by Pat Locke
The following article was found on the internet and originally written by Emily Robinson. Today Emily can be found photographing DC architecture and obsessing over any and all music! I have taken parts of her 11/01/2017 article to emphasize the comparisons between the DC floating stage that appeared in 1935 to the floating stage that appeared in Bemus Point NY on Chautauqua Lake/Chautauqua County 63 years later. The floating stage concept has been around for a very long time and to realize we had our very own floating stage in Bemus Point is truly amazing brought to us by Dan Dalpra and the Dalpra family.
The evening of July 14, 1935 was a clear, perfect summer night on the Potomac River. The colors of the sunset gleamed off the water as the sun set over the Virginia Hills. A cool breeze wafted over the shoreline. On the river bank, just behind the Lincoln Memorial and parallel to the Arlington Memorial Bridge 10,000 Washingtonians dressed in flannel and gingham sat on blankets and newspapers. On the water, hundreds of others floated in canoes eager to experience Washington’s newest summertime tradition – floating concerts by the National Symphony Orchestra.
The NSO was taking to the water inaugurating a new “Sunset Symphony” series where the orchestra would offer performances on a 75 foot concert barge. Hans Kindler, founder and first music director of the NSO stepped up to the podium and looked out upon the unbelieveable sea of people.
The successful Sunset Symphony series debut did not come about without some challenges. When the NSO was founded in 1931 money wasn’t available to finance summer symphony activities and there wasn’t an outdoor location large enough to support the symphony. By 1935, the NSO Association had built a strong following and the orchestra directors pushed the idea of a summer series. After touring a series of National Capital Parks, the directors decided that with some out-of-the-box thinking the location along the Potomac River could be a marvelous location for the summer concerts. With the audience seating issue solved, directors needed a space for the orchestra, itself. Space was tight and so they looked offshore. To ensure the orchestra’s sound carried all the way from the barge in the water to the land, the symphony association had a system of sound amplifiers installed on the stage which would disperse the music without distortion. After some tests proved the amplifying apparatus to be entirely satisfactory, the orchestra could be hear flawlessly from the water. For the National Symphony as an entity, the Sunset Symphony series signaled a step forward on the orchestra’s path as a rising major orchestra. More established American orchestras had already started offering informal summer concert seasons.
For the individual NSO musicians the floating stage concerts meant something even more basic – year round work which was no small achievement considering the hardships of the Great Depression. The crowds coming out to see Sunset Symphony concerts only increased with each new season and the audience, on occasion, even included President Franklin Delano Roosevelt listening from the Presidential car in 1939. The National Symphony played concerts on the floating barge for six weeks every summer from 1935 until 1965 attracting thousands of concert-goers for those 30 memorable years!
Even though the floating barge in DC is a distant memory today due to the existence of the Washington National Airport in 1965 which created a consistent overhead rumble for an outdoor concert venue it’s still fun to think about an earlier generation saying “grab your canoe and let’s go to the symphony!”
Canoe and kayak owners did exactly that at the Bemus Bay Pops from 1998-2017. They came and floated near the floating stage to hear concerts on weekends and over Labor Day weekend for those 20 memorable years! On that official final weekend of summer the beloved Bemus Bay Pops Symphony Orchestra took to the floating stage in Bemus Point to officially end another fun-filled Pops summer concert season.
For those of us who experienced the Bemus Bay Pops it truly represents musical memories that will last a lifetime. The familiar term, “Whatever Floats Your .. Boat” applied to everyone who experienced the Pops on Bemus Bay from their boats, canoes and kayaks. It was a magical time. It was a memorable time .. in 1935 and in 1998.