Regatta leader recalls festival's glory days
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- "That's a picture of the largest shell ever shot during the Sunday night fireworks display," Bill Rice said. "It was an 18-inch shell. They don't allow anything larger than 12 inches now."
On a wall of his Stockton Street offices, pictures, posters and framed souvenir pins and nametags commemorate the decade he spent as a bigwig volunteer for the Charleston Sternwheel Regatta.
He points to a poster promoting The Beach Boys' Sunkist Silver Anniversary Tour. "The Beach Boys cost $150,000," he said. "The Regatta Commission put in a lot of money for that one.
"I've got a set of commemorative coins signed by the Beach Boys at home in my safe."
A miniature Regatta museum dominates the basement of the Stockton Street building. The first souvenir shirt with the original Regatta logo hangs over the pool table with shirts from subsequent Regattas. Behind them, glossy promo photos of notable Regatta entertainers spur memories of behind-the-scenes trivia.
"There's Crystal Gayle. She was the M&M girl. She didn't like chocolate M&Ms. We had to have someone pick them out by hand.
"The entertainers were always very interesting," he said. "For every entertainer, you had to supply certain food. The Beach Boys only liked one kind of salad dressing, and it came from California, so we had to have it flown in."
Most of the time, Rice has more serious things on his mind, like flying around the world as president of the American Welding Society.
Grandson of Virginia Welding founder V.S. Rice, he also serves as CEO of industry wholesaler OKI Bering.
But when Labor Day rolls around, Bill Rice gets a little nostalgic about the glory days of the Charleston Sternwheel Regatta.
Rice and his brother, Joe, started selling balloons for the festival in the mid-1970s when it was a still a small event confined to the upper end of Capitol Street.
Launched in 1971 by Nelson Jones as a paddlewheel festival, the event expanded beyond the river when the Jaycees introduced coinciding land activities, Rice said.
"One year, I just thought it could be done differently. I asked to get more involved. They needed someone new to head up land activities, so the next year, I started doing that."
He wound up as executive vice president of the Regatta Commission during its heyday in the 1980s.
"I raised the money," he said.
He also kept track of it. "We never lost money. I have folders that account for every cent."
Along with a batch of souvenirs, he kept his records -- half a dozen boxes crammed with detailed reports on everything from beer sales to the number of Porta-Johns.
"I spoke at the Rotary Club one time, and someone ask me how many beers we sold. My answer was about 200 porta-potties full."
He can get a lot more accurate than that. Randomly plucking a report from one of the boxes stacked in his office, he notes that on this particular night in 1987, the Regatta sold 817 kegs of beer.
"I figure there's about 100 beers per keg, so we sold 82,000 beers. There were times when we sold more than 1,000 kegs a night."
Suds flowed freely from two 40-foot dairy trucks transformed into beer dispensers. "I went to Bill Martin at Valley Bell and begged two 40-foot refrigerator trucks," he said. "They were stainless steel on the outside. We took off the Valley Bell signage. I had a friend make two long stainless steel troughs, and we put 20 taps on each truck. You could pour beer forever from that truck.
"We had 40 volunteers manning each trailer and put in 100 to 200 kegs in each trailer, plus the cups. The logistics of this were incredible."
The festival had grown from a long weekend to 10 days, way too long in the eyes of some. "Yes, 10 days is a long time," Rice said, "but we couldn't put up a stage as long as a city block just for one weekend and dismantle it and put it back up the next weekend. The stage had to stay there. Also, the city blocked off streets and they didn't want to recycle traffic twice. That was a lot of work.
The Beach Boys, performing for the 16th annual Regatta on Aug. 31, 1986, attracted the largest ever Regatta crowd, followed by Willie Nelson in 1988.
For the Beach Boys, fans stood elbow-to-elbow for blocks, cramming the boulevard far above the Union Building and jamming side streets. Boats anchored in droves on both sides of the river. The crowd estimate was 200,000.
"It took me two hours to get from one end to the other to collect the beer money," he said.
The entertainment lineup that year included Lee Greenwood, the Commodores, Tanya Tucker and the Van Dells.
"Country entertainers cost a lot less, maybe $30,000 or $40,000," Rice said. "They drew people from Logan and Beckley and other places. And the people drank beer. So we liked them."
The Miami Sound Machine with Gloria Estefan topped the schedule for the 1987 Regatta and attracted a crowd of about 100,000.
"We had some big names here before they were big names," Rice said. "I've got a signed photograph of me with the Miami Sound Machine."
Total attendance in 1987 reached 1.2 million. Regatta-goers used 250,000 cups and 77,000 pounds of ice and drank 8,000 gallons of soft drinks.
