The music stops when Nathan Tumulty deserts his Arcanum Festival

Aug 30, 2000 at 4:00 am
The first indication that the Arcanum Festival at the Black River Amphitheater was collapsing was the blackout at the drum & bass stage around 2 a.m., a result of "technical difficulties" that, the crowd was informed, would soon be rectified. At that point, the glitch was no big deal; three other stages were up and running, pumping electronic dance music -- techno, house, trance, ambient -- so the revelers simply moved to another stage. When the power was cut at the main stage, though, the crowd started to sense that the difficulties were more than technical. The suspicion was confirmed a few moments later, when an amateur auctioneer jumped onstage and started selling equipment: "$100 for a turntable!" he screamed. "Who wants a Technics for $100? What about needles? These are nice needles! Any takers?" There weren't any takers, because the audience didn't understand what was happening.

They didn't know that Nathan Tumulty of St. Louis, promoter of the Arcanum Festival, had quietly disappeared earlier in the evening without paying any of the contractors or the performers or the owner of the amphitheater. Even his sister and his parents, who had helped him put on the festival and who were there, had no idea where he was.

The Black River Amphitheater and its accompanying campground, the Bearcats Getaway, are located an hour-and-a-half southwest of St. Louis, just outside Lesterville, Mo. The property is tucked away in the woods, a gorgeous 150 acres comprising a campsite, a few cabins, direct access to the Black River and a natural amphitheater, at the bottom of which is a large stage. Owned by Glee and Dave Suntrup, it's a perfect place for a weekend event: Set up camp, walk across the gravel road to the amphitheater, hear some music, take a swim in the river, retire to the campground and build a fire. The amphitheater often hosts these events, though usually they're in association with rock bands -- Grateful Dead cover bands, jam bands, acoustic acts. This weekend, the Women in Rock event will see some of St. Louis' most popular and talented female artists showcasing their music.

In the Bearcats Getaway and the Black River Amphitheater, Tumulty discovered a perfect venue for his electronic-music festival, and he attempted to create something magical. "I took what I had as an idea," he says, "and turned it into a dream."

His dream was the Arcanum Festival. It was to begin the afternoon of Aug. 19 and stretch through the morning of Aug. 20. For a $40 ticket, attendees were promised "18 hours of nonstop celebration under the stars." Using a budget reportedly well over $100,000, Tumulty hired the best of the best: Five stages were to showcase 65 DJs, at least half of them from outside St. Louis (most notably house legend Jesse Saunders, techno originator Kevin Saunderson and turntablist champion Q-Bert); he hired state-of-the-art sound, lighting and laser systems and paid for entire staffs to work on-site; he created an impressive eight-page full-color flier to promote the event throughout the Midwest. According to Tumulty's press release, more than 10,000 people were expected. Read the flier: "150 acres of beautiful outdoors will be transformed into the most incredible, mind blowing visual and auditory experience you could ever imagine.... Prepare yourself for an eighteen hour journey into the future of musical celebration."

Nathan Tumulty arrived at the Black River Amphitheater later than he said he would. According to Glee Suntrup, he was to arrive Wednesday, Aug. 16, to begin preparations for the festival, but he didn't actually get there until after midnight on Friday and didn't get started until early in the afternoon on Saturday, just a few hours before the festival was to begin. The fest did, however, start on time, at 3 p.m. that day, and seemed to be running smoothly. Artists were performing, and a crowd was trickling in. The Arcanum crew continued to set up throughout the afternoon and into the early evening, and though Suntrup says she felt that the festival was a bit unorganized, she didn't get the sense that it wouldn't take place. But early that evening, Tumulty disappeared.

"He was gone by 8 o'clock," she says. "He was supposed to have met me at 9 to settle up with me, and we were all searching for him. He wasn't there for any of it. He was gone. Gone. Not here." As a result, the Arcanum Festival coasted, out of gas. Volunteers -- friends, college students and attendees helping in return for free admission -- were left to fend for themselves, and Aaron Zack, the front-gate manager sent by Dan Friedman, Tumulty's lawyer, to help with the festival, was left in charge. He didn't have any experience in running this sort of event, nor was he expected to.

To the audience, none of this was apparent. By 9 p.m., the crowd, though surprisingly thin and nowhere near the expected 10,000, was getting its money's worth. Buried deep in the woods, far removed from anything remotely electronic, lasers and strobes lit up the forest and river, turning them blue, red and yellow, as all five sound systems burned with beat music. Those approaching the festival along the gravel road from Lesterville may have believed they were witnessing a UFO landing.

Around the same time Glee Suntrup started looking for Tumulty, the rest of the bills came due. Soundmen, lighting specialists, the laser company and others had all received initial deposits from him -- giving them confidence to commit to working the festival -- and now wanted to settle the balance. But they couldn't find Tumulty, and the realization that the promoter was gone began to sink in. A few descended on the family's RV, convinced that he was holed up inside with his parents and sister. "They banged on the door and began rocking the trailer," says Zack. "It was a scary scene. You didn't know if a riot was going to break out." Others began auctioning off property, though there were no takers among the crowd, and the auctioning stopped. After at least four hours of searching, the countless contractors assumed the worst: Realizing that he was responsible for a financial failure and that his dream had entered darkness, Tumulty had fled. The contractors kept the systems running until a 2 a.m. deadline was missed. Within 15 minutes of that deadline, the sound and light were gone.

