The 15th season of the TGIF Concert Series kicked off Friday night to warm weather and hundreds of people of all ages gathering uptown.
The Bridge Street parking lot was full of activity as the sun set. People danced or relaxed in beach chairs as the band Paradox rocked the audience with a Lynyrd Skynyrd cover. There was plenty of pizza and cold beverages to enjoy while friends visited with one another.
In the crowd, Shane Painter, an attorney who recently moved back to the area from Raleigh, N.C., said TGIF is "a fun, cheap event with live music. It's a great time to get out and enjoy the weather and have fun in your hometown."�
Slow dancing in front of the stage were Donna and Chris Harvey. As fans of Paradox, "we go wherever the band goes," Chris Harvey said. The couple has attended TGIF "many times," he added.
"I love the music. We always enjoy it," Donna Harvey said.
Michelle Coulson and her boyfriend, Andy Ross, lounged in lawn chairs as they listened to the music.
Meanwhile, Ross's 5-year-old daughter, Kristan, seemed to be enjoying her first TGIF concert. Kristan and Coulson's daughter Gracie, also 5 years old and the daughter of David Coulson, laughed as they played with colorful batons their parents bought at the event.
"It's something nice to bring your family to," Michelle Coulson said of TGIF. "I love it. I come here all the time."�
It was a scene organizers could only have imagined 15 years ago, when the Martinsville Uptown Revitalization Association (MURA) started the TGIF tradition.
Since its first summer concert season in 1994, the audience has grown from a small following to an average 700 to 1,000 people per show.
"I'm pleased with the crowd. With it being the season-opener, you always worry about the first night out, but from the turnout it's obvious the community embraces this," said MURA Executive Director Lee Probst.
This is Probst's first TGIF season as executive director, and she said she is proud to be a part of it in a milestone year.
TGIF is "a community event celebrating music and being uptown and enjoying the beautiful weather," Probst said. "It adds some excitement. Especially in an economy like this, it's very reasonable, quality entertainment."�
Concerts are held starting at 7 p.m. every fourth Friday from April to September. Admission is $4 for most of the shows, and kids 12 and under who are accompanied by an adult get in free.
The "premiere" events, which draw up to 2,500 people, showcase larger bands, Probst said. This season's premiere nights will feature dance music from Caspar Band on June 26 and beach music from Band of Oz on Aug. 28. Admission for those shows is $7.
Ticket sales raise funds for MURA and other nonprofit organizations that provide volunteers to staff the event, Probst said.
Volunteers from the Virginia Museum of Natural History Foundation helped with Friday's concert. Other groups volunteering this year are the Boys & Girls Clubs of Martinsville-Henry County, Charity League of Martinsville and Henry County, Gateway Streetscape Foundation and Martinsville-Henry County Mental Health Association.
Sharon Shepherd of the MURA planning committee has worked the events for 11 years. But even before she started volunteering, she attended the concerts from the early days.
"The very first TGIF they ever had was basically just the committee members and their spouses," Shepherd recalled.
"Without a doubt, it has grown throughout the years," she said, but one thing has stayed the same: "It's always been a good, fun time."�
Shepherd used to live in West Virginia and was introduced to TGIF through her sister in Martinsville.
"I used to plan trips down here to visit around the TGIF weekends," she said.
Drawing visitors uptown was the original idea behind the concerts, said Gail Mitchell, the MURA board's second president, who was involved with the organization from its beginning.
"We were looking for a way to promote the uptown area because people said they didn't have enough things to do," Mitchell said. At the time, she said, Roanoke and Danville were holding similar Friday night events.
TGIF started small, Mitchell said, adding she "had no idea" it would grow as it has.
"I don't believe our total attendance was over 1,000 the first year," she said. "I just hope it continues. I hope it gets bigger and bigger."�
In the beginning, there were no paid sponsors and no outside volunteers. By the third year, Mitchell said, "we realized as it was getting bigger we had to have nonprofits," and so they started to involve other organizations.
"We've gotten real good cooperation from other groups," she said. "Volunteers are getting sparser, though - that's the main problem."�
The expense has gone up, as well. It cost about $250 to book bands in the beginning, but that has increased to $1,000 to $2,000, she said.
Early on, some people objected to the idea of concertgoers drinking beer uptown, but Mitchell said the event has stayed safe and family-friendly.
"I think the biggest compliment to the organization is we never had an incident," she said.
Debbie Hall, MURA's executive director from 1998 to 2000, said the concert series has "grown substantially over the years and developed its own following."�
Hall called it "very gratifying" to see TGIF celebrate its 15th anniversary.
"It has established itself as a fun family event," she said. "The fact that it has been here for 15 years is indicative of its success. I think it's a good example of a lot of different folks in the community coming together and working together to put on a great event."�
For more information on TGIF, call Martinsville Uptown at 632-5688 or go to its Web site, www.MartinsvilleUptown.net.