The 3,000-plus people who attended last week’s Pennypack Park Music Festival concert had a chance to show their appreciation to the man largely responsible for the summer entertainment series.
Ed Kelly, who turned 85 on July 11, was honored two nights later during a concert by Joe Coyne and the Glimmer Twins, who are tribute acts for Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones, respectively.
Valori Steele, from the Glimmer Twins band, led the crowd in singing Happy Birthday as Kelly took the stage. He blew out a giant candle on a large sheet cake as Janet Tagliavia, one of the concert committee members, made a big announcement.
“It will be called the Ed Kelly Stage,” she said.
That would be appropriate, since Kelly used his own money to build the stage about three decades ago. It is located near the park entrance at Welsh Road and Cresco Avenue in Holmesburg.
The concerts continued through the early 1990s, but ended when organizers could no longer handle the tasks of running the festival.
In 2000, Glenn McCurdy was drinking coffee and reading the newspaper one morning at the Country Club Diner when he overheard Kelly and others discussing a resurrection of the festival. By then, the band shell had become a target of graffiti vandals and home to pigeons.
Kelly, McCurdy and the rest of the team were able to secure funding from the city to restore the band shell, which features a beautiful peaceful park-setting mural. The concerts made a modest return in 2001.
In the decade since, the concerts have become somewhat of a must-see for local music fans.
This season, 15 free concerts were scheduled on Wednesdays from May 11 to Sept. 14. They attract locals who walk to the park and folks from other Northeast neighborhoods whose cars surround the perimeter of the park and line side streets.
Kelly, who lives on Borbeck Avenue in Rhawnhurst, enjoys attending the music shows and is buoyed by the large crowds.
While Kelly prefers string bands and the Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey and Harry James orchestras to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, he favors booking acts that will draw people.
“Pennypack is great. I love it up there,” he said. “When I see the people so happy, it makes me feel good. It doesn’t cost them anything. Everybody is respectful of each other. There are a lot of young people, and I love that. It’s wonderful to see all those kids dancing.”
The tribute was part of an extended celebration for Kelly, who also marked his birthday with a dinner at Famous Dave’s restaurant and an outing at one of his favorite venues, the Parx Racing horse track.
Several of those family members, including his wife of 60 years, Jane, joined him at the concert.
Kelly has been a respected member of the community for decades. A combat veteran of the Pacific Theater in World War II, he owned a successful auto repair and towing shop in Burholme and served as president of the Greater Northeast Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce from 1971-82.
“He was a political mover and shaker. He had clout,” said McCurdy, president of the festival board.
Kelly, who continues to move in political circles, likes the presence of the park rangers at the concerts and thanks visitors for respecting the ban on drinking alcohol and smoking. The concerts, though, could not go on without the committee.
“They’re all volunteers. That’s important to me,” he said.
The concerts run from 7 to 9:30 p.m. People are welcome to bring chairs or blankets.
McCurdy said the concerts have become a popular tradition. People start marking their calendars in the middle of winter, identifying Wednesday nights in the summer as concert nights.
The crowd consists of people of all ages. They bring their coolers, bicycles, children’s coaches and dogs. Kids play catch with baseballs and footballs. There is usually no trouble, and the park is left clean at night.
Organizers seek sponsors to pay for the acts, insurance, portable toilets, groundskeeper, electrician and sound equipment. Manor College sponsored last week’s show and distributed hand-held paper fans to keep people cool.
Committee members accept donations in buckets, hold a drawing for a Paddy Whacks gift card and sell water ice, grilled food, refreshments, T-shirts and other items.
The success of today’s concerts can be traced to Kelly’s vision, the committee agrees.
“Not one of us would be in the park tonight without him. We’d be sitting home watching the TV,” Tagliavia said.
Ruth Horwitz, former principal of what is now Swenson Arts and Technology High School, noted that Kelly included student bands in concerts and had them create a mural.
“He is a public advocate for everything,” she said.
Al Taubenberger, president of the Greater Northeast Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, presented Kelly with a plaque from the business group.
Taubenberger worked closely with Kelly when he served on the staff of U.S. Rep. Charlie Dougherty. He credits Kelly with securing the Chamber’s current office at 8601 Roosevelt Blvd.
“Ed has worked tirelessly for Northeast Philadelphia,” Taubenberger said. “Without him, this area of the park would just be a silent grove.” ••
For the lineup of the rest of the summer or more information, call 215-574-2100, go to www.pennypack.org or visit the Facebook page Pennypack Musicfestival.
Reporter Tom Waring can be reached at 215-354-3034 or firstname.lastname@example.org