JOLIET – Back in the 1970s, about the only noise you’d hear along Bluff Street was the wail of tugboats and the clatter of old limestone buildings being demolished.
All that changed in 1974, when the first Concerts on the Hill was held near what would eventually become Billie Limacher Bicentennial Park & Theatre.
Jerry Lewis remembers that first concert, when he performed with the Joliet Junior College Jazz Band, like it was yesterday.
“It was on the south side of Jefferson Street,” said Lewis, former director of bands and brass at JJC, and now a professor emeritus. “We set up our stands over there in the grass, because that was all there was at the time. People brought their chairs and we played for an hour. And that was the first of what became the Concerts on the Hill.”
Lewis returned to Bicentennial Park with a number of other bands over the years, including the Bicentennial Park Jazz Band and the Bicentennial Pops Band.
And he plans to come back June 5 for the first of this summer’s concerts.
Lewis is not surprised the series is still going strong after four decades.
“Music is prime here,” he said. “It is so important to this town. People will turn out. They will come and listen. They love their music.”
Concerts are performed at 6:30 p.m. Thursdays throughout the summer in the park’s outdoor band shell. Admission is free.
As usual, Joliet’s American Legion Band will open the season.
“There’s not another organization like the American Legion Band,” said Bob Stephen, a member of the park’s board. “They’re always a big draw.”
This summer’s concert lineup includes a variety of music genres, everything from a Sinatra tribute to a polka band, big band music to jazz.
Billie Limacher, the namesake and driving force behind the venue, has been busy putting finishing touches on the park. On Monday, the 92-year-old was busy planting flowers. On Thursday, she was being videotaped for a story about the concerts.
“If we don’t know what we’re doing now, we never will,” Limacher joked.
It was Limacher – along with then-Mayor Maurice Berlinsky, Councilman Ken Pritz and John Whyte of The Herald-News – who went to Washington in 1972 to wrest control of the land that would become the park from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for $1.
“They asked us to give what we could afford and we each put two bits into the pot,” Limacher said.
A band shell and theater were built. Over the years, a riverwalk, fountain, mosaics and expanded parking were added.
The park also hosts summer drama camps and performances by the Joliet Drama Guild and Latitude 41 in its indoor theater, as well as other events throughout the year.
These days the park’s biggest challenge has been financial.
The park budget has been cut as riverboat gaming revenues have dwindled over the years, according to Stephen. Some events, such as Pumpkinfest, have been eliminated.
But the core music and arts programs, including the Concerts on the Hill series, still remain.
“We definitely put it in lower gear but we survived,” Stephen said. “And I think we are in the upswing now.”
Stephen credits Limacher for the park’s survival.
“By my estimate, she’s donated 40,000 hours of volunteer time to make sure that operation runs smoothly,” Stephen said.
Limacher has served as president of Will-Joliet Bicentennial Park, Inc., the nonprofit responsible for creating the park, since its inception. In January, she received the State of Illinois Office of Tourism’s Lincoln Award, given to “behind-the-scene stars” who go above and beyond the state’s tourism industry.
Limacher, for her part, just credits the staff.
“The staff has been wonderful. They gave up part of their salary to keep it going,” Limacher said.
If you go
What: Concerts on the Hill
Where: Billie Limacher Bicentennial Park & Theatre, 201 W. Jefferson St., Joliet
When: Thursdays throughout the summer
Cost: Free admission. Patrons are advised to bring chairs and blankets for hillside seating. Concessions will be available for purchase, including hot dogs, nachos, popcorn, pickles, lemonade, root beer floats and more.
This year’s lineup includes:
• June 5: Metropolitan Youth Symphony, 6:30 to 7:20 p.m.; American Legion Band, 7:20 to 8:20 p.m.
• June 12: Bicentennial “Pops” Band, 6:30 to 7:30 p.m.; Nunset Boulevard Musical Preview, 7:30 to 7:40 p.m.; Tinley Park Arts Alive, 7:40 to 8:40 p.m.
• June 19: Joliet Township Central Big Band, 6:30 to 7:30 p.m.; vocalist Lexi Smith, 7:30 to 7:45 p.m.; Joliet Township Alumni Choir, 7:45 to 8:30 p.m.
• June 26: Bicentennial “Pops” Band, 6:30 to 7:30 p.m.; Joliet Junior College Jazz Band, 7:30 to 8:30 p.m.
• July 3: Bicentennial “Pops” Band, 6:30 to 7:30 p.m.; TT Nelson Big Band, 7:30 to 8:30 p.m.
• July 10: Stay Tuned String Band, 6:30 to 7:15 p.m., Cloggers & Kidz Clog, 7:15 to 8 p.m.
• July 17: Bicentennial “Pops” Band, 6:30 to 7:30 p.m.; vocalist Marvina Bowker, 7:30 to 8 p.m.; Providence High School vocalists Hanna Gleason and Abbey Fritz, 8 to 8:30 p.m.
• July 24: Vocalist Cheryl Foster, 6:30 to 7:15 p.m.; American Legion Band, 7:15 to 8:30 p.m.
• July 31: Frank Ross featuring Sounds of Sinatra, 6:30 to 7:30 p.m.; Eddie Korosa Jr. and the Boys from Illinois, 7:30 to 8:30 p.m.
• Aug. 7: Bicentennial “Pops” Band, 6:30 to 7:15 p.m.; Rialto Ido vocalists, 7:15 to 7:45 p.m.; vocalist Karen Isberg, 7:45 to 8:30 p.m.
• Aug. 14: Frankfort Brass Band, 6:30 to 7:30 p.m.; Rialto Ido vocalists, 7:15 to 7:45 p.m.; New People Singers, 7:45 to 8:30 p.m.
• Aug. 21: U.S. Air Force Band of Mid-America’s Shades of Blue Jazz Ensemble, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.
• Aug. 28: Joliet Township High School Orchestra, 6:30 to 7:20 p.m.; Midwest Crossroad Chorus of Sweet Adelines International, 7:20 to 8 p.m.; American Legion Band, 8 to 9 p.m.