Britt Turns 50: Expanding Performances

By Ron Brown

JACKSONVILLE, Ore. — The Britt Festival was 15 years old in 1978 when one of the biggest changes took place: the opening of a new pavilion to replace the badly decaying old stage; it also marked the beginning of some much bigger changes for the Britt Festival.

For the first 15 years or so, the festival used the original plywood stage with its coffee-can lights and canvas cover. Up to that time, it was two concerts a day, including an afternoon concert. The first year organizers found out what August heat in the Rogue Valley can be like.

“The glue that holds the parts of the violins, the strings together, melted! The instruments fell apart! It was that hot! It was 114 [degrees] one year! The string instruments aren’t made for that heat,” says Solie.

“The string instruments were falling apart from the heat,” recalls Ron Bartlett, the first Britt manager. “The glue coming apart and everything else! So, anyway, they started having the afternoon concerts at the hotel.”

That was the Historic U.S. Hotel. But after about 15 years, it was plain the stage was also falling apart and improvements were needed. So a plan was developed to build a new pavilion on the Britt Hill. That pavilion opened in 1978, and with it the Britt Festival opened a new chapter.

“Once the new pavilion was built in ’76-’77, then it allowed the festival to start branching out into other forms of music. And initially those, the jazz festivals and the bluegrass events, were done in the spirit of helping to fund the classical festival, which always bleed because it’s very costly to put on,” says Former Britt Manager Ron McUne. “And you know, and that was about 1978, ’79 when those events started, and musical theatre came along. And dance was added. And then it just became part of the part of the program.”

“The followed the model that has been used throughout the U.S. and started adding pop and comedy and dance, to the season to augment and support the classical, which is the root of our program; still continues to be the root of Britt festivals. That’s the heart of Britt festivals. And we’re dedicated to another 50 years of classical,” states Britt Director Donna Briggs.

The expanded program and season proved to be very popular with local audiences and the Britt Festival became more than just a classic music festival. County officials wanted to be sure that the Britt grounds were being utilized as much as possible to justify the expense of building the pavilion. The hiring of long-time Jacksonville resident Ron McUne to run the festival was also a time of financial turnaround.

“When I took over the Festival was $150,000 in debt, and we had a ‘growing concern’ letter from our accountants. Y’know, there was some question whether the festival could really survive,” says Former Britt Manager Ron McUne. “The board had to kind of face a paradigm shift in how it managed things. And I, along with the staff, you know, we rolled up our sleeves and we just started changing everything.”

But he says it worked.

“I can put it in perspective by saying that I think when I took over Britt had an annual budget of about $600,000,” says Ron. “And when I left it was $4.5 million. And so that the programming really raised the bar on programming options. And so that was the big thing! Just the size and growth of the festival.”

With jazz programs and pop programs, comedy and dance and other specialized programming, the audiences responded. It became a battle to get a good blanket seat on the hill. Many people started hiring students to save places in line so they could get prime spots in front of the Britt stage; but there were other additions as well that grew the Britt Festival.

McUne served as Britt manager for nearly 20 years, during some of it’s most dramatic growth.