35 YEARS of Charlotte’s Web

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Anniversary celebration set for noon, June 30, at Verdi Club

Buddy Rich, Dizzy Gillespie, Koko Taylor, Bill Monroe, Joan Jett, Bryan Bowers, Leon Redbone, Kenny G. What do all of these musical acts have in common? One might say they are all A-List performers that have toured the world. True. However, they are also a part of an impressive roster of artists that has played Rockford’s Charlotte’s Web for the Performing Arts over the last 35 years. With noted talent scouts and concert promoters Karen and Bill Howard in the driver’s seat, it’s no surprise.

The organization, named after Charlotte Powers, a Rockford performer who was tragically killed by a drunk driver on the opening night of a Boylan High School production, has been the city’s source of folk, jazz, blues and many other genres of music since its first concert May 27, 1972. Charlotte’s Web will celebrate its 35th year at noon, Saturday, June 30, at the Verdi Club, 782 N. Madison Ave.

To say the Web has done a lot for Rockford would be an understatement. During the early years, it had become so popular, fans would do anything they could not to miss a show. A New Year’s Eve snowstorm once forced Rockford police to officially close the city’s downtown. According to Karen Howard, it didn’t stop supporters from coming out.

“With pretty much every street in Rockford closed down, people actually came to the Web on cross-country skis so they wouldn’t miss our New Year’s Eve party,” she remembers.

Listening to the Howards recall names, faces and events from Charlotte’s Web history is like watching a documentary about who’s who in music without the visual aids. Bill and Karen’s recollection of the past is quite photographic. With stories about the large audiences to the around-the-clock effort to transform the building’s setup, the couple’s passion for what they do is evident in every word they speak.

Karen Howard said: “It did get pretty wild at times, and the artists always made sure they gave the people what they wanted. Luther Allison actually ended up playing in the middle of First Avenue to a screaming audience.” Karen also recalled her first encounter with late drum great Buddy Rich.

“Buddy got done with his sound check and climbed off the stage with a mad look on his face,” remembers Karen. “When I asked him if there was anything wrong, he smiled and said: ‘Yes! Why haven’t you booked us here before?’ ”

By the mid-1970s, Charlotte’s Web was known by fans and musicians alike as one of the premier places to play in the country, often serving as a springboard for the careers of many national performers. In its infancy, the career of rock band Cheap Trick was one of those acts.

“For some reason, we were the first venue in Rockford to actually pay Cheap Trick to play,” said Karen, whose father was George Nielsen, uncle of Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen.

Singer Robin Zander, who once sat on the Charlotte’s Web advisory board, professed his appreciation several years ago.

“Charlotte’s Web is a part of me,” said Zander. “Quality entertainment is a valued commodity in a town of this size.”

In the 1980s, as the country moved into a recession, the Charlotte’s Web building, which also housed the famous Front Page bar, was forced to close and was nearly demolished when a developer purchased the Midway Theater. The renovation of the Midway would have moved onto the Charlotte’s Web property. Again, it was Karen Howard who stepped in with a host of supporters to save it from being torn down.

“I talked to Jack Pine (Anderson), and he convinced the Danzes (The Wristers) and some other artists to buy the building back so we could keep it going,” she said. “In the late ’80s, we were still doing weekly shows in the downstairs only.”

In 1992, the building was to undergo a complete restoration. Costs to improve the First Avenue structure were approaching $400,000. Although financially and emotionally committed to the building, it was decided that the $400,000 needed would be best used by investing in the arts. Charlotte’s Web then became a non-profit mobile music venue, and still keeps top-notch performers coming back to the Forest City.

Lani Richardson of Charlotte’s Web—daughter of Bill and Karen Howard—literally grew up in the midst of her parents’ work and has been involved since she can remember. According to Richardson, her roles have always been working alongside her mother and father to make sure every Charlotte’s Web artist was treated like royalty, including upkeep of the family home, which housed most of the performers in the early seasons.

“The artists loved staying with us, and we loved having them,” Richardson said. “Our house came to be known to everyone as ‘Bunnyland’ because of how warm people felt when they would come.”

How to keep audiences happy, how to book quality talent and how to run a music venue are just some of the things Richardson says she’s taken from her experiences working with her parents. She said she’s most impressed with the personal and empathetic involvement her mother and father have had in the lives of each performer.

Richardson said: “Mom and Dad don’t book in acts just to bring in big crowds. To them, it’s always been about the music and the art and the validity of the person creating it. They have an amazing talent for seeing and understanding what’s good about an artist that truly enjoys what they are doing.”

The tandem of Karen and Bill Howard is not limited to Charlotte’s Web. Since the 1970s, Karen has been a key player in many organizations in Rockford, including the Rockford Area Music Industry (RAMI) Awards, On the Waterfront, Veggie Run, First Night, Farm House, Hononegah Community Arts Council, Cabin Fever Jamboree, Rockford Area Arts Council and Jazz Legends.

Bill Howard is also a successful businessman, having taken Rockford Blacktop Construction Company from a small local company to a multi-million dollar enterprise after returning to Rockford after college in the 1960s. He’s also an accomplished media artist, having recorded more than 15,000 hours of live music for Charlotte’s Web and On the Waterfront, among others.

As an organization, Charlotte’s Web has been honored with countless awards, including five RAMI Awards, Heart of Rockford Award and Best of Rockford Award for Best Continuing Contribution to the Arts.

The 35th Anniversary Party starts at noon, Saturday, June 30. Cost is $15 for advance tickets, and $20 at the door. Children are admitted free. Live music from more than 20 performers, including Peter Lang, Dave Weld, Dan Voll, John Bishoff and Holland Zander, will begin at 12:30 p.m. The Verdi Club is at 782 N. Madison St. More information can be found online at www.snapshotmusic.com/charlottesweb or by calling (815) 964-2238.

from the June 20-26, 2007, issue

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