The Boardwalk’s Free Friday Night Bands on the Beach concert series is a nostalgic summer tradition featuring bands from the 1980s and ‘90s, but it hasn’t always been that way. In 1988 when the idea for a band series was first presented, Boardwalk policy prohibited live music on the bandstand.
One of my first events as the Boardwalk’s promotions director in 1981, was a concert sponsored by country music radio station, KEEN. The event had successfully brought in families at Frontier Village in San Jose when I worked there. When that amusement park closed, we brought the promotion to the Boardwalk. It was, we thought, an event that was sure to be successful. We were wrong! The audience that arrived wasn’t families with children. It was young 20 and 30-year-olds who wanted to raise a little hell. It was a tense evening and Boardwalk security stayed busy managing a crowd that was just barely under control.
On the Monday following the promotion, I left our post-event meeting with a firm directive. Create new promotions, but never book another band on the bandstand.
Friday nights on the Boardwalk were very slow before 1988. The park was nearly empty. We had managed to increase attendance Monday through Thursday nights with Retro Nights and Coca-Cola promotions, but Friday nights were a challenge. We tried different food and ride discounts. A two-for-one unlimited ride discount called “Date Night” was the most successful, but it only brought in about 200 people. Definitely not worth the advertising expense.
We looked at entertainment. Fireworks could be a big draw and they are an entertainment staple in the amusement park industry. But after the infamous 1974 fireworks fiasco, when an over-capacity crowd combined with a power failure to create gridlock in Santa Cruz, fireworks were prohibited by Boardwalk policy, and in the early 1980s, the City of Santa Cruz restricted firework displays.
We considered having a fireworks show without fireworks. We could put on a laser light show, illuminating the Giant Dipper. We had experience with the Laserama light show as an indoor attraction. A demo was set up and park management viewed a laser light show on a weekday evening in 1988 when the park was closed. Our expectations were high, and we were ready to be wowed. However, the show was unimpressive. As we walked along the Boardwalk after the demo, management all agreed that the show wouldn’t draw crowds or even impress the folks who were already here. When we were done with our evaluations, Boardwalk president Charles Canfield said, if we want to draw people, why don’t we just hire a band? The 7-year prohibition on live music had just been lifted… or forgotten.
We didn’t waste any time. We started work on “Summertime, Summer Nights Free Bands on the Beach,” now just called “Free Friday Nights Bands on the Beach.”
At first the series opened on the last Friday of July and continued on Fridays through August. Concerts were also held Monday through Friday during the last week of summer leading up to Labor Day weekend. The concerts were a success and the start date kept being pushed back until it reached mid-June. With schools starting earlier and diminishing attendance, we dropped the last week of summer concerts in 1993.
What bands did we bring in? We consulted with the person who booked the entertainment for Villa Montalvo Concert Series in Saratoga. Our line-up included Country, R&B, Pop, Acapella, Soul, and Oldies Rock and Roll. It took a year or two for us to realize that the perfect genre for our series was Oldies Rock and Roll. Not only did this music bring guests who enjoyed the Boardwalk experience, the music worked with the ambient sounds and energy of the park.
Other types of music didn’t integrate well with the Boardwalk experience. A jazz series was attempted. The music was wonderful, but the attendees were not really the park’s target audience. They were 30 and 40-year-olds, who came for the music with their own picnic food and wine, somewhat annoyed that there was an amusement park so close to the music.
It is important to understand that the Boardwalk’s “free” concerts aren’t really free. The bands are expensive, the production and set up is costly. We somehow need to pay for this experience. The “free” concerts need to draw an audience that also enjoys and is willing to pay for the Boardwalk’s rides, foods and attractions. We found that by offering a band that appealed to parents who had children 8 to 16 years old, we could draw the adults to the show, and the children to the rides. So, while the parents are enjoying the music, the kids are off on the rides enjoying the Boardwalk experience.
We continue to update the bands to keep the nostalgia current and appeal to parents with children. In the 1980s the music was from the ’50s and ‘60s, today we have music from the ’80s and ’90s. As I told my own children, you know you’ve reached middle-age when the Boardwalk’s Free Friday Night Bands are the ones you remember from High School.
What memories do you have of our Friday Night Bands on the Beach concert series? Who’s your favorite band to watch on the bandstand?