Life in Stage(s)

By Rodney Harrington

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A few days ago I was walking on the downtown riverbank on my lunch break. I marveled at how much work was being done. I also thought about how great it’ll be when it’s finished.

As I walked past the site of the stage, I was surprised to see that it had been reduced to a pile of rubble.

I noticed the pieces of bricks that had once made up the base of the stage, and what was left of the steps around back that so many musicians, politicians, schoolchildren, and tourists had ascended over the years, it occurred to me that a very significant part of Natchitoches history was unceremoniously lying there in that nondescript pile of broken bricks, concrete, and dirt.

I paused there for a few minutes and the memories came rushing back. I calculated that my band, Johnny Earthquake and the Moondogs, had performed on that stage at least 50-75 times. I’m pretty sure that’s the most that any band has played on it.

I’m not sure when the first time was, but it was probably for either the Christmas Festival or the very first Jazz/R&B Festival, which was nearly 25 years ago.  I remember as a fledgling band in Natchitoches you felt you had “made it” when you got to perform on the “Big Stage.”

The stage on the edge of that river created a unique venue for musical performances. The Jazz/R&B Festival wouldn’t exist if not for that stage. In 1994, that first year, we used the Moondogs’ sound equipment and Charmaine Neville was our headliner. At least three or four hundred people showed up.

The festival has grown over the years into one of the region’s top music events, drawing thousands of fans every year and featuring national and international acts such as Grand Funk Railroad, Eddie Money, Perry Sledge, Irma Thomas, .38 Special, Edgar Winter and more. They all performed on that modest stage.

Every year, I would say the star of the Festival is the venue; that riverbank and that stage which the Festival dubbed “The Fleur De Lis Stage.”

Many of the musicians would often comment about what a great “vibe” it created. These road-weary veterans, who could be jaded from the rigors of touring, found it was refreshing and a fun place to perform. I heard this countless times.

I remember singing with James Burton and Rick Derringer, performing with Joe Stampley, Sam the Sham and Wayne Toups, and on one very special evening, having Trombone Shorty, Burton and T. Graham Brown on the stage with us at the same time.

I remembered taking a “leap of faith” off the stage for a crowd-surf one cold Christmas Festival day.

Speaking of leaps, I remember about 20 years ago our trombone player at the time, Jeff Mathews (now NSU’s Band Director) and I thought it would be a good idea to, upon playing the final note of the evening, to dramatically leap off the stage. Turns out it wasn’t the greatest idea. My knees still hurt.

For me, the most special moment occurred about 15 years ago when my sons Curt and Eddie, musicians in their own right, performed with the Moondogs. It was our only public performance together.

I believe the stage was constructed in the 50s and renovated in the 70s. Since its construction, it’s served as the centerpiece of riverbank activities. Many a band has performed there during the Christmas season and many a Miss Merry Christmas and Christmas Belle has graced the stage. There’s been lost of Festivals including the Meat Pie Festival, and the Barbecue Festival, the Green Market and more. Many NSU-related activities were featured on that very stage, the most famous of which was the Homecoming pep rally that ended with Oprah Winfrey firing up the crowd.

The riverbank and stage have been featured in several movies over the years including, of course, Steel Magnolias.

After 9-11, we organized a concert to raise funds for the families of the first responders in New York who lost their lives. The event ended with everyone singing “United We Stand.”

About 11 years ago Governor Blanco presented special awards to the surviving World War II veterans in our area. My son Eddie, who was working at the governor’s office, made the presentations. Among the honorees was my father, Billy, who was so proud to have his grandson present him with the award. Sadly, my Dad passed away a few months later and most, if not all of the veterans who were honored that day are no longer with us. Their families have memories of that day and lots of pictures and in the background is the stage.

The renovated riverbank is going to be fantastic and there will be a huge covered, state of the art stage to replace the old one.

Beginning with next year’s Christmas Festival, new memories will be created on the new stage on the new riverbank. Forgive me, though, if every now and then I get a little nostalgic for the old brick and concrete “Fleur De Lis Stage.”

Oh, and by the way, I have a confession to make. I stole one of the bricks. Please don’t tell the District Attorney.

