A revival weekend for ‘Black Eden’

Jim McFarlin
Special to The Detroit News

Idlewild — Eden ain’t what it used to be.

Time, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and a bad apple or two have combined to place the lakeside resort community of Idlewild, Michigan­ — once known as “Black Eden,” the world’s largest vacation and entertainment paradise for African-Americans — into a relative state of disrepair.

However, an unlikely pair of preservationists — a nonagenarian local businessman and an ambitious, Lansing-based concert promoter — are working to restore the town’s bygone luster through such events as the Idlewild Music Festival, set for July 9-10 on Williams Island on the shore of Lake Idlewild.

“I’m trying to reinvent Idlewild,” says John Meeks, a spry, jovial 93-year-old who serves as the town’s unofficial spokesman. Meeks first visited Idlewild on July 4, 1956, in its heyday, bought a summer home in 1975 and became a permanent resident in 1994. “I’m about the oldest thing in Idlewild,” he says laughing.

A storied area gets its story told

Meeks concedes, “The place now is just a skeleton of what it was. But I’m going along the lines of Branson, Missouri. Branson has multiple stages, concerts going on at the same time. Why can’t Idlewild do the same thing, have events to attract people the same way?

“Branson drew something like 8 million people last year. This was the largest black resort area in the world, and it’s one of the few resorts that has not shrunk in size. If you get the people here, all kinds of businesses would come in to accommodate the tourists.”

Steps to lure visitors back are being made by promoters like Theresa “T. Rose” Randleman, producer of the weekend festival. Concert headliners include ’80s electro-funk pioneers Zapp band and Detroit blues queen Thornetta Davis on Saturday, Rance Allen Group in a gospel-flavored Sunday morning celebration, and jazz saxophonist Eric Darius performing Sunday night. Mason and Coco, the morning team at Detroit’s Kiss-FM (105.9), will emcee both days.

Theresa Randleman, producer of the Idlewild Music Festival, and John Meeks, 93, are seeking to restore the resort area’s luster.

Though she lives in Michigan, Randleman, who has booked talent for major festivals across the country and abroad, says she truly became aware of Idlewild six years ago. “Actually, this festival has been taking place for 13 years,” she says, “but I started co-producing it last year and seeking more national attention, which is why some people think it’s just starting.”

As she learned more about the town’s storied past, “I kept wondering, ‘Why is this not like a Capital Jazz Festival (near Washington, D.C.,) or Seabreeze (in Florida), and why is attendance so low?’ I became very passionate about it, because this is our history.

“We can’t reinvent what took place here, but we can honor it and try to carry it forward and try to educate others,” Randleman says. “We can have a great time anywhere. Why not have a great time right here?”

A great time was what Idlewild was all about. In its golden era, from the 1920s into the 1960s, the 3,000-acre town just east of Baldwin bustled with three competing nightclubs, dozens of restaurants, and hotel and motel accommodations on nearly every corner. During any given summer, it’s estimated more than 25,000 visitors would stay and play in the idyllic northwest Michigan setting about 220 miles from Detroit.

Idlewild was one of the few resort areas in America where African-Americans could vacation without care and own property. It became a playground for the black elite: Such entertainment legends as Louis Armstrong, Della Reese, Cab Calloway and B.B. King visited regularly to relax or perform. However, with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that opened previously white-only accommodations to Americans of all races, tourism to the area plummeted.

Today, the nightclubs are shuttered, the tiny Red Rooster bar is the major entertainment venue, and there are but three motels. Idlewild has just 400 year-round citizens and 1,200 seasonal residents. Yet it is steeped in history (listed in the U.S. National Register of Historic Places), and some sections are as well manicured and breathtaking as any lakefront property in Michigan. Some vestiges of paradise remain. That’s the image proponents like Randleman and Meeks are striving to project.

“Not that long ago there was only one business open in Idlewild, and that was out on U.S. 10,” Meeks recalls. “There were no parks, the motels were closed. Idlewild has made progress, in spite of a lot of people saying it’s not going anyplace. What we need is visionary leadership.”

One of two markers that notes the entrance to the community.

Randleman says the festival has been bolstered by two sources: support from Pure Michigan (“They put me on TV stations I didn’t know existed,” she says), and an unexpected promo from radio superstar Tom Joyner, who devoted a segment to Idlewild on his national morning show. “This was like the Hamptons for black folks, back in the day,” Joyner marveled.

The significance isn’t lost on the performers, either. “So many legendary African-American musicians have performed in Idlewild, to be there to experience a piece of our cultural history is one for the resumé,” says jazz bassist Orrick Ewing, appearing July 10.

Echoes the Detroit-born jazz saxophonist Yancyy, “When you think of the rich history of Idlewild and all the legends who left their musical imprint on it, one realizes the sacredness of the soil. I feel proud to be a part.”

Even 12-year-old Andreana Beard, a Detroit singer and actress who will appear during the festival’s “Youth Talent Showcase” Saturday morning, understands the meaning of the moment. “Idlewild was once a thriving community in black culture and entertainment, and it is on the rise again,” Beard says. “I’m so honored to be a part of the future of such a historic place.”

Among the other events planned in the town this summer is the fourth annual Idlewild Homecoming Jazz & Blues Festival slated for Aug. 6 in Meeks Park.

Yes, he owns it.

Jim McFarlin, a former pop music critic for The Detroit News, is a freelance writer based outside of Chicago.

Music schedule

Here’s the schedule for the 2016 Idlewild Music Festival:

Saturday

Historic Idlewild Cultural Center

11 a.m.-1 p.m.

Women’s Empowerment Luncheon, featuring Detroit financial expert Gail Perry-Mason, Def Jam singer Alyson Williams and FiveCap CEO Mary Trucks

Gail Perry-Mason

“Girl Talk” luncheon for young ladies, with educator Fawn Ukpolo and etiquette instructor Shanithia Jhons

“Boys to Men” luncheon for young men, featuring motivational speaker Philipé Winston (“Philly”) Weeden.

Williams Island festival stage

Youth Talent Showcase:

1:15 p.m. Andreana Beard

1:30 p.m. JiBreel Johnson

1:45 p.m. Olivia Kimes

2 p.m. Kamaria Tilley

2:15 p.m. Kevelin B Jones III

2:30 p.m. African Masquerade Dancers

Featured Performers

3 p.m. Athena Johnson

4:30 p.m. David Gerald

5:45 p.m. U.S. Postal Service Dedication: Sarah Vaughan postage stamp

6:15 p.m. Thornetta Davis (Detroit blues queen)

7:45 p.m. Yancyy

9:30 p.m. ZAPP band

Sunday

Gospel Sunday Celebration

10:30 a.m. Chris Bolton

11:15 a.m. Alyson Williams

12:15 p.m. Rance Allen and the Rance Allen Group

Rance Allen and the Rance Allen Group will perform for the festival’s gospel celebration on Sunday.

Featured performers

2 p.m. Suai Kee

3:30 p.m. Orrick Ewing

5:15 p.m. Eric Darius accompanied by drummer Eric “Rainman” Gaston and the Rainman Entertainment Group

Idlewild Music Festival

Wiliams Island

Idlewild, Michigan

July 9-10

Tickets: $30-$95

Information: (231) 465-1702, idlewildmusicfestival.com.