From quaint local families to the Queen of England, thousands of people have sat at the edge of Gull Lake looking out at the iconic Music on the Barge stage, and coordinator Fred Schulz has been helping make the magic happen for 50 years now.
The history of the barge goes back to 1949. Before that, the park was home to a traditional bandshell. Members of the Civic Music Association, which coordinated local concerts, wanted to showcase the beauty of the scenery by mooring barges near the shoreline of Gull Lake to make a stage, and it quickly became a hit. In 1958, Gravenhurst-born architect Stan White Jr. designed a permanent stage that would sit above the water. It was finished being built by the time Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip came for a visit on July 4, 1959 during their tour of Ontario.
“She sat right here and watched the band,” Schulz said, gesturing to a bench at the top of the slope leading down to Gull Lake. “After that, she headed back up and got into her entourage and headed towards Torrance.”
Behind the scenes at the barge
Wanda Miller, who was mayor of Gravenhurst during the 50s, spearheaded the Music on the Barge project for many years. She asked Schulz to oversee collections while he was working in audiovisual at the high school. When Miller died in 1985, he took on her role as chairman of the Civic Music Association.
Years later, the association ceased to exist, but Schulz carried on coordinating Music on the Barge. It was common to have big bands with as many as 80 members back then and every square foot of the stage would be used. In the time since, Schulz has seen a major shift in musical styles.
“Back in the 70s, there were military bands that used to tour and stage bands from Toronto were very popular at the time, but over the years, they started to dissolve, and so I had to look at other types of music,” he said. “I started to bring in folk groups and then, of course, country bands, and tribute bands became quite popular too.”
The music isn’t the only thing that’s changed over the years. Schulz used to drive around in the 70s and 80s, handing out brochures to let people know what would be playing each Sunday evening. Concertgoers could also call his home phone and listen to the lineup, which was recorded on his answering machine.
Being able to put the details of the shows on social media has made a world of difference, he said. He’s grateful to the communications team at the Town of Gravenhurst for their help producing the online content, which helps draw audience members from Orillia, Barrie, Parry Sound and beyond.
“It’s come a long way from Sunday afternoon with my phone with an answering message on it. Even if a show had to be cancelled, that’s where they phoned,” Schulz said. “My phone would just ring constantly for information about the concerts and now, my phone very rarely rings on a Sunday.”
Onward and upward
As the audience grew so did the need for proper sound equipment. Concert goers are often spread out from the end of the beach up into the picnic shelter, so it takes a lot of planning to produce a high quality show, he said. There’s also no hiding if something goes wrong on the barge.
New technology has improved the sound quality of the shows, though there are still challenges like wind and weather. Thankfully, technology has also allowed the Music on the Barge team to predict bad weather with a decent degree of accuracy, helping keep the bands and audience safe. With so much electricity running across the stage, Schulz said even the smallest bit of moisture can pose a great risk.
“I am the happiest guy in the park when the sky is blue on a Sunday,” he said. “People will have to understand that once it rains, we’re out of commission.”
Because the stage structure itself is subject to the effects of weather, parts of it deteriorated as the barge sat unused for two years during COVID, so the town replaced the ramp that leads out the stage. Since they can’t simply pull up a vehicle to quickly unload like most concert venues, the ramp plays an essential role in show set-up and take-down.
The Rotary Club of Gravenhurst has also done many repairs and improvements on the barge. They’re currently fundraising to create a terraced natural rock seating area for the hill next to shoreline. They’ve named the project Rotary Rocks the Barge and the cost is estimated at $350,000, with $50,000 already committed by the club.
“It’s quite a slope of land and I have been watching people slide down that for 50 years,” Schulz said. “It’s going to be really exciting to see this project unfold, and I’m extremely grateful to the Gravenhurst Rotary Club for what they are doing and what they have undertaken.”
The club is launching the initiative to celebrate their 85th anniversary. Donors who contribute $1,000 or more will be recognized on a commemorative wall. The club can accept online donations, cheques and even stocks, and all donors will receive a tax receipt.
Schulz said it will be a wonderful seating area for all events in the park but especially for the Music on the Barge program. He’s excited to see the project move forward and said the seating could be installed as early as next year.
Generations of tradition and gratitude
Through all the changes, one thing that has remained the same is the makeup of the audience. Whether they’re cottagers or year-round residents, many people have made Sunday evenings at Gull Lake a decades-long family affair.
“It’s really nice to see generations come to the barge,” Schulz said. “They’ll come and see me and tell me about how much they enjoyed it when they were kids and how much they’re enjoying bringing their kids, so it’s been something that families feel is a real tradition and they carry that on.”
Schulz has a lot of gratitude when it comes to his time as coordinator. In addition to the supporters in the crowd, the Rotary club, local service groups and sponsors have been a huge help with the program’s expenses. A group of dedicated volunteers also help keep costs low for the program.
Each year there are about eight to 10 volunteers who act as collection takers and stagehands, and they’re key to the program’s success, Schulz said. The town also provides an annual budget, which allows concert admission to remain a suggested donation.
“The donations are really important, but people are quite generous,” he said. “I think that’s really important to have an affordable event and something that everybody can come to and I was very adamant that that not change if possible.”
Schulz is grateful to the town for being supportive of his efforts, and the gratitude goes both ways. The Town of Gravenhurst recognized Schulz’s years of service with a commemorative plaque at the first concert of the season. Next Tuesday, town council will also vote on a motion to name the pathway to the barge the “Fred Schulz Walkway”.
Schulz wasn’t sure what it would be like to return to programming after pandemic restrictions, but the first few concerts proved the love locals have for the tradition. Most shows bring in a crowd of about 750 to 1,500 depending on weather conditions, but some have had more than 2,000 audience members in attendance.
“I really enjoy producing the shows and putting it on and coordinating the season because people attend it well,” he said. “I think that’s the best feedback you can have when you walk out on the stage and you see a park full of people.”
Standing the test of time
Schulz has never seen a crowd as large as the one at this year’s first concert, but the season isn’t over yet. There are still two shows before Muskoka Music Festival takes over the stage in late August. A Johnny Cash tribute band will perform on Aug. 7 and Aug. 14 will see the return of the Good Brothers.
The Good Brothers are a country bluegrass band and this month’s performance will be their 30th appearance at Music on the Barge. It’s become a tradition for them to be the closing concert each year, so Schulz said it’s a sweet and sad time when they come around at the end of summer.
“The friendship that we have developed with The Good Brothers is very special,” he said. “When they were inducted into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame, in their acceptance speech they mentioned special places in Canada that they like to perform and Music on the Barge in Gravenhurst was the top of their list.”
Returning artists and first-time performers alike are often blown away by how distinctive and special the barge and its setting is, especially when it’s lit up in the evening. Schulz is glad that the barge has stood the test of time and he’s thrilled to see how the program has grown.
When he first joined as a collection taker in 1972, he never thought he’d be working on the program for so many years. He doesn’t know where the time has gone, but he’s proud to be part of such a unique tradition and plans to continue on as coordinator for the foreseeable future.
“I’m extremely excited with the Gravenhurst Rotary Club project here and at this point, I’m enjoying it very much,” he said with a smile. “We’ll see what the future brings.”