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10 thoughts on “Life in Stage(s)

  1. Well said Rodney. Fond memories are always a footprint of our being. Some of my fondest was to study for finals while my date and I listened to the singing Christmas tree. Yes, it was a 70’s thing. A part of me will always belong to Natchitoches. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Often times we reflect on the past realizing that change is inevitable. Tonight as I crossed over our Church Street Bridge I noticed the rumble at the location of our beloved Riverfront Stage.
    During our lives physical/material things will come and go while other items remind a solid foundation in our lives. Our lives are defined by the many experiences that we have with the people we meet, the places that we live and visit.
    I began to reflect on the impact that the Main Stage and the riverfront has had on my life and that of my family/friends.
    This reminds me of the time…………………………
    the earliest memory——the day that my Father (who has been deceased for over 21 years) brought my oldest Son to the riverbank to see the Boys and Girls Club “Great Duck Race”
    ———The placement of the Time Capsule with Mayor Joe Sampite
    ——-The Birthday Cake Celebration during 200th Anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase
    ——–Gilbert’s first picture with the ducks behind the stage
    ——– Edward’s first dance picture
    ——-the many NCHS events and Homecoming with my favorite being in 2012 when Gilbert was an escort for the Homecoming Court
    ——–When I got to sing with Percy Sledge at one of the first Natchitoches Jazz -R&B Festivals
    ——-Saturday morning Zumba workouts with Kimmy Smith during the Green Market
    ——-The Voice over America Concert honoring our Veterans -at this event we had three veterans who had served in three wars and returned home to share their experiences.
    and my last memory———wondering what had happened to the time capsule and how could I get a picture of the magnificent Louisiana Purchase Map found on the floor of the stage
    The list can go on of my personal memories centered around the Main Stage at the Natchitoches Riverfront and the impact it has made on myself, my children, the multitude of family and friends that have visited over the decades.
    So it is with heavy heart I commit all those memories and I pray for the dear merchants of Front Street.
    Hey I would love a brick as well—That would have been a food fund raiser for the Jazz R& B Fest. O Well.

  3. Y’all do all this work downtown. But not ever once think about the horrible roads that your citizens have to drive down daily…

  4. Nice job Rodney, I can fondly recall many of the events you mentioned having been there to document them, and honored to do so. Natchitoches is my adopted home town, one in which we all, native born or transplanted are so lucky to be able to call home. We live in a magic bubble, in which the traditions and values of days long past are still part of daily life, with all the benefits of the current era and fewer of the drawbacks afflicting the rest of the world. I think my fondest memories of the downtown river front were not of the events, but of the quiet times of just sitting under the trees, watching the water and wool gathering. Having such a place of tranquility and beauty so conveniently located and accessible, definitely adds to the wonder that is Natchitoches. And then there is the MUSIC and all the talented, dedicated musicians who call the Natchitoches area home. Many of whom are friends of many years.
    best I stop here as this comment is in danger of becoming a novel or at least an article.

  5. Does anyone know what was done with the time capsule that was interred at the base of the stage, there was a plaque with the future date and some other info I believe? Did they demolish it with the other stuff, was it opened without ceremony, or is it being saved to be put back? I was hoping to live long enough to see what was put in it, though it wasn’t older than maybe the 80s if I remember correctly.

  6. Very interesting article. Your father and I served together in the Air Force, and I met you once on a refueling flight we had arranged for community officials. Your dad “Chief” was a special friend. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Great story walking us down memory lane with our once riverbank centerpiece. I might add to the list that the stage hosted many events during the 2014 Tri-Centennial year. We enjoyed 90,000 people attending events that year and the majority we around the riverbank stage. We used it at least twice a month, sometimes more and hosted the “Second Saturday” schedule of events every month. The Tri-Centennial All-Stars were featured (on the stage) to introduce the highly successful original CD “Our Town,” something you (Rodney) suggested, supported, and help showcase. So yes I agree, the stage has produced found memories for me introducing the groups that help celebrate our city’s banner year in 2014. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and I agree. Nevertheless, I’m calling the DA when I post this!

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