While most people were still sound asleep, Charles “Happy” Jones was up at 5 a.m. Saturday, staking out the best spot for grilling and grooving on what he and his friends call “The Hill.”
The grassy area gives them plenty of room for barbecuing and a great view of the stage at the Atlantic City Summer Concert Series festival, an annual event that attracts mostly local residents in a family atmosphere at Historic Gardner’s Basin.
“We live here. This is our backyard. We are Atlantic City natives,” said Jones, 55, who was born and raised in Atlantic City and now lives in Pleasantville.
Jones was getting ready to fire up the Kingsford charcoal to grill some hot dogs, hamburgers and chicken just before the live music started. He and his wife, Debbie, 53, were joined by some old friends, including Nickey and Michael Robinson, of Absecon.
“It’s a great atmosphere,” said Nickey Robinson, 42. “Here, we can come together with no aggravation or commotion. We’re having a great time. We come here every year. We call this place ‘The Hill.’”
Robinson’s 53-year-old husband, Michael, is president of the Atlantic City Soul Line Dancers, a club that has about 100 members. About 25 or 30 club members were expected at the festival, ready for some old-school line dancing to the R&B, funk and hip-hop music.
“Sometimes we’ll line-dance right in front of the stage, depending on what music is next,” Michael Robinson said.
“Any song that is played on the radio, we’ll dance to it,” Jones added.
The festival featured a mix of local performers and nationally known acts such as headliners Tavares, Con Funk Shun and Kool Moe Dee. One of the opening acts was Essence Pittman, 15, a Mays Landing resident and Oakcrest High School junior who has performed at the famed Apollo Theater in New York City. Pittman hopes the festival is a platform for national fame for her, but also noted the local flavor of the event.
“It feels like family. It feels like home,” she said.
Wilbur Banks, the festival organizer, said about 2,500 music fans were expected Saturday at the free concert. The summer concert series is sponsored by the city and the Atlantic City Free Public Library. It is scheduled to continue at Historic Gardner’s Basin with shows on July 21, Aug. 4 and Aug. 18.
“We try to give something back to the taxpayers,” Banks said of the free shows. “It gives them the opportunity to come out in a laid-back family atmosphere and take advantage of some high-quality music. It provides the type of noncasino entertainment that people say Atlantic City is dying for.”
Banks noted that the festival also benefits the vendors, the Atlantic City Aquarium, the restaurants and other businesses at Historic Gardner’s Basin, the maritime park overlooking Absecon Inlet.
A sun-splashed sky and temperatures in the 80s helped to draw the crowds early Saturday afternoon. Festival-goers brought their coolers, lawn chairs, beach-style umbrellas and plenty of food. Some of them camped out under tents.
Nancy Butler, 53, of Absecon, planned to cook some clams on a deep fryer and camp stove. She said she attends the festival every year, catching up with old friends and neighbors in the process. She was joined Saturday by her 73-year-old mother, Blanche Butler, of Absecon, and her sister, Michelle Goines, 54, of New York.
“Everybody is friendly,” Blanche Butler said, after exchanging hugs with a friend. “It’s like an old neighborhood. We get to see people we haven’t seen in a long time.”
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