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'Come Back, Come Home'

The Watts Festival intends to restore its glory days with a weekend of music, movies, sports and more.

August 03, 2000|JUDY RAPHAEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Charles Wright has glorious memories of playing the first Watts Summer Festival in 1966.

"They had James Brown, Bill Cosby, Brenton Wood--everybody who was anybody was on that show. It was so packed, they had to lock the gates and people were jumping over the fence," said the veteran R&B musician, best known for his Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band and its 1970 classic, "Express Yourself."

Wright will be returning for the festival's 34th anniversary this weekend at the seven-acre enclosed facility of the Watts Labor Community Action Committee.

The venerable family-oriented festival, touted as the oldest African American festival in California, was conceived as a positive solution to the anger of the 1965 Watts revolt.

"It was culturally, not just artistically and musically, based, and it was the highlight of an era and of the black community," said Tommy Jacquette, the organization's executive director for the last 33 years, who describes himself a "street revolutionary turned boardroom revolutionary."

At its high point, in 1972, the festival, with Stax Records, sponsored "Wattstax," a sell-out concert at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum featuring Albert King, James Brown, Isaac Hayes, Richard Pryor, Jesse Jackson and others. It spun off a hit double-album and motion picture.

From the mid-1970s through the '80s, though, the event was plagued by gang activities and a subsequent loss of major sponsorship and location, "almost to the point of the demise of the festival itself," said Jacquette.

Things have quieted down since then, however, and now, he reports happily, with new sponsors Lockheed Martin and the Automobile Club of Southern California and a permanent home at the Community Action Committee, the festival is making a comeback. This year's theme is "New Millennium, New Generation, New Legacy."

"We've been rebuilding and reestablishing, and we're saying, 'We're here, come back, come home,' " said deputy director Pamela Garrett, a Compton teacher.

Back effective Friday will be the time-honored Sports Village (originally the Watts Summer Festival Junior Olympics), featuring youth competitions and guests, including boxer "Sugar" Shane Mosely, Olympic gold medalist Valerie Brisco and black belt Stew Gilliam, with the Black Karate Federation.

Opening ceremonies will take place at noon Saturday, with proclamations by Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and other officials honoring festival contributors Cecil Fergerson, West Gale and Leo Hill, followed by a commemoration of the 34 people who died in the Watts riots.

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Entertainment will be provided all weekend on the stage in Phoenix Hall, kicking off Friday with "Watts, Then and Now," a show with "Mother of Watts" Edwina Gaines, backed by the Los Angeles Gospel Orchestra. The lineup on Saturday and Sunday includes the Country Strutters, a calypso, swing and jazz dance troupe; the Sacramento-based gospel group the Shades of Glory; and Gary Prett & the CSUN Students Jazz Band, among others.

As always, the popular outdoor concert series, featuring new and celebrated artists, is expected to draw crowds, especially the Sunday noon blues, R&B and jazz concert headlining Wright and nationally known spoken-word and jazz artists the Watts Prophets.

Other concerts include Friday night's Soul and Salsa Dance Party, Saturday afternoon gospel music and evening hip-hop concerts and a Sunday night oldies and R&B show hosted by Mega 92.3 radio station KCMG-FM (92.3), featuring vintage acts Vernon Green and the Medallions, Joe Liggins & the Honeydrippers, and Jacks/Cadets.

Finalists in an amateur rap contest will be presented by "The Beat," radio station KKBT-FM (100.3), at 5:30 p.m. Saturday.

Another highlight, Garrett said, will be the independent film festival, which will include shorts, such classics as Fats Waller's "Ain't Misbehavin' " and "Rhapsody in Black and Blue" (with Louis Armstrong) and serious films, including 1961's "The Connection."

"Traditionally, the festival featured free first-run films that the community wouldn't ordinarily get to see after our theaters burned down, but our new director, Robert Wheaton, wants to expose audiences to a whole different genre," Garrett said.

In addition, daily community forums will be held in Freedom Hall, with local leaders discussing subjects affecting the African American community, such as "Watts in the New Millennium--the Road Ahead" with Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, Los Angeles City Councilman Rudy Svorinich Jr. and others.

Ongoing through the three days will be an art exhibit, a carnival, concessions and a children's village with storytellers, magicians, arts and crafts and animals.

While on the grounds, visitors can also tour the Watts Labor Community Action Committee facilities, which include a Civil Rights Museum, art installations and a model slave ship sculpted by resident artist Charles Dickson.

"Watts is more known for its violence and poverty than for its culture. That's why we think it's important to keep the Watts Summer Festival and WLCAC alive and well in the community," Jacquette said. "We have our history to build on. We have a lot of positive memories. It's a new beginning."

BE THERE

The 34th annual Watts Summer Festival, Friday through Sunday, noon to 8 p.m. 10950 S. Central Ave., between Century Boulevard and Imperial Highway, off the 105 Freeway. Free admission. Free parking. Free film festival, screenings daily noon to 6 p.m. Information: (323) 789-7304 or http://www.wattsfestival.org.

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