Highland Park history: ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ fans flock to Ravinia

Some of the thousands who attended the "Jesus Christ Superstar" performance.
(John Bartley, Chicago Tribune)

“Jesus Christ Superstar,” the rock opera treatment of the New Testament, came to Ravinia Park last night and brought the outdoor festival’s largest crowd in history. There were scores of policemen, pounds of marijuana, and hundreds of older people curious about today’s blaring pop religious revival.

They came on foot, by train, in buses and in cars to sit on the park’s sprawling lawns and listen. Few of the 18,718 persons there found seats within viewing distance of the pavilion where the players sang their roles. Autos crammed city streets and forest preserves for three miles around the park.

The previous attendance record at Ravinia was 18,491 last week when folk singer Judy Collins appeared.

More than 150 policemen from state agencies and five suburbs were on hand, but, according to the state police, the crowd was orderly.


Despite the religious theme of last night’s event, the thousands of young listeners looked and acted little differently than at more mundane outdoor rock concerts. Bottles of wine were passed freely, along with the ever-present marijuana cigarettes.

A common sight on the lawns were knots of eight to 10 boys and girls sitting on blankets listening raptly as the familiar score screeched from the park loudspeakers. “J.C., J.C., won’t you listen to me …" chanted the disciples. “He’s a man, just a man, and I’ve had so many of them before …" warbled Mary Magdalene.

They couldn’t see the actors, but most of those interviewed by reporters said that was all right. “It’s just great anyway,” said Robert Ryan of Wilmette. “It sounds just like the record.”

Or, as Ann Edwards of Hillside, who traveled to the concert with four friends, explained it, “Who needs to see the stage? We all know the plot. It’s the sounds that make the experience.”

The company giving last night’s performance has been in Pittsburgh, Cincinatti, and Toronto, but Jeff Fenholt, 20, who sings the role of Jesus, said he was surprised at last night’s turnout.

“It’s at least 5,000 more than we’ve had before,” he said. Of the evening and his role, he added, “It makes me feel stronger and closer to God.”

As the performance continued, drugs began to take their toll and 12 persons wearing arm bands marked “drug rescue” circulated, taking some victims to a nearby tent where medical personnel were waiting.

An occasional firecracker exploded and a few Roman candles were set off, but no other disturbances were immediately noticeable. Edward Gordon, executive director of the Ravinia Festival, said he anticipated little damage.


But what everybody feared, a confrontation between police and concertgoers, seemed unlikely throughout the evening. Perhaps a clue to why lies in the comment of Carl Anderson, 26, of Lynchburg, Va., who plays the role of Judas.

“Judas never intended to betray Jesus. Judas merely thought he was setting up a confrontation. He believed Jesus would use His powers to get out of the jam with the Romans. Judas killed himself because he was surprised to see Jesus die. Maybe confrontations aren’t the best thing.”