“Fugazi’s playing here next week,” brags 78-year-old Barbara Luchs, a local who’s been dropping in on Fort Reno Park’s concerts for more than three decades. “They’re a very well-known band.”
We’re sitting on a concrete staircase behind Woodrow Wilson High School, across the street from Fort Reno’s metal-and-plywood stage, where the band Skilled Labor is grinding through a punk-pop number. “I listen to all kinds of ‘in’ music,” Luchs says, flipping back her white dollop of hair. “Like show tunes. I love show tunes.”
The grande dame of D.C.’s celebrated punk scene Luchs is not. But sheand her generation of activist Tenleytownersofficially launched the twice-weekly Fort Reno summer concert series back in 1969, when Fugazi’s Ian MacKaye was still settling into grade school. The concerts in the park were born through the local Neighborhood Planning Council, part of a network of elected community groups charged by the city with keeping the capital’s youth busy through the summers in the wake of the 1968 riots.
The council’s former chairand Fort Reno’s godfather77-year-old Jesuit priest George Dennis scored his last free Fugazi show at the series’ season finale on Monday night. Father George, as Dennis has come to be known in Fort Reno circles, is leaving D.C. next month to spend the September of his years at a Jesuit community in Los Angeles. Resin Records’ Carleton Ingramwho has been actively working with the concert series since 1995is taking over Dennis’ responsibilities for obtaining permits, as well as other administrative duties.
“The last five years have been pretty mellow, but in the early ’70s, there would sometimes be drunks and fightsand one time a bike gang showed up,” Dennis says one weekend day, sprawled out in an armchair in his now-vacated Dupont Circle residence and sporting canvas shorts, white socks trimmed with black stripes, and Teva sandals.
Though Dennis managed to secure funding, permits, and a perennial thumbs-up from the Metropolitan Police Department for the shows since Day One, keeping the series going was not without its difficulties. When griping neighbors threatened to shut down Fort Reno in the mid-’70s (“We’d get noise complaintsand sometimes the kids would stop to take a leak in someone’s back yard, so we got complaints about that”), Dennis had the stage tucked deeper into the park. When the District government pulled funding for neighborhood councils in the early ’90s, Dennis set up a nonprofit corporation to raise money and donated his $1,500 stipend as a “city employee” to pay the sound man.
Dennis has attended almost every show since Fort Reno’s inception. Living in Tenleytown for nearly two decades before moving to Dupont Circle in 1986, he got to know the neighborhood kids on the street while riding his bicycle through town. As befits its Woodstock-era inauguration, the series is still flavored with a hippie-era communalismbut a DIY mentality. A couple hundred teenagers and 20-somethings (recent years have seen fewer high schoolers) turn out every Monday and Thursday to see bands from the District play pro bono. “The amplifiers pick up radio signals from the towers next door, and that will be louder than the actual music sometimes,” says MacKaye, who’s played Fort Reno roughly a dozen times with Fugazialmost always in the rain. “We did one show when it started pouring, and the speaker cones just filled up with water. But I like facing the elements.”
Though Dennis prefers classical music, he says that he’s generally enjoyed the bands at Fort Reno. “Some people don’t like it because, for some bands, every other word is ‘fuck,’” says the former medieval history and Greek professor who taught at Catholic University until the year before last. “But I usually can’t understand what they’re saying, so that doesn’t bother me.” But Dennis is annoyed that cash for Fort Reno is increasingly difficult to scrape together. “You can get all kinds of funding to teach little kids finger painting or to show 80-year-old ladies how to square-dance,” he chuckles. “But nobody wants to give money to teenagers. Most people wish they’d just go away and come back when they’re 25.” Dan Gilgoff