Beach Bandstand and the emerging performing-arts showcase of the Freeman Stage at Bayside.

Given life in 2007 by Michelle Freeman — wife of developer and philanthropist Joshua M. Freeman, who had passed away tragically one year earlier — the Joshua M. Freeman Foundation has made a name for itself seeking to honor Josh Freeman’s dedication to and support of the community by undertaking ventures of which he would have been proud.

“He had always envisioned some form of a community theater,” explained Patti Grimes, executive director of the Joshua M. Freeman Foundation. “He imagined a place where arts could be in the Bayside community because he recognized that there was a void of arts in the community.”

Thus, the earnest plan to create a platform that would continue Freeman’s legacy of good works and passion for the arts got under way, and within 45 short days the Bayside community was welcoming the Freeman Stage.

“The first year, we had the Mid-Atlantic Symphony Orchestra play at the stage,” Grimes recalled, “and we realized that first night when we had the MSO and we had people sitting in lawn chairs, that we had the ability to break down any and all barriers, because people were there for the purpose of being with their families and enjoying a great evening of arts. People left and they thanked us, we thanked them. It was an experiment that we knew would change people’s lives.”

Five years later, the Freeman Stage is doing just that, changing the lives of individuals and enriching the community through musical performances, live theater, children’s programming and dance.

Continuing with tradition, the Mid-Atlantic Symphony Orchestra opens and closes the 2012 season, and residents and tourists alike will find themselves entertained by a variety of performances, ranging from storyteller Gary Lloyd and the musical “Annie” to Darius Rucker, solo country music artist, perhaps best known as frontman of the rock band Hootie & the Blowfish.

“We are thrilled to have Darius at the stage!” Grimes said. “Since we’re celebrating our fifth season, we have five special concerts this season,” she noted. Those special ticketed performances include the sold-out July 26 Darius Rucker show and performances by South Side Johnny and the Asbury Jukes on July 6, John Tesh on July 20, composer Marvin Hamlisch on July 29 and the Midtown Men on Aug. 1.

“But sprinkled in between we have 40-plus other performances, including symphonies, tribute bands, opera, musical theater, a cappella, Shakespeare, hip-hop dance, Irish dance and music. So I think, if anyone threw out any kind of art, I think that we’ve covered it! We’re very proud of the diversity of arts that we’ve presented on our stage.”

Admission to many of the Freeman Stage shows is free, with nearly all of the shows being free for kids. And with the exception of those five special performances, performances that require tickets for adults cost just $10 per adult, offering access to entertainment to a wide variety of visitors and locals alike.

Consequently, fans of the Freeman Stage are being recommended to arrive early and find a place to put down their blankets and chairs before the venue reaches capacity, as all of the events, except Rucker’s show, are general admission. In fact, the free season-opening performance by Cirque Montage last month not only got patrons up close and personal with their neighbors for good views of the stage, it left standing room only for latecomers to the show.

In the coming months, visitors to the Freeman Stage will hit the lawn for performances by artists including the United States Air Force Blue Steel Band; tributes to Elvis, the Eagles, Jimmy Buffet and Rod Stewart; musicals such as “Annie” and “Cabaret”; the First State Ballet; an arts and jazz festival to close the season. Sprinkled in between are a wide variety of artists and performers of theater and musical talents alike.

“We cover it all, and we love every minute of it!” Grimes said. “We really anticipate a great season, and we’re BYOC — bring your own chair!”

As the Freeman Stage rapidly expands the arts entertainment available in the area, the Bethany Beach Bandstand on the town’s boardwalk is expected to be teeming with people on its opening weekend which, like the Freeman Stage, kicks off its regular schedule on June 15.

Built in 1976 for the bicentennial of the United States, the original Bethany Beach Bandstand was an entertainment and recreational center for beachgoers up until its demolition in 2005, when the old platform was replaced with a larger and more accommodating stage that now serves as the first item on locals and residents’ showbiz to-do list. The new bandstand, which features a “town square” design that allows for residents to sit and enjoy the sea breeze and the performance, also provides for a greater connection between the ocean and Garfield Parkway.

“The Bethany Bandstand is a way of giving back to the community,” explained Gloria Farrar, entertainment director for the Town. “The event has grown in two ways. The audience is larger — people actually bring their own chairs to ensure that they have a seat! And the Town has kept Bethany Bandstand in the budget. It is a marvelous, free family show!”

Opening with the Maryland Army National Guard LiveFire Rock Band on June 15, the bandstand will be bustling with creative and amusing capability until its last performance on Labor Day, which will feature the traditional season-ending New Orleans-style Bethany Beach Jazz Funeral.

“The hardest part of my job is saying ‘no’ to people,” Farrar admitted. “Everybody loves it and wants to be up there!” But with this coming season, the entertainment director declared, “I look forward to all the performers, and it’s especially exciting to see the new performers.”

Enthusiasm and eagerness will certainly be spreading as visitors review the lineup for the bandstand’s approaching summer season, with shows and presentations including Electric Blue Pop/Rock Band, 1st State Symphonic Band, Tim Laushey Orchestra, Gala with 3 Tenors, children’s theater on Wednesday nights, tributes to Elvis, Rod Stewart and rockabilly.

From the Dickens Parlour Theatre, the bandstand will feature the Magic of Dave Cox, and there will be a variety of military music performances that range from the U.S. Virgin Islands National Guard Steel Drum Band to the U.S. Navy’s Country Current. With such a diverse assortment of musicians and entertainers, Bethany Beach Bandstand could leave spectators not only proud to be Americans, but craving an artistic encore.

“We have a wide variety in our audience, so we try to include that on our stage,” Farrar said, “We’re looking to bring people to town so they will shop and dine in the restaurants, and enhance their lives with a relaxing or upbeat evening of music. And it’s a great place to meet folks!”

Thus, as the summer breeze rolls through the Delmarva Peninsula, the charming and enjoyable platforms of the Bethany Beach Bandstand and Freeman Stage at Bayside are gearing up for a season of smiles, music and just plain fun in the sun.

The performance schedule for the Bethany Beach Bandstand can be found at www.townofbethanybeach.com. The schedule for the Freeman Stage and ticket information for ticketed performances can be found at www.freemanstage.org.