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RELIGION / JOHN DART : Christian Music Festival Is Act of Faith for Novice Promoters

July 16, 1994|JOHN DART

A Christian music festival next month in Burbank has a ballooning $600,000 budget and an unusual pair of novice promoters--a young Baptist of Chinese-American heritage and the owner of a computer business, who is not a believer but interested.

Not that Summer Praise '94, set for Aug. 11-14 at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center, is a likely flop.

With more than 50 Christian artists and musical groups booked, including headliner Carman and the rock group Petra, the event is being promoted heavily among evangelicals, who have turned out in respectable numbers for contemporary Christian music concerts and a recent series of crusade rallies in the Southland.

But as one of the few religious festivals on this scale ever tried in the Los Angeles area, the four-day event is still risky.

It might have been fatally jinxed had the promoters followed original plans to book singer Michael English, whose Christian music career collapsed in May because of a sex scandal.

Four months ago, co-promoters Carey Wong, 31, a financier and ex-banker in Glendale, and George Jerome, 50, owner of Computer Solutions in Chatsworth, had a tentative agreement with English as the featured singer. They were really seeking Carman, a proven draw on the Christian circuit, instead of English.

"One day in late March, I said, 'If we don't get Carman by 2:30 p.m., then let's move forward with Michael English,' " said Wong, whose job was to acquire talent. "Carman's agent called a minute or two before our deadline and said Carman would be available."

English had been named best male vocalist of the year at the Gospel Music Assn. Dove Awards on April 28 in Nashville. But within a week, English returned all of his awards, admitting that he had an affair with a married woman, another gospel singer. His record company dropped him and most Christian stores stopped selling English's music.

"We would have had to change all our advertising," Wong said. "We definitely would have scaled down the event."

As it was, with the commitment by Carman, a five-time Dove Award winner, "a lot of Christian musicians who were saying they were unavailable, all of sudden became available," Wong said.

Wong says divine providence was at work. "I believe in God's grace," he said.

Nevertheless, while not condoning English's admitted adultery, Wong said in an interview, "I wish Michael English and his family could be here, not just to sing but also to be here as a part of a restorative, reconciling process among Christians."

George Jerome, interviewed with Wong in the shade of the Equidome at the equestrian center, added, "English is \o7 persona non grata \f7 in Nashville where most of the Christian music companies are, but a lot more is possible in Southern California."

Indeed, where else could a non-Christian run an event that depends on the acceptance of evangelical Christians?

Jerome said he has been skeptical of religion but two near-mishaps in his private plane and his friendship with Wong, a member of the First Chinese Baptist Church in Chinatown, have caused him to question his beliefs.

"I've seen how people who are religious seem so peaceful," Jerome said.

Jerome also said that if Summer Praise '94 makes any profit, part of the proceeds would launch a pet project of his to house, train and employ homeless street people as food cart vendors.

The first-time promoters said they will have invested nearly $300,000 of their own money by the time of the festival, despite much more modest plans at the start.

"This took on a life of its own," Jerome said. "We're now controlled by the festival rather than controlling it--a poor way to do business."

Wong estimated the turnout will fall between 25,000 and 40,000. But Jerome is hoping for more than 40,000.

Figures provided by the Nashville-based Gospel Music Assn. show that the five largest annual Christian music festivals in the country attract between 30,000 and 60,000 people.

Relatively low ticket prices for Summer Praise '94 may help. For all four days, the price is $29.95 before July 30, or $35 at the gate. The Jesus Northwest music festival at Vancouver, Wash., which drew 29,000 in three days last year, is charging $40 in advance for a three-day pass and $52 at the gate for the festival that begins Thursday.

The local festival's headliner, Carman, twice named by Billboard magazine as Contemporary Christian Artist of the Year, once drew 26,000 to a concert at the Six Flags Over Georgia amusement park, according to the Gospel Music Assn.

At Six Flags Magic Mountain, Carman has sung in concert annually since 1990. Attendance figures are not released by the park, but "the fact that we have had him back each year shows that he brings people in," said Bonnie Rabjohn, the park's public relations manager. Rabjohn said that Magic Mountain now holds four Christian-oriented music nights each year because of their popularity.

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