Echoes of folk's heyday on Franklin Park stage

Folk singer Odetta, who showed Harry Belafonte a thing or two about song and inspired the likes of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez back in the 60s, opened up the Playhouse in the Park series Tuesday. A few present were taken back to 40-year-old memories of the Elma Lewis Playhouse of the 1960s. Odetta first played there in 1968.

"At the time my husband was a student at the school, in the African dance company," said Lula Christopher, referring to the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts, which produced the show from 1966 to around 1977 from their former building behind the United House of Prayer on Seaver Street. "It was fantastic because we had some of the most noted performers come. The whole community turned out. It was the place to be."

During the reign of Elma Lewis over both the school and her greater vision - the National Center of Afro-American Artists - which also includes the museum of Afro-American Artists on Walnut Street, the Playhouse brought in Duke Ellington and Babatunde Olatunji every year, and other greats such as Cab Calloway swung through now and then.

"From figures like Ellington to local performers, Ms. Lewis's vision was you would put before people the very best as well as emerging artists so that students were drawn toward greatness," said Barry Gaither, who has directed the NCAAA since Lewis's death in 2004. "It was really quite an extraordinary thing."

The new incarnation of the Playhouse was born out of a collaboration of the Franklin Park Coalition and the NCAAA.

"I just kept hearing the stories. People talk about it all the time," said FPC's Christine Poff. "I teamed up with Alda Marshall [then in the Parks Department] and wrote a grant."

That was five years ago. For Odetta's performance, the Playhouse hosted several hundred people. This year's schedule includes morning and evening shows on selected Tuesdays with performances by Mango Blue, Makanda Project, Andre Ward and the Vivian Cooley Trio.

"Ms. Lewis, she just had such an impact on arts and culture in this city," said community activist and Boston's first African-American television reporter Sarah-Ann Shaw, who came to see Odetta. "I'm just so glad to see people continuing her legacy."