Jul 01, 2023

Rockin' Roosevelt fundraiser highlights 'jewel of the community' in Arnold

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Back in the good, old days, Roosevelt Park in Arnold served as far more than a playground.

There was roller skating. Dancing. Entertainment.

The city would feature horror movies and the Three Stooges on outdoor screens.

And in the winter, someone would open the fire hydrants and flood the concrete depression by the amphitheater, creating an ice rink for figure skating and hockey.

Those days are long gone, but that doesn't mean that the people who grew up in Arnold — who might still live there or in the region, in New Kensington or Lower Burrell or Allegheny Towship — aren't trying their best to turn back the clock $5 at a time.

That was the entrance fee Sunday to Rockin’ Roosevelt, the annual concert fundraiser to benefit the fiscally strapped city's feature park.

Featuring 11 bands who played 30-minute sets for free, vendors and food trucks, the event has become a cornerstone of grassroots efforts to keep the park up and running.

Going strong since 2013, the fundraiser by the New Ken/Arnold Social in the Park organization pulls in roughly $2,000 to $2,500 a year. A sister concert in New Kensington in August benefits Memorial Park.

And while ice skating, dances and outdoor movies would be a nice throwback, organizers these days are more concerned with mundane yet crucial maintenance and upkeep.

"These kids don't get to do anything like that anymore," Paula Davis, 59, of New Kensington lamented as she staffed a ticket table at the Drey Street entrance. "This was the gathering point."

Those memories of yesteryear motivated Davis to volunteer for the event.

John Secrist, her fellow ticket seller, agreed as he stamped smiley faces on people's hands after they handed over their cash.

"It makes you feel good to see the park is open and the kids are having a good time," said Secrist, 62, of Allegheny Township.

They both noted, though, that members of the organizing committee are all in about the same age bracket. New blood, younger blood, is needed, they said.

"We’re not getting any younger," Secrist said. "We need more help."

Funding priorities

Lou Downard thinks so, too.

At 65, he spends time on the road for his job, but he remains a key organizer and unofficial group historian. He manned the ticket booth on the other side of the park from Davis and Secrist, right next to the stage and the amplifiers.

Downard, who grew up in Arnold and now lives in Lower Burrell, said locals’ efforts began in 2013 when Arnold was on the verge of bankruptcy. The city had nothing budgeted for the park.

Over the years, the group has been able to help fund playground equipment and other amenities through contributions that have helped to leverage grants from foundations.

Speaking in the quiet 15-minute gap between the bands Felon and Low Life Drifters, a 50-50 raffle basket on the table next to him, Downard explained that his group consults with city officials after the concert to determine a funding priority. This year, he said, they might consider replacing the roof on the outbuilding which houses the park's bathrooms and utilities.

"Everything we make goes back to the park," Downard said. "This is the jewel of the community."

He praised the bands for playing for free.

"They’re very generous with their time and their talent."

Now, Downard takes his 8-year-old grandson to Roosevelt Park. He appreciates when the fundraiser enjoys good weather — when it was held in May a few years ago, the bands toughed it out even though they were pelted with sleet — and he has shunned offers to bring the event indoors.

"We want everyone to come here to see the park," Downard said.

Limitations noted

Each year brings its own challenges, whether it's weather or crowd size or costs.

Putting on a concert at the amphitheater — affectionately known as the Egg Shell or the Clam Shell ("Is it tomato or tomahto?" quipped Davis) costs real money, and the hardworking sound engineer, his helpers and equipment don't come cheap.

Downard thinks they’re worth every penny for all they do during the 14-hour day, but he also knows that the expense has almost tripled over the years. It doesn't help matters that the fundraising group has held the $5 cost steady for the past decade. Downard knows he can't risk raising the rate.

"Looking at the crowd," Downard said as he scanned about 75 people facing the stage, "we should be OK."

He said he won't have a tally until Monday for how many people attended and how much the event pulled in.

