School is out, the sun is shining, music is playing and the popcorn and soft drinks are overflowing. Smile, it's summer.

That's the theme for the Kokomo Park Band's opening show of its 117th Summer Concert Season tonight at 8 p.m. in Highland Park. The free "Smile, It's Summer!" show, sponsored by Caron and Jones Dental Care, will open with the Multicultural Youth Rhythm Ensemble at 7:15 p.m. Connor Granlund, the 2019 High School Student Solo Competition winner, will be performing on trombone, according to a press release from the band.

Artistic Director Jay Gephart picked compositions that fit the theme, which include “Sun Dancing” by David Shaffer, “Clowns” by Philip Parker and “Imaginarium” by Randall Standridge. There will be more traditional music, as well as selections from children's movies "Up" and "Despicable Me 2," according to the release. 

The band's season consists of eight concerts held every Wednesday evening through July 31. Even if the sun isn't shining, the concert will be moved to the Kokomo High School Auditorium, at 2501 S. Berkley Road, according to the release. 

Several of the concerts feature young musicians. In addition to the children and teens playing on opening night, high school musicians will play on June 19, and the Kokomo Marching Wildkats will be featured on July 17. The band's manager, Keith Whitford, said the band has made a point to encourage fine arts education. 

"Many of us in the band come from a musical education background," he said. "It's an important aspect of a child's life to be exposed and involved in music. We try to reach youth, plus many other parts of our population."

The Kokomo Park Band has been performing every summer since 1902. Whitford joined in 1970 before he went on to get an education in music. He is now the principal trumpet.

"I joined back when I was in the back, just trying to keep up," he said. "... Now, I coordinate and manage things. When I finally sit down and start playing the trumpet, it's a great feeling." 

It was hard for the trumpeter to choose his favorite part of the shows, but ultimately he landed on visiting with the audience members. Over the last 49 years, Whitford has watched the summer concert season grow on a massive scale. When Whitford first joined, the concerts pulled about 100 spectators.

Now, the weekly summer shows pull at least 10 times that. 

"Depending on the concert, and the weather, the crowds can get pretty big," he said. "There's usually over 1,000 people in the audience, but for some of the bigger shows, we've had 1,800, maybe more." 

The events grew in Whitford's first 15 years with the band, he said. 

"At first, they weren't publicizing the concerts very much," he said. "In those next 15 years, we did a lot to attract better musicians and obtain sponsorships, which help us run it. Now people consider this just a part of their summer schedule, 'This is what we do on Wednesday nights.'" 

Just like spectators have come to expect a concert on those Wednesday nights, they've come to expect Popcorn in the Park, free popcorn and Coca-Cola products, provided by Morning Star Church members, church volunteer Tom Lindley said. 

"We're not sure how long the church has been doing this; we think it's been about 16 years," he said. "But my wife, Becky and I, have been involved in this for 13 years." 

The church members don't ask for any money, but they do have a donation jar that goes to the park band. Lindley said they usually serve between 1,000 and 1,200 people, by about 12 to 15 volunteers. 

"It's just an outreach, basically we're trying to show God's love in a practical way," he said.  

The popcorn preparation for the 8 p.m. show usually starts at the church around 5 p.m. The volunteers get to Highland Park, pray, get set up and start popping corn around 6 or 6:15 p.m. Coordinated Assistance Ministries, better known as CAM, brings ice to keep the drinks cold, which are Coca-Cola beverages provided by E.P. Severns. 

"It's really been a tremendous ministry," he said. "It's just phenomenal, really. We get so much help and get to meet so many people." 

Popcorn in the Park is a part of the church's Serving in Love committee, of which Lindley and his wife are involved. But, they were hesitant to name themselves as "directors" or "leaders" of the event. Rather, Lindley said, "We head this thing up." 

Always in need of more volunteers, Lindley said he's hoping the church's youth group will get a bit of popcorn fever. 

"This week we're getting our youth involved and learning the process," he said. "Some of us are older people, we're getting physical ailments, we're trying to get the young people involved. We don't want it to die off, we love this and we want it to keep going." 

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