By Amanda N. Wegner
Delavan’s Phoenix Park Bandshell is celebrating 15 years of offering free music to area residents, but the history of this beloved bandshell goes back further than that. Much, much further.
“Our bandshell has had quite the history,” says Al Buchholz, vice president of the Friends of the Phoenix Park Bandshell.
“Now it’s a cherished part of the community that has regrown from humble beginnings.”
DELAVAN’S EARLIEST DAYS
In 1838, shortly after the first white settlers arrived in Walworth County, Delavan founders Col. Samuel F. and brother Henry Phoenix donated a 3.28-acre parcel of land to what was then the small village. In addition to the land donation, the brothers also gifted the four adjacent sides of the parcel, which were designated for use by houses of worship; at one time, the park was surrounded by Episcopalian, Methodist, United Church of Christ and Baptist churches. After Delavan’s first public school was built on one side of the park in 1845, locals began calling it School Park.
Around 1870, the village paid $175 to Charles Blair to build a gazebo-style bandshell at the north-central end of the park, the perfect spot to host Delavan’s city band as well as numerous community events, concerts and meetings. Perhaps the most famous person to speak from its stage was William Jennings Bryan, three- time Democratic presidential candidate and Secretary of State under President Woodrow Wilson. Bryan made several trips to the area in the early 20th century and spoke before a crowd of 1,500 people at the Delavan Bandshell in July of 1921, just a few years before his death.
Despite attracting national speakers, the bandshell suffered from damage, disrepair and vandalism over the next few decades. In 1926, pranksters set off a charge of dynamite under the building, badly damaging the structure. For the next 20 years, it would continue to stand as a dilapidated backdrop to the park.
In 1930, city leaders rededicated and renamed it Phoenix Park, in honor of the town’s founders. Despite the eyesore that the bandshell had become, the park itself continued to thrive, hosting picnics, public events and programs. In the 1930s and 1940s, Phoenix Park became a haven for ice skating in the winter, and with funding received from the Works
Progress Administration in 1935, shuffleboard and tennis courts were added. By contrast, the bandshell was falling down, so in 1948, the city razed the structure on a cold day in mid-December. “It was so damaged and vandalized,” says Buchholz. “It had to go. And that spot sat empty for nearly 50 years.”
In the mid-1990s, public interest in a new bandshell at Phoenix Park was revived when park neighbors began advocating for a revitalization of the area. “There were a couple visionaries who wanted to do something different with the park; it had become underutilized,” says Buchholz. “Then it was a matter of putting heads together — what can we do to make better use of the space and be better for the community?”
He adds that some city officials were aware of the park’s history. “There was a thought that maybe we can do something similar [to what was done in the past] and be successful again,” he says. “So far, that seems to be the case.” Through those (sometimes heated) discussions between the neighbors and the city, the new bandshell was completed in 2007, a unique wood-sided, timber-frame structure that is a monument to Delavan’s history as well as a beloved community gathering spot for a new generation.
A HUB FOR ENTERTAINMENT
Shortly after the new bandshell was built in 2007, a nonprofit organization called the Friends of the Phoenix Park Bandshell formed to assume the task of filling the bandshell’s music calendar. This group of volunteers works diligently to provide the community with a wide variety of free, high-quality musical performances across an array of genres throughout the summer season. “It gives us, as a community, a place to gather and enjoy music,” says Buchholz. “We’ve grown from humble beginnings in the first few years to really something really amazing.”
In past years, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Phoenix Park Bandshell hosted 25 to 40 concerts per year, providing free music to more than 16,000 people. In the summer of 2021, nearly 10,000 guests had enjoyed concerts at the bandshell by the Fourth of July, says Buchholz, which shows how hungry people are for live music and a sense of community.
“To me, it’s a little hidden gem,” adds Mel Davis, the organization’s volunteer coordinator. “More and more people know about it now. It’s growing and getting bigger, because it offers such a great musical experience and atmosphere. You might go to another community and pay a charge to see the same band you can see here for free. It’s incredible.”
This focus on music also connects to interesting area history. In the 1930s and 1940s, Delavan was once a ballroom mecca, with multiple ballrooms hosting Big Bands for dancing, led by bandleader legends like Lawrence Welk. “There is a musical history we are contributing to with this,” says Buchholz. “Historically, Delavan is very artistic and very musical. We’re just trying to keep that going as best we can.”
To help keep that tradition alive, a dance floor was added in front of the bandshell about 10 years ago, which allows people to not only listen to the music but get up and dance.
The group also works with other organizations in town to promote cultural events and to help increase tourism to Delavan. Additional events at the bandshell and the park include dance groups, car shows, heritage festivals and more.
Now in its 15th year, what makes the Friends of the Phoenix Park Bandshell organization successful and allows the bandshell to thrive is the support it receives from the community. The organization is completely run by volunteers, and covers its operational costs through sponsorships, concession sales and donations. “It’s supported by everyone in town and is a family- oriented deal,” says Buchholz. “It’s a great place where everyone gathers and gets together, enjoys the wonderful summer weather, and becomes a part of a community event that they can feel very comfortable at.” Adds Davis: “When you go to the bandshell and see [everyone from] seniors to small children, that shows the sense of community and purpose we have in our city and that this place brings.”
The word is getting out, and visitors from beyond Delavan are now flocking to the bandshell as well. “It is successful beyond what I had visioned, and I’m ever so grateful for the support of the people,” says Buchholz. “Apparently, they like it, because they open their pocketbooks to help and are attending and bringing friends and neighbors. I’m happy other communities are looking at it and seeing the success. The bigger we make the pie, the more everyone shares. The more, the merrier.”
Davis believes that the park will only get better in the coming years thanks to ongoing support from the city. “The city is invested in improving Phoenix Park, which is an awesome park to begin with,” he explains. “They see how successful this is, and what it does for the community. It’s already amazing, and it’s only going to get better.”
FEST, FRAUD AND FUSION: THE BANDSHELL’S SIGNATURE FALL EVENT
Pink Fraud with Laser Fusion – Saturday, Sept. 18, 7-9 p.m.
While June through August is the Phoenix Park Bandshell’s prime season, it also hosts a special show in September in conjunction with Delavan’s Scarecrow Fest. Now in its 21st year, Scarecrow Fest features guided walking tours, scarecrow kits, free pumpkins for kids, food trucks and more… including a laser light show at the bandshell. “It’s not only an audio experience, but a visual experience,” explains Buchholz. “The lasers are coordinated to the music from one of our top bands. It’s been such a big show the last few years, and will be again this year.”
For a full calendar of events at the Phoenix Park Bandshell visit phoenixparkbandshell.com or connect with The Friends of the Phoenix Park Bandshell on Facebook for regular updates.