The lineup that year included Reba McEntire, Three Dog Night, Kathy Mattea, Blood Sweat & Tears and Ray Charles.
The Ray Charles concert caused a commotion when he refused to use the sound system, Rice said. "You couldn't hear him at the end of the block. We kept turning the volume up. He wanted it turned down.
"His road manager was not a nice man. He came at us at our trailer. I was screaming at him. I had thousands of people screaming at me about the sound. The manager started up the steps to the trailer. I had a police bodyguard the whole time during the Regatta, and he was reaching for his nightstick.
"Ray Charles could only hear the music right at the stage. We had hundreds of speakers. If he could have seen the size of the crowd, he would have known to turn the music up."
All the entertainers loved the Regatta, he said. "Most of them had never entertained in front of that many people. Think of all the 60s-era groups who came in. They never saw that many people in their whole lives."
Regatta entertainment took a big hit in the late 1990s. In 1996, then-Mayor Kemp Melton banned beer sales, essentially ending any support from beer distributors and manufacturers.
"It was beer companies and distributors that gave the money for the acts," Rice said.
"We would go to the distributors, say Jack Catalano at Central for Budweiser. We'd tell him a group we wanted to bring in and how much they cost. Say it was $20,000. Jack would give $10,000 and get the Budweiser to match with the other $10,000.
"Then we got really smart. We'd say, 'Jack, we'd like to have a $40,000 group. You put in $10,000. We will help you with $10,000. You get the beer company to put in $20,000."
After the beer controversy, that money wasn't available, he said.
"The selling of beer was never a problem when I was there," he said. "You could only buy two at a time and the lines were long. It's hard to get in trouble when you can only buy two beers at once and the cups are only 16 ounces.
"We did see a guy who stood in a long line to get two beers, then went to the potty line, drank his two beers, went to the potty, then turned around and went back to the beer line."
When the Regatta Commission first bought cups, he said, only the original logo was printed on the side. "The first year I went in, I sold those cups to advertisers, then sold them again to vendors. You could only drink from Regatta cups. So we got double income. That kind of thing supported the Regatta.
"We had a tractor trailer loaded with nothing but cups," he said. "The first year, we bought 140,000, and it went up from there."
Nelson Jones handled the boats and river events. "He always wanted to do things for the boat captains. We finally put up screens so you could see the concerts from the boats. And we had a laser show a couple of years.
"If you could find a sponsor, you could pretty much do whatever you wanted."
The designs on the souvenir Regatta shirts match pins given to volunteers, he said. "We were looking for something to do for volunteers, and Martha Walker came up with the pin idea. People fought to get them. We redesigned a pin every year."
A picture on the office wall captures a dazzling moment at the Regatta's first giant fireworks show in 1985. "Merit Harbor Lights, a cigarette company, sponsored them. It was the first time we had a huge national sponsor. Some of the greatest fireworks companies in the world did our fireworks."
The Charleston Regatta presented one of the first synchronized fireworks shows in the country, coordinating the fireworks with music by the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra on the Regatta's final night, he said.
"There would actually be a guy pushing the buttons to coordinate the shells with the music, so when the music hit a high note, a big firework would go off high in the sky. Now it's all electronic. They don't even have to punch a button anymore."
His favorite Regatta story involves the late Gazette publisher Ned Chilton. "Every night, I had to go out and estimate the crowd," Rice said. "I had no clue. We just guessed."
Chilton questioned the festival crowd estimates and refused to continue publishing them. "He called my dad and said if I could take an aerial photograph and he could count the heads, he would publish the crowd numbers again."
Rice figured out a more scientific way of doing things. Using a map of the Regatta complex, including the boulevard and across the river, he measured the space. Then he estimated the space consumed by one person standing. Then he used different colors to indicate the estimated density of people within a certain area.
One evening, a Gazette reporter asked to accompany him as he estimated the crowd. "I took the map out and told him I was going to let him do it based on my map. He actually estimated it higher than I would have, but from then on, the Gazette printed the numbers because there was some scientific method. Well, it was as scientific as you can get without counting heads."
Rice bowed out in 1989 after Mayor Chuck Gardner fired longtime Regatta leader William Brotherton Jr., a move that precipitated a downhill slide aggravated by the beer ban, construction of Haddad Park, the withdrawal of founder Nelson Jones and dwindling sponsors.
After 37 years, the Regatta had its last hurrah in 2008.
Looking around at all the keepsake paraphernalia, Rice can't help but feel a twinge of wistfulness.
"I keep all this stuff because I liked it so much," he said. "It's one of those things you did in your life that was kind of neat."
Reach Sandy Wells at email@example.com or 304-348-5173.