When Elizabeth Ballard died in 1964 at age 87, she bequeathed five acres of her family’s Main Street estate to her hometown, “for a park . . . where persons, both young and old, may be free to gather in pleasant surroundings for rest and recreation.” And where, 27 years later, another civic-minded Ridgefielder launched a now-iconic concert series—one that has helped earn Ridgefield its reputation as an “arts town.”
Barbara Manners may be a passionate music fan, but she’s a reluctant meteorologist. On any given summer Tuesday afternoon—or Thursday, for that matter—you’ll find her glued to online radar maps, while hundreds of people in the Ridgefield area are hanging on what she sees there.
As the founder and unpaid producer of CHIRP (Concert Happenings in Ridgefield Parks), she’s spent the last two decades booking and presenting national touring acts in Main Street’s Ballard Park. “Still,” she says, “it’s making the weather calls that turn my hair white every year. When it’s looking iffy, I’ll park myself in front of the computer from 11am until 3pm to make the call.”
Over the years, CHIRP has presented as many as 400 free concerts, everything from New Orleans jazz to folk to bluegrass to country to rock—and very few people have gotten wet. Manners’ greatest forecasting gift, though, is not of weather but musical appeal. She has a knack for unearthing up-and-coming acts who are about to go big. “I go to industry events and festivals,” she says. “I find artists who are genuinely talented, but I also watch the audience. Their response tells me everything I need to know.”
Consider the now-big-time, Alabama-based soul outfit St. Paul and the Broken Bones. “I found them playing as unknowns on the street in Austin, at the South by Southwest festival,” she says. “I booked them right there.” Two weeks later, the band signed with a label, and their debut album shot to #56 on the Billboard charts.
The Founding Concerts
On those summer evenings, people begin to trickle into Ballard Park at around six, staking out their territory with chairs, blankets and picnic baskets. Music-lovers gather up front while families and groups of picnickers settle toward the rear. Along Main Street, lines begin to form at takeout counters. Frisbees and hacky sacks come out. Grownups sip wine and nibble from Martha Stewart-worthy platters. The park is packed by the time Manners takes the stage for her pre-show announcements. “And now,” she eventually says, “without further ado …”
As a kid, Manners was a less-than-promising music student. “My piano teacher told my mother to save her money,” she laughs. But at NYU in the ‘60s, she was drawn to the flourishing Greenwich Village folk scene, where she was swept away by artists like Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and Odetta. She ventured up to the Newport Folk Festival to hear artists like Judy Collins and Pete Seeger. At 75, her passion for music is undimmed, as is her energy. “I hope I can do this series for another 10 years,” she says.
To understand CHIRP’s origins, you have to go back to the 2001 bar mitzvah of Manners’ son David, the week after 9/11. “The rabbi told us you don’t cancel life events, so we went forward.” Expecting a somber affair, Manners was surprised by the festivity. “It was a release. I realized how much we needed music to heal, to bring us together. A week later I brought the idea for CHIRP to [first selectman] Rudy Marconi.”
Marconi gave the thumbs-up. “I thought it was a great idea,” he said. “I knew if she took it on, she’d be successful.”
He had good reason to trust her. A Ridgefielder since 1982, Manners was—and still is—a town selectwoman and passionate arts advocate. She’d spent the previous five years helping drive the restoration of the Ridgefield Playhouse and had booked its first acts. Meanwhile, Ridgefield’s Arts Council had sponsored a few concerts in Ballard Park, providing proof of concept.
Manners aimed to go big from the start. “People thought we should do four or five events a year, but I wanted to do a regular series, to get people in the habit of coming.” But there was a big hurdle: funding. She went to the Ridgefield Press, which offered sponsorship in the form of free advertising. Parks & Rec found money for sound equipment and built the “temporary” stage that’s still in use. Scraping together $10,000, she booked nine concerts that year, using connections and pulling
Manners’ “if you build it, they will come” optimism paid off. About 75 people showed up for the first show, a jazz quartet. “By the end of the summer we were getting 300-400 people, and they were loving it,” she says. With a successful first year under her belt, she began seeking underwriters for the second year.
A Growing Event
Among the first underwriters was Chris Pike, a local musician and proprietor of the late lamented Ridgefield Music store. “It was awesome,” he says from his new home in North Carolina. “Live music builds community. I can’t think of anyone more committed to live music and entertainment in Ridgefield than Barbara.”
Funding continues to be a challenge, especially since Manners expanded the series in 2012 to include Thursday evenings as well. Each concert now runs CHIRP about $5,000, with the annual budget exceeding $150,000. “It’s not quite self-sustaining,” she laments. Still, she’s resisted suggestions to charge admission or offer VIP seating and parking. “I want it to be free and never exclusionary.”
Parks & Recreation Director Dennis DiPinto, who oversees operations for the series, has run summer concert series in other towns. He describes CHIRP as a cut above. “The concerts cost a lot, but funding she generates allows her to book next-level talent,” he says. “We couldn’t be more thrilled.”
Among CHIRP’s biggest fans are the artists who play there. All are national touring acts who make Ridgefield a stop en-route between weekend festivals and events. “It’s a beautiful setting and heart-warming to see folks gathering on the grass,” says Welsh balladeer Martyn Joseph.
“Barbara Manners has figured out how to create real delight right there—even in the midst of a pandemic,” notes renowned singer-songwriter Susan Werner. “There is such a feeling of community, belonging, even sing-alonging.”
Christine Ohlman, a blues-inflected singer dubbed “The Beehive Queen” for her soaring hairdo, will be back this summer with her band The Rebel Montez. “Ballard Park is one of Connecticut’s great parks,” she says. “You feel a real heart-soul connection between the audience and the band.” She also raves about the sound quality. “The sound is pristine and excellent no matter where you sit.”
Many artists say they come not just for the venue but for Manners herself: “Barbara is a very special soul,” says Joseph. “She recognizes the power of the arts to remind us who we truly are.”
“Barbara is a gem, and we love her so, so much,” says Jess Eliot Myhre of the Bumper Jacksons. “CHIRP is a stop I know many touring Americana acts really look forward to.”
As Manners intuited so many years ago, it’s about far more than music: Spread out on a blanket with friends and family as the warm summer sun slips below the horizon, while lightning bugs flash their shimmering light, children’s laughter rings from the playground, and the music spreads magic through the crowd, we can sense that we are all part of something bigger than ourselves. •