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Summer Fest memories and meaning

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The Ann Arbor News

Summer Fest memories and meaning

Before the start of this year’s Ann Arbor Summer Festival, we invited readers to submit memories of their favorite festival headline performances.

Nobody asked, but my own favorite Summer Festival show dates back to the very first year, 1984, and “A Party with Comden and Green.” For those who never had the pleasure, this production was an ever-evolving, occasionally touring musical revue performed by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, singing songs they’d written. Best known as lyricists (and screenwriters and librettists), the pair had started as performers, and they kept that part of their career alive over the years.

This was some eight or nine years before I even thought of moving to this area. My longtime friend Ken, a would-be stage critic who helped fuel my obsession with musical theater, heard about the show and got tickets.

It was terrific. Comden and Green were funny and engaging, but they wouldn’t even have needed to be, as long as they were doing material from shows like “On the Town,” “Bells Are Ringing” and “On the Twentieth Century.” Ken somehow got us into the Power Center green room to meet the pair. Amateurs that we were, we even got their autographs; I still have them, on a handbill reading “Ann Arbor Summer Festival.”

I’m sure I gave little thought to what exactly this new festival was. But the show itself was very important, deepening my appreciation for the team’s work.

Last year, Adolph Green passed away. He and his partner had grown elderly, and it had been some years since anyone has been able to enjoy “A Party with Comden and Green” on stage.

By coincidence, my wife and I were in New York the day the theater community presented a public memorial to Green. In what has become a tradition when a major Broadway figure dies, an astounding list of performers -Kevin Kline, Lauren Bacall, Sandy Duncan, Bernadette Peters and so on - paid tribute to the late great in words and song. My old friend Ken was there, too - a New Yorker now, covering the event for Playbill Online.

As Dawn and I waited in line for the free public seats in the balcony of the Shubert Theater, I thought about that Power Center performance nearly 20 years earlier. I thought about it again during the tribute, as a very frail-looking Betty Comden was helped onto the stage to tell a quick anecdote and sing a few bars.

I felt unbelievably lucky to have seen the pair in their prime. If there was no such thing as the Ann Arbor Summer Festival, that Power Center full of people in 1984 would have missed a very special opportunity - one not likely to have been otherwise offered in Ann Arbor.

That’s what I took from the reader memories we received; lots of people can thank the festival for a similar experience. (Mel Torme’s performance in the face of a broken air-conditioning system seems to hold a special place in the city’s heart.)

We enjoy rich touring performing-arts offerings, thanks to nonprofits like the University Musical Society and The Ark as well as to commercial endeavors. But even so, the Summer Festival manages to pull together a slate of performances every year that for the most part, wouldn’t be here otherwise. This year we got to see Mikhail Baryshnikov perform; how often does that happen? And of course I haven’t even mentioned Top of the Park, as unique and as valuable as the headline shows, only in a different way.

Now that the festival has finished its 20th year, it’s worth remembering what it’s brought us - and what we might have missed if it wasn’t around.

Reach arts editor Bob Needham at