Savin Rock Festival 36
It is hard to believe it has been 35 years since the first Savin Rock Festival took place at West Haven High School’s Ken Strong Stadium and adjacent fields. Next week, the 36th renewal of the festival begins on July 27.
It was a concept that was brewing among the city’s business and civic leaders for many years, finally coming to fruition. The original idea came from the leadership of the West Haven Chamber of Commerce, and it was that organization that shepherded the idea to reality and kept it going when it seemed the political powers-that-be were willing to see it die.
Some three decades-plus later, it is a festival that is eagerly awaited by the public, and one that is permanently tied to the Old Grove Park, site of much of the old amusement park.
It was the amusement park and of West Haven as a resort community for much of its history that was the reason the Savin Rock Festival came into being. In the years since the city saw the destruction of that stretch of buildings housing amusements, rides, and shows in 1966, a new attitude arose among many swaths of the community. In those years just after the park became a memory there was a strong feeling among many the city should forget its past and move on to a new – and uncertain –future.
Problem was a new generation had grown up by 1982, and it wanted to know about the things it had heard from an older generation. It heard about the Virginia Reel, the Skyblazer, and the Laff in the Dark, but all it had to connect with it were stories and aging photographs. The West Haven they heard about might as well have been a thousand miles away. They wanted to know more. Now almost two generations later, the need to preserve and promote the city’s history is as important as ever.
The festival was born as a weekend event, heading by the Chamber and its leadership, but dependent on the many civic and fraternal organizations that got on board. That first festival saw an estimated 50,000 people fill various parts of the high school’s athletic fields. This was the era before the Fitzgerald Complex and its fenced-in ballparks, lights and synthetic surfaces. The eventual reconstruction of the facility into a multi-purpose sports complex we know now commenced about five years after the festival began (1987) and was going to displace the summer event.
For a long while city officials were reticent to move the festival to the best venue – the Old Grove Park. Savin Rock Renewal contracts prohibited certain sales and it was feared allowing over-the-counter food and other sales would put the city behind a legal eight-ball. Eventually though, an agreement was reached, and since that time, the festival has had permanent digs at Old Grove Park.
Since that time, the festival has attracted in excess of 100,000 people a year, and become a highlight of the summer season. Nightly concerts, shows put on by various local talent, and a food court that spotlights some of the best the city has to offer has made it a popular place to be on the last weekend in July.
Many of the people who were instrumental in the foundation of the Savin Rock Festival are no longer with us. But, their mantle has been taken up by a newer generation – and the same city that once worried about violation of a contract now sponsors the organizing committee. As in past years, the University of New Haven have contributed sponsorships that have made the annual fundraising efforts easier.
The festival has remained a celebration of a community’s storied past – and its people.