3 Sedalia-raised filmmakers find Ozark Music Festival too fascinating to stay buried in the past

March 29, 2012

The Ozark Music Festival occupies a strange place in the history of epic, awesome, disastrous, horrifying American music festivals.

On one hand, it ranks as the second-largest three-day festival ever, with more than 200,000 people invading Sedalia in July 1974, even though only 50,000 tickets were printed.

On the other hand — unlike Woodstock and Altamont — it’s not widely known.

Even Sedalia-raised filmmaker Jeff Lujin, a 1989 Sacred Heart School graduate who was 3 years old in 1974, didn’t hear about the festival — which led to people sleeping all over town, rampant drug dealing, public nudity and sex, one death, several heat-related illnesses, and a Missouri State Fairgounds that was buried in garbage and had to be doused with lime — until he was in junior high.

“It’s very funny, but I had no idea what actually happened until then,” said Lujin, 41, who is making “OMF!: The Story of the Ozark Music Festival” with wife, Sharon Autry Lujin (a 1994 Smith-Cotton graduate), and friend, Phill Woodward (a 1989 Smith-Cotton graduate).

“Phill remembers vaguely his parents driving him around and covering his eyes if they drove past a naked woman. I don’t remember my parents really talking about it, actually.”

While the Ozark Music Festival is “the forgotten festival,” largely because it hasn’t been chronicled on film, some Sedalians say it left a lasting negative impact on the city.

Radio personality Tom Yurasich is quoted in “OMF!” — a 20-minute version of which will be screened on Saturday at the Liberty Center — as saying: “It seemed like once and for all it put an end to anything fun in Sedalia.”

“There does seem to be a theory, and a lot of people support this, that there was a conscious effort by the city fathers to sweep it under the rug and forget about it,” said Lujin, who lives in Independence and manages the bookstore at the Harry S. Truman State Historic Site.

“Some people don’t like the idea of us doing this documentary. It was not anything to be proud of back then. There were investigative committees, and it was only seen negatively. Even the promoters themselves suffered from it. Nobody was happy about how it went. They didn’t allow rock bands at the state fair for 15 or 20 years after this. To a certain degree, the town was traumatized and didn’t want to think about it.

“It’s only in hindsight that we realize it was an interesting event.”

In high school, Lujin’s artistic interests were music and painting, but in 2009 he and his artistic partners got bit by the documentary bug. Their first project chronicled the closing of the old Wheel Inn Drive-In restaurant on the northwest corner of U.S. Highways 50 and 65. Although he finds truth in Yurasich’s statement, Lujin loves his hometown, and his heart breaks a little when another part of it — such as Eddie’s Drive-In, which closed last year — goes away.

“There wasn’t much music,” Lujin said of his formative years in Sedalia. “We would always go to Columbia or Kansas City for that sort of thing. But I’m not sure how Sedalia was before this festival. From what I know about it, Sedalia tries really hard to be really conservative, and occasionally something like this happens. You can go back to the red-light district (of the ragtime era at the turn of the 20th century). Maybe there’s something in the ground, something where rock and roll springs forth.”

What hasn’t sprung forth — at least to the degree Lujin hoped — is a lot of filmed footage of the Ozark Music Festival. Although the Missouri State Highway Patrol report on the festival is based on confiscated TV news footage (Sedalia had a station in 1974), the footage itself is either gone or buried in unlabeled archives.

The filmmakers have tracked down about 90 minutes of footage of varying quality, plus a lot of still photos, but Lujin dreams of finding more.

“Just reading the descriptions in the highway patrol report makes my mouth water,” Lujin said. “We have enough now for a strong 60- or 70-minute movie, but we’re still hoping to track (the TV footage) down. And there used to be a lot of tapes from radio stations; all of those were thrown away. We’re hoping maybe somebody took them and has them in a basement somewhere. It’s such a scavenger hunt. It’s thrilling, but also disappointing when you hear something was thrown away.”

For now, interviews are the backbone of “OMF!” There are four categories of subjects: The musicians (one example: the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s John McEuen), the promoters, Sedalians who felt the impact of the event, and the concertgoers themselves.

Lujin hopes to wrap up the interviews by the end of this year. Then 2013 will be a year of post-production, with the final product ready for the festival’s 40th anniversary in 2014.

“It seems strange, but music is not the primary point of the documentary,” Lujin said. “It can’t be, because the bands weren’t filmed. It’s mainly about the impact on Sedalia and how it affected people’s lives; the good and bad side — from people mauled by crazy biker guys with hooks for hands to people who say it was the greatest party they’ve ever been to. We share as many viewpoints as we can. We don’t have a personal bias. If it’s entertaining, it goes in.”

If seats sell out on Saturday, Lujin plans to add a second screening that night. The reception will begin at 6 p.m., the first screening will be at 7 p.m., and the event also will feature hors d’oeuvres, live music, a bar and memorabilia for sale. For those who can’t make it, the “OMF!” short edit can be seen at starting on Monday.