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On August 5, 1984, The Columbus Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Music Director Christian Badea, presented a Picnic and Pops concert at Ohio University-Lancaster. This was the first concert held at OU-L's outdoor auditorium.

The Lancaster Festival was inaugurated in 1985, under the artistic direction of Maestro Badea. Artistic Advisor Al Romano was joined by Festival Managers Eleanor Hood and Barbara Hunzicker in planning the event. The 1985 Festival had a 8 day run and included two CSO symphony concerts, a CSO chamber concert at St. Mary Church, and a week full of community arts and music events. It concluded with a memorable live battle reenactment on the hills above the OU-L Amphitheatre, accompanied by the CSO performing Beethoven's "Wellington's Victory."

The Festival was extended to 10 days in 1986 and 1987, adding more performance locations throughout the city and expanding the programming for families and children. In the fall of 1987, the Columbus Symphony Orchestra management made the decision to withdraw from the Lancaster Festival to establish its own Picnic & Pops series. Maestro Gary Sheldon was hired as music director and, after auditioning more than 300 professional musicians, created the Lancaster Festival Orchestra.

The Lancaster Festival Orchestra performed its first concert on Saturday, July 23, 1988, beginning the evening with Glinka's "Overture to Ruslan & Ludmilla". That evening's concert also included a special narration of John William's 'Suite from "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" by Christopher Reeve.

From the whirlwind beginning in 1985, through its re-organization in 1988, the Lancaster Festival and its orchestra have garnered increasing recognition for excellence. For 10 days in July, the city is transformed, the streets alive with people enjoying the Festival's all-inclusive offerings.