EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second of a two-part series on the Summer Jam music festival that took place in Great Bend in August 1978. Delete-Merge Up
The Hollywood film vaults are brimming with stories of the intersection of rock bands, concert tours, and the musical personas that make these story lines interesting. But once told, they tend to be retold over and over again. See, for instance, “A Star is Born” – now being made a third time.
But if a screenwriter ever crafted the story of the Great Bend Summer Jam, the script would be declared more preposterous than the notion of making four sequels to “Transformers.” After all – the idea that 10 of the top bands in the world would come to a one high school town and perform in an August heat wave isn’t simply preposterous. It’s insane. And the most laughable notion is that the entire production would be sponsored by – wait for it – The Police Athletic League (PAL).
Yet it happened. And maybe of the hundreds of thousands who later claimed to be there, you actually were there. Thirty-nine years ago this weekend.
The whole thing came about thanks to two volunteers – Jan Viner and Sandy Donley. According to the Great Bend Tribune published the week before the event, these ladies worked on the concert every day for three months. The preparations included 24 portable rest-rooms, 10,000 gallons of drinking water, 15 concession stands, medical staff and 13 pay phones. The paper quoted Larry Reitmayer, the VP of Panda Productions: “This concert will be the biggest ever west of the Mississippi – excluding California.”
PAL needed to sell 12,000 tickets to break even. After all the expenses were paid, PAL stood to make a 32 percent profit, the paper reported.
Officially it was Saturday August 5, 1978. Twelve hours. Fans traveled as far as Michigan and Tennessee. The lineup was like this:
Missouri: 12:55 p.m.
United Kingdom: 1:50 p.m.
Rick Derringer: 2:45 p.m.
Van Halen: 3:55 p.m.
Morningstar: 5 p.m.
Wet Willie: 6 p.m.
Climax Blues: 7:05 p.m.
Head East: 8:20 p.m.
Black Oak: 9:35 p.m.
Alvin Lee: 10:45 p.m.
And if the script got legs and became a movie, one of the central figures who would be Eddie Bianchino. No doubt the Hollywood casting agents would fight to cast their own representative – think Bradley Cooper or, if he has a conflict, maybe Brad Pitt. You see on that hot day in August, 1978, Bianchino was everywhere. This at the mature age of 17.
Bianchino, a Great Bend High School 1978 graduate, had the good fortune of having a father who was a mailman, and therefore, knew everyone and everything going on in Great Bend. No doubt this helped him secure his special status for the concert.
“Some of the artists stayed at the Highland Manor,” Bianchino said. “I was involved because I was part of the crew who shuttled artists back and forth from the hotels to the concert setting at the airport area west of the expo. I was not a driver as I was not old enough to be a chauffeur, but I was a rider and the gopher water boy.”
With a little creative license, in the Hollywood version Bianchino would have a bigger role as a “facilitator” but that would be another, entirely fictional story. “Long-time city folks didn’t really embrace the idea of bringing a big time rock concert venue to Great Bend, but local businesses like Gibson’s loved it,” he said.
Yes there were rumors of a Hells Angels arrival. It had a thread of plausibility. After all, the Hells Angels were hired by the Rolling Stones at the Altamont Speedway in December, 1969. On the other hand, the likelihood of PAL hiring bikers seems, well, about as improbable as Van Halen coming to Barton County.
“Some artists flew directly into the GB airport and we would have to pick them up too,” Bianchino said. I met a few of the artists and it was awesome as I had full-time back stage access all day and night. The guys from Head East were a hoot and their roadies/semi driver were funny too. My ears rang for a week after the show.”
Naturally, some problems arose. The rest-room lines were long. They malfunctioned. Some resorted to plan B. •••
Leslie (Hallbower) Barrett, a ‘77 GBHS grad, was there and had these reflections: “In the days before the concert, people were sleeping on top of their cars, in the large parking lots on 10th street. I also remember seeing that there were tags from so many different states.
“I only remember people having a great time, being kind to each other, and having great conversations – even while waiting in the LONG lines for the porta potties they had set up.
“It just seemed like people were thrilled to be there, enjoyed the great music, and respected those around them.”
The Tribune on Monday August 7, 1978 said it all – “Rock concert a success.” “We had no problems with the kids and were very pleased with the way everything went,” Viner said.
The exact number of people attending has not been determined but Viner gave a ballpark figure of 15,000. Approximately $150,000 was generated by the concert. “I would have been happy to have broken even, but we made money.” Viner said.
The Tribune’s opinion page that day noted that at least some residents were predicting Summer Jam would resemble something akin to what Peter Venkman warned in Ghostbusters – human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria.
An editorial read: “This must be a bitter disappointment for those who were hoping that there would be some sort of riots, looting and assaults. If there had been, then it would give them another chance to ‘get’ the chief of the police and other city officials since they weren’t able to by other methods.”
The bold vision of Viner and Donley came to fruition, and remains today a lasting testament of the possibilities that await the determined. And for this writer and many others their hard work made for a lifetime memory.
And every time I hear “Going Down for the Last Time,” my mind returns to that to that memorable day in August.