"It was the most unorganized thing I've ever seen in my life," says Zack. "No one had a clue. He didn't have staff that he had promised; he didn't have paperwork that he had promised. It was just a big mess. My only responsibility was to pay the people who came to the door and collect the money and do all the bookkeeping, which is pretty simple stuff. So I had my staff in order; they were collecting money; everything was going as fine as could be. And then, I would say about 8 o'clock, he disappeared, and my role became not only money person, but no one else knew what to do, so I took over the role of helping everyone else out, which there was really nothing I could do because all decisions were to be made by him. So I told everyone to patiently wait until he came back. But he never came back, because he bolted."

A couple dozen people chased the elusive, nonexistent cash, and the crowd, estimated to be 1,000, though understandably frustrated, remained calm. A few tiny renegade sound systems pumped out music, and the little stages that a few hours earlier had seemed dinky and pointless in the shadows now were the magnets, and revelers surrounded them. These systems saved the party from turning into something worse, and though disappointment was in the air, the smile on the crowd's collective face was proof that, despite the big failure surrounding them, little successes were enough to placate the revelers. DJ Q-Bert manned one renegade system and awed a crowd; St. Louis DJ Mark Churchill tag-teamed with Astrix on another system; and along the river another system remained up and running. At around 4 a.m., just as an owner of one of the large sound systems charitably repowered it in an effort to salvage the party, a thunderstorm arrived; a loud crack of thunder was the exclamation point that punctuated the end of Arcanum.

The Sunday aftermath was even worse. A laser company, still chasing their money, was left stranded with $50,000 worth of equipment and no way back to St. Louis. DJs, also stranded two hours from Lambert Airport, missed their flights, only to discover their tickets had been bought through Priceline.com and were therefore worthless. Buses hired to ferry dozens to the festival failed to return, leaving festivalgoers in the middle of nowhere to fend for themselves.

Along with everyone else, Jerry Boeschert, owner of JB Sounds in St. Louis, who provided small sound systems for the event, is owed money. "When I talk to the guy, he says, 'Yeah, I'm going to get the money from these people, and then I'm going to pay you,'" says Boeschert. "But then I just go right past him and I contact those people, and they say, 'Yeah, I have some of his money. However, the money that I have of his, he owes me twice as much.' He says he's getting money from his lawyer, but then he owes the lawyer more money than the lawyer's holding for him. Or he says he's getting money from the venue, but then the venue says, 'Yeah, we've got $1,300 of his, but he owes us 10 grand.'"

Until last year, Nathan Tumulty was a member of the St. Louis promotion crew the Superstars of Love. But after a falling-out, Tumulty ventured out on his own, booking the occasional DJ at local nightclubs.

The night of the Arcanum Festival, he says, he left with his girlfriend at about 8 o'clock to locate his car, containing his receipt pad and checkbook, which had been borrowed by a volunteer to taxi a DJ to the venue: "She and I went out to find my car; we get into a car accident, so we were in a ditch, sitting there trying to find out what's going on -- stuff like that -- and a great deal of time has passed," he says in a phone interview. "We managed to make a phone call from a pay phone to the Bearcats place.... I had nary an idea that there was a riot going on down there. I had no indication whatsoever."

Zack and Suntrup, both of whom were at the Bearcats offices throughout the night, say Tumulty never called. Calls to his cell phone, which they say he had with him, went unanswered.

Tumulty says that when he was discovered by the side of the road at least eight hours later, the volunteer who found him didn't tell him of the problems at the festival. So, at 4:30 a.m., Tumulty returned to his hotel room and went to bed. His explanation for not returning: "We only had 2,000 paid. A 2,000-person party can run itself.... And, I'll be honest, I was really depressed by that time, too. I couldn't believe that I was stuck in my damn car. I didn't know where my stuff was, and I also knew that if I did come back with payouts, (Zack) still wouldn't be able to pay some of those people out."

Regardless of where Tumulty was during the festival, everyone interviewed draws a similar conclusion: Sensing failure, Tumulty panicked and fled with the remaining money. He denies this and says he is disturbed to hear that those with whom he worked for five months would think that he could abandon them and his family. "There was hardly any money there," he says. "The point is, even if I had $100,000 and I left, would I have left under those conditions, that early in the night? It just doesn't add up."

However, all agree that he, as promoter of the festival, should never have left the site. "If you're running a major event," says Zack, "you don't leave your event. If you've got to pick someone up from the airport, you send someone to pick them up from the airport."

The general consensus is that Nathan Tumulty's dream was in fact a pipe dream. This was his Arcana Group's first party after throwing a single-DJ event a few months earlier. It takes years as a promoter to build up a reputation among the dance crowd, and without a good reputation, that crowd will not come. Says one member of one of St. Louis' most popular promotion teams, "We've been doing parties for two years, and the most we've ever had is 2,600." Most promoters start off small, in spaces that house a few hundred people, and gradually create bigger and bigger events as word-of-mouth and reputations build. Without both, the biggest promotional budget in the world -- and Tumulty had a large one -- won't convince the crowds to take the leap, especially if the event is being held out in the middle of the country and 90 minutes from St. Louis. And though the flier described Arcanum as a Midwestern event, the precious ticket buyers from other regional cities failed to materialize. The result was a tiny percentage of Tumulty's 10,000 estimate.

Tumulty admits this misstep. "I should have spent more time with some of my partners researching exactly what we were dealing with in terms of numbers," he says. "That was our biggest mistake. But the feedback that we kept getting is what kept us going, from beginning to end. We got to the point where we passed out enough fliers, we couldn't even flier any more in places. Everybody was saying they were going. Our Web site was crashing. We had all the signs that this was going to be the event. And it's something that's obviously not wanted here. Simple stuff is what they want, and they like the little places where it's done."

More likely, though, St. Louisans prefer festivals and events they can trust, thrown by promoters who have succeeded in the past, promoters who wouldn't think of leaving a party before it begins.