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History of the Mississippi River Festival Print-ready version

Southern Illinois University Edwardsville
October 11, 1996

The Mississippi River Festival, l969-l980, a festival of the performing arts initiated by President Delyte Morris, is the extra-curricular activity for which Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville is best known. The MRF was a glorious but short-lived child of its time. It flourished during an era of great turmoil and change in American society. It was the final grand gesture that Delyte Morris added to the remarkable new Edwardsville campus.

The MRF originated in 1969 as a joint effort between SIUE and the St. Louis Symphony Society. Morris intended to establish a prominent cultural venue that would draw public attention to SIUE, while the society wanted to provide summertime employment for members of the St. Louis Symphony. From this beginning, the MRF evolved into a varied performing arts festival that presented the best in classical music, contemporary music, drama, dance, and film.

Morris decided to locate the MRF at a large natural amphitheater on the northern portion of the campus where he had been holding commencement exercises since 1963. He improved the amphitheater site by placing a permanent stage where the commencement platform had been situated and by installing a huge open-sided tent to cover the stage and reserved seats. Extensive additional space for thousands of viewers/listeners existed on the gentle slopes outside the tent.

From the first, the MRF was an artistic success. It drew large audiences from both sides of the Mississippi River and from far beyond the metropolitan St. Louis area. It also generated extensive favorable publicity for SIUE. However, when student unrest in Carbondale led to Morris's resignation as university president in June 1970, the young MRF abruptly lost its original patron.

Financial problems troubled the MRF throughout its lifetime. The festival consistently lost money. The state of lllinois cut back its financial support of the university during the 1970s, and in turn the university was increasingly hard-pressed to sustain the MRF. Rock concerts, although they often drew extensive audiences, eventually began to be marred by instances of drug abuse, thefts, and violence. The MRF began to receive negative publicity. The key initial relationship with the St. Louis Symphony deteriorated and, in 1974, the university took full responsibility for management of the MRF. When President John Rendleman, Morris's protege and successor in Edwardsville, died on March 4, 1976, SIUE and the MRF lost their second great advocate.

The same fundamental problems persisted. The MRF tent began to deteriorate and it seemed impossible to find the money to erect a new permanent structure. In 1978, a private firm, the Nederlander Organization, was awarded a contract to run the MRF, but Nederlander gave up the effort after just three years. Following the 1980 season, the MRF ceased to exist.

During its heyday in the era of the military draft and the unpopular war in Vietnam, the student revolution, Watergate, and the rise of the counter-culture the MRF brought remarkable entertainment to SIUE. It is doubtful that any other campus in America was visited by more of the legendary performers of popular music between 1969 and 1980. Among the famous artists who appeared at the MRF were Joan Baez; The Band and Bob Dylan; the Beach Boys; Blood, Sweat, and Tears; Jackson Browne; the Butterfield Blues Band; Harry Chapin; Chicago; Judy Collins; Rita Coolidge; Jim Croce; David Crosby and Graham Nash; John Denver; the Eagles; Emerson, Lake, and Palmer; the Fifth Dimension; Dan Fogelberg; the Grateful Dead; the Guess Who; Arlo Guthrie; Iron Butterfly; Jefferson Starship; Janis Joplin; B. B. King; Kris Kristofferson; Gordon Lightfoot; Loggins and Messina; Dave Mason; Don McLean; Bette Midler; Joni Mitchell; the Pointer Sisters; Rare Earth; Helen Reddy; REO Speedwagon; Kenny Rogers; Linda Ronstadt; Todd Rundgren; Seals and Crofts; Rod Stewart; Stephen Stills; James Taylor; the Marshall Tucker Band; and Ike and Tina Turner.

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Added to Library on March 13, 2024. (558)


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