“It’s like time lapse photography,” said Laguna Beach resident Alice Harmon, describing the trickle of people arriving to deposit picnic gear at Bluebird Park on Sundays, a curious overture for the city’s Music in the Park concert series. “Only I watch in real time,” she added.
Harmon is among the myriad die-hard locals who regularly attend the city-sponsored event in its 28th year, running from mid July until the last concert before Labor Day. Though not the longest-attending fan, she is probably the first to arrive, setting up her own al fresco dining paraphernalia at noon. After sweeping her prime spot clean, she then enjoys sitting back to relax and watch the pre-show as others perform similar rituals. The concert begins at 5 p.m.
The park is officially booked for concerts beginning at 3 p.m., honoring the requests of neighbors and parents for open access for most of the day as well as ensuring access to those setting up audio equipment three hours before the opening act, said the city’s cultural arts manager Siân Poeschl, responsible for orchestrating the series.
Years ago, before the 3 p.m. rule was imposed, Poeschl said some people would set up camp as early as 7 a.m., sometimes making the stage adjacent area difficult to access for audio people hauling gear. Last year, Poeschl even confiscated blankets of some early arriving scofflaws, but quit the practice since offenders were few, her priority is on producing a concert, and after all, everyone is an adult, she said.
Among regular concert-goers, many arrive early to secure their preferred corner of park real estate for the occasion. “Everyone depends on me to grab this spot,” said local Tim Ott, who admitted that he’s had to come earlier and earlier to secure a particular location for his group of 10 or so, about halfway back from the band.
Another regular since the series started, Jerry Immel stakes out front and center, right up against the tape demarcating the audience seating area from the dance floor. To ensure front row seating, with its optimal view of the dance crowd and the band, Immel too has found the need to come earlier in recent years.
The spot provides prime viewing of the concert’s cast of characters. “It’s all very entertaining every week.” Take for example Immel’s friend Tim Tunnell, another concert veteran. A former dance instructor who ran a “social dancing” studio in Newport until, he said, the Twist dance phenomenon of 1960 put him out of business. Now, he’s affectionately known as “Romeo,” always available as a dance partner for ladies of any age. “I dance with everybody; I don’t care of they are 10 years old or 100,” said Tunnell, who endorses music and dance for stress reduction. “If you look around, you see only smiling faces.”
On a recent Sunday, two women relaxing in lawn chairs, having commandeered their patch of grass at around 2:30 p.m., proved the exception. The Arizona natives visiting locals said they set up early not to secure a coveted spot, but simply to enjoy a summer afternoon out of doors, an impossibility back in 117-degree Phoenix.
Harmon, too, takes advantage of the chance for outdoor repose. She started the ritual 15 years ago, taking a little time for herself when in town visiting her aging stepfather, and traveling light, with only a chair and a bottle of wine. Since moving here, Harmon’s simple ritual morphed into a sophisticated dining experience with friends. She revels in the lazy afternoon peace and watching the spectacle slowly unfold. But, as a result, she arrives early enough not only to claim her favorite spot, but also to get the best parking spot right next to the main gate.
When Harmon first arrives, the park provides a quiet backdrop for reading the paper or even napping, interrupted only by birdsong or squeals from the playground. By 2 p.m. there is a shift. The sound equipment for the band is set up, and revelers begin to trickle in and claim territory. When the park officially becomes a concert venue at 3 p.m., few open spaces remain. By show time at 5 p.m., the once tranquil green lawn is entirely obliterated by a patchwork of blankets, chairs, and tables, elaborate foodstuffs and a beehive of activity.
Certain bands create an even busier quilt. The first concert’s Grateful Dead tribute band, Cubensis, drew “Deadheads” that don’t regularly attend Bluebird concerts, for example. And last week’s concert attendance spiked when word got out that Foo Fighter drummer Taylor Hawkins, a Laguna native, would sit in with the Police Experience, a Police tribute band.
The city’s Arts Commission, headed by the late Doris Shields, began the concerts, funded by hotel bed taxes through a business improvement district. “It’s a great gift that the city gives back to the community,” said Poeschl.