Sunday, September 02, 2001

Riverfest still evolving at 25-year mark

By Emily Biuso
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        In August 1977, Frank Wood, then WEBN's general manager, decided to celebrate the FM station's 10th anniversary with a huge, one-time-only fireworks spectacle on the riverfront. There was little publicity, no police presence, no street blockades and no rules. Mr. Wood had no idea whether anyone would show up.

        About 250,000 to 300,000 people did, he estimates.

        “As soon as I saw the crowd, I thought, "Uh oh, we're in the fireworks business now,'” he says.

        In 25 years, the celebration has evolved from a free-for-all birthday bash into a corporate-spon2sored family event known as Third Federal Riverfest and the Toyota/WEBN Fireworks. The traditional Labor Day end-of-summer celebration gets started at noon today on both sides of the riverfront before an expected crowd of 500,000.

        This year, Riverfest will include more activities for children, says Catherine Pleva of Clear Channel Events.

        Though the festival now has a bank's name in its title, for the first six years WEBN paid for the whole event and kept it noncommercial, Mr. Wood says.

        It wasn't until the second year that the event got the name Riverfest, and several more years until WEBN (102.7 FM) started coordinating the festivities with city officials and police.

        These days, the police departments of Newport, Covington and Cincinnati play an important part in Riverfest and have been working to plan the event for months. Cincinnati will have 300 officers on duty, and 115 will be patrolling the Kentucky side.

        Though the Kentucky and Ohio celebrations are viewed as separate events, the three departments do communicate and try to make things consistent, says Lt. Gary Brown, event coordinator for Cincinnati Police.

        “I don't want to say it's down to a science, but we know what works,” says Lt. Brown, who grew up in Delhi and attended Riverfest as a child.

A family event
        Sgt. Neil Gilreath of Covington says the prohibition of alcohol during Riverfest makes his job easier because it helps create a more family atmosphere for the event.

        But the alcohol ban was a gradual development. It wasn't until 1988 that Cincinnati opened alcohol-free zones for the event, though Covington had banned liquor long before.

        Once again this year, there is no alcohol allowed at Riverfest, and many say that's good.

        Jim Miller, lead singer of Leap Skyward, the Cincinnati band playing before and after the fireworks at the Serpentine Wall, remembers the craziness of the early Riverfests.

        “It was like one big Woodstock,” he says. “It was total lawlessness. It wasn't family-appropriate.”

        Mr. Miller has been looking forward to playing at Riverfest in Cincinnati his whole life, and he's glad that this year's fest is an event he can invite his father to.

        Some Riverfest veterans are unfazed by all the changes in the riverfront party over the years.

        Tom Reck of West Chester has been docking his boat, Ship-Reck, at Mike Fink Restaurant since 1978. He meets many of the same boaters every year to watch the fireworks and continue a tradition he calls “Around the World,” where each boater makes drinks from a different country to serve guests.

        Boaters are allowed to have alcohol on their boat as long as the operators do not consume it..

        Mike Fink has been a favorite spot to watch the festivities since the first Riverfest.

        “We're basically ground zero,” says Jimmy Bernstein, president of Bensons Catering, which includes BB Riverboats, Mike Fink and One Riverboat Row.

        Mr. Bernstein estimates his facilities will feed about 2,000 people Sunday. Counting the WEBN party Bensons will be catering, it will be 3,000, he says.

Fireworks rule

        While the festival grows each year and adds attractions, the heart of the event is still the fireworks.

        “It was big for Cincinnati when we started,” Rozzi's Vice President Art Rozzi says from behind his desk at the company's Symmes Township office. “But it was quite small compared to now.”

        In the early days, shells were lighted by hand with flares.

        “It was hot and hairy out there,” says Mr. Wood, whose jacket caught fire 15 years ago because he was standing close to the sparks.

        Today the process is much safer. Shells are activated electrically, driven by a computer program, and the closest person to the shell nowadays is 200 feet away.

        “Now, since you shoot with electric, you can shoot different shapes, at different angles. So you can layer them in the sky more,” Mr. Rozzi says.

        Computer technology also has improved the soundtrack of the show, says Joel Moss of WEBN, who has been arranging the music for the fireworks for 18 years.

        This year's show will include music from the Survivor soundtrack. Though the music and fireworks may change a little each year, the vision of the show remains the same, Mr. Moss says.

        “It isn't just another show, obviously,” Mr. Rozzi says. “It's a showcase.”

        Mr. Wood is no longer a Riverfest organizer, but he has no doubt the best fireworks show in the nation is right here in Cincinnati.

        “You can get more people closer to the detonation point than anywhere in the country,” he says. “That's why it's so magical.”

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