By Kevin Haas
Rock River Current
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It was 1986, and the Rockford Park District had assembled a small stage made of wooden boards to support Jordan’s quest to put on a talent showcase for local musicians, singers, dancers, poets and other aspiring artists to practice their craft and display their skills.
Jordan created what’s now been a tradition in Levings for 37 years, and the soon-to-be 76-year-old was overwhelmed Wednesday when he got his first look at what the future holds for the performances in the park.
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The Rockford Park District, Ringland-Johnson Construction and Hard Rock Casino Rockford unveiled the design for a new lighted permanent outdoor concert venue that will be built at the park. Construction will begin later this month and should be complete in time for the first summer concert in 2024.
“To see this all come to fruition, I’m just overjoyed,” Jordan said. “I’m ecstatic.”
The concrete performance stage of the new cedar structure is 40-feet across and 24-feet deep, according to Scott Mutton, vice president of design for Ringland-Johnson. The peak of the structure is about 23-feet tall. The new performance venue includes two 165-square-foot green rooms with air conditioning and heat. The stage will be completely accessible.
The new structure replaces a mobile stage, called the showmobile, that’s pulled into the park on wheels for the weekly shows.
“We’ve been out here for over 35 years on that little stage, but we’re still drawing 800-1,000 people,” said Harlan Jefferson, who took over for Jordan in 2003 as director of Live at Levings. “With the help of Hard Rock Casino, we’re going to a whole different level.”
Jefferson, an award-winning soul jazz saxophonist who has traveled the country performing, got his start at Live at Levings talent shows.
“I’m a product of this,” Jefferson said. “I would say 70% of the success and the person I am today came from this program, and now I run it.”
The venue supports the Live at Levings showcase, which Jordan ran for 17 years before Jefferson took over. It will also be home to Domingos en el Parque, a cultural entertainment series founded by Armando Cardinas in 2002.
“This is an opportunity for us to create a sense of belonging. This is an opportunity to cultivate local talent and foster the desire to dream, and not just dream but dream big, and take center stage locally and we hope also nationally,” said Martesha Brown, president of the Rockford Park District’s board of commissioners.
“It will help to build self-esteem. It will help to build confidence. It will build unity. It will build lifelong friendships and it will connect youth and teens to a community that supports them.”
The design and construction of the stage is funded entirely by Hard Rock and Ringland-Johnson.
“Hard Rock’s commitment to the Rockford region goes beyond the four walls of our casino,” said Geno Iafrate, president of Hard Rock Casino Rockford. “We envision this venue as not just an entertainment destination, but as a platform for cultural enrichment, a hub for local talent and a catalyst for unforgettable experiences.”
Jordan, a retired Chrysler worker and U.S. Army reservist, said Levings Park was a sad place when he put forward his effort to bring life back to the park in 1986. At that time, he said, people still associated it with the horrific execution style shooting of two 14-year-old boys on March 3, 1967. The deaths of Ronald Johnson and Wayne Mullendore shook the community.
“Back in the day there was a lot of problems out here. Nobody wanted to come out here anymore because of an incident that happened out here that broke the community’s heart,” Jordan said.
“I just had to prove to the Park District and to the community that I could make this happen.”
Jordan and Jefferson said in recent years the shows in Levings Park, along with the activity at West Rock Wake Park, which is considered one of the best in the nation, has put the park back in a positive light. They said there haven’t been any issues with violence associated with their shows, which have served as a source of entertainment and inspiration for youth.
“I had to work really hard to try to mend that wound for this community,” Jordan said. “Today that wound is healed.”