For the admission fee, scores of people throughout the Alle-Kiski Valley and beyond journeyed to the park to listen to a variety of music, from rockabilly to rock to blues from noon to 8 p.m.

There were food trucks, including Haus's BBQ, run by Arnold police Officer Rob Haus, getting an assist from one of his seven children, daughter Makayla, 17.

"The kids would love to be here all the time. We’d love to have it open all the time. Unfortunately, we can't," Haus said.

The City of Arnold's website lists a park schedule that doesn't include any mornings.

Philip McKinley, the proprietor of another vendor, P&M Pizza, appreciates residents’ frustrations with the park's limitations. McKinley is also a city councilman, and he's in charge of parks. He grew up right across from the park on Drey Street. His landlord was a guard at the park. Now, the park monitors are all gone.

McKinley, wearing Marvin the Martian socks, came to enjoy the day like everyone else. Amy Norris, walking with a P&M pizza box tucked under her arm, grew up in Arnold, as did her husband, Mike. They now live in Allegheny Township, but they made the pilgrimage back to their hometown with their daughter and granddaughter.

"We came back to support the city," Amy Norris said. "Ice skated here and everything. It was great. … Not much left of it."

Like many music fans, she gave high marks to Miss Freddye's Blues Band.

Miss Freddye, meanwhile — real name Fredericka Stover — was enjoying some down time after her set to appreciate other musicians. It was a rare opportunity for her.

For Stover, a blues singer and one of the most popular performers of the day, it was all about giving back. She remembers hard times when she was battling breast cancer. She remembers how food banks and churches lifted her up.

Now she gets to lift others.

"Now I sing for charity," she said. "Ever since they started Rockin’ Roosevelt, I’ve been here."

Stover, 66, of Ross, has deep ties to the Alle-Kiski Valley. She has a son in Harrison, bandmates in the Valley.

"Music is a healer," said Stover, a registered nurse for 36 years who works with cancer outpatients. "That's important to me, that people are being cared for spiritually, mentally and emotionally."

Also eager to pitch in were Suzy Wargo, Tim Bazzone and Jim Ferrick, who together from the Rust Project. They’ve been playing the fundraiser for roughly five years, and their major link to Arnold is the man who sat in on drums, Dano Galie. Galie, 62, is an Arnold native.

"This is awesome," Galie said. "We bought swings."

Remembering the past

Concertgoers came for camaraderie. They came for the sun.

And they came for the nostalgia.

Take lifetime buddies Mario Tempest and Joe Milisits. They grew up in Arnold and loafed around together. They remember when a red light illuminated on a smokestack that once stood near the park signaled to kids that the ice was thick and ready for skaters.

Now they were part of the crowd filling the green space.

Tempest, 62, who lives in Hubbard, Ohio, was one of the original organizers of the fundraiser in 2013.

"We got together and said, ‘That can't happen,’ because we grew up here," Tempest said. "This means a lot to us."

"This was my home away from home," chimed in Milisits, 64, of Lower Burrell. "I kind of lived down here as a kid."

For all the effort to improve the park for the younger generation, there were few children at play Sunday.

Ashley McVicker and James Majors live a block from the park and brought their three daughters, Faith, Hope and Love, ages 5, 3, and 2, respectively, to romp and swing.

They both love the park. But they complained that it hadn't been open for several days and the schedule seems erratic.

"It's always locked," McVicker said.

"It's the nicest park in town, but it's never available for the kids," Majors said.

McKinley said the park was indeed locked up recently in order to prepare for the concert and keep kids away from electrical equipment.

Tempest agreed that Roosevelt Park is the best in town.

"I call this the miniature Central Park," he said. "It gives me goosebumps to see all the kids and all the people."

Milisits reminisced about how kids in his day would head to the park if they couldn't find their friends. It was the meeting place, the hub of adventure, games and good times. In a perfect world, it would be that way again.

"We’re hoping," Tempest said.

Jonathan D. Silver is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at [email protected].

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