When The Festival Tents Fold

The news — there will be no Italian Festival in 2011 — was dramatic, but not unsurprising.  Rumors of its demise had swirled for years.

What was surprising was this:  Few people seemed to care.

My “06880” breaking-news post elicited 10 comments.  A story several days later about a guy selling socks at Mitchells drew more than twice that number.

For more than a quarter century, Festival Italiano was a Westport tradition.  It drew folks from as far as Brooklyn.  Johnny Maestro was a regular performer.  Thousands of Westporters went there, ate there, rode rides there, played games there, made out there, grew up there.

Hundreds more volunteered.

Until recently.

The Italian Festival folded its tents, finally, not because no one liked it — everyone did — but because too few people liked to work there.

Volunteers did everything.  They planned entertainment, haggled with carney companies, negotiated for use of the parking lots, organized police and medical services, arranged for port-a-potties, created parades, put out press releases, sold raffle tickets, picked up trash, and did a thousand other tasks fair-goers never thought about as they drank beer and munched fried dough.

The best part for the volunteers — besides watching the smiling faces of everyone from little kids enjoying their first Festival to oldsters remembering the original St. Anthony’s Feast — was handing checks to charities.  Hundreds of local organizations received millions of dollars, thanks to the hard work — for so long — of a relatively few people.

Perhaps the Sons of Italy — the core group of volunteers — did not toot their own horn loudly enough.  I’m sure very few Festival attendees knew this was a non-profit event — or where the money went.

If they had known, would things have changed?  Would the Festival have drawn more volunteers — enough to bring it back for a 28th summer?

Probably not.

Westport is a volunteer-driven town.  From the library and PAL, from the Green Village Initiative to the PTA, we don’t lack for men and women willing to roll up their sleeves, go to work, and do good.

But Festival Italiano demanded a singular commitment.  Entertaining up to 100,000 people for 4 days every summer — trying to keep costs manageable, making money for organizations that need it, while constantly worrying about the weather — is a daunting task.

We owe the Sons of Italy, and all their volunteers, enormous thanks for all they did, for all those years.

But maybe that’s why there was such silence following the announcement that the last pizza frite has been scarfed, the last Brooklyn Bridge notes sung.

Maybe all of us feel guilty we didn’t do our part for this great Westport institution we always took for granted.

21 responses to “When The Festival Tents Fold

  1. I applaud the Sons of Italy and don’t have any criticism because the festival became a part of this town, just like, I am sure, it was in the old days. The red tape and the hard work and the lack of funds at the end made it impossible to continue. Perhaps we need to give the Coleytown 8th graders to come up with ideas of how we could continue the festival. It’s been a part of their entire lives and they came up with such great ideas about revitalizing the downtown area.

  2. I blame it on the cultural shift that’s been happening in Westport over the years.

  3. Or it might be that some of us simply don’t enjoy carnie festivals, or don’t like the disruption (commuters pay to park in the lot, and are left with the mess when it’s over — it’s not always been left in good shape). Or that, like anything else in this world, when things get too big (too many events, too many attendees, even too many expectations), they become unsustainable.

  4. I don’t think it’s that people don’t care, I think it’s more a case of becoming numb to closures and endings over the past few years due to the economy. I know my kids will miss it.

  5. Maybe it’s because this was really run by a group from Norwalk for the last few years – few Westporters – and with the exception of the first night was almost always overrun by non-family groups from out of town looking more for trouble than fun. or maybe it was because of the carnies from out-of-state instead of the in-state ride company they used to use…the ones who did not charge an arm and a leg for rides and had games that were not ripoffs. Let’s face it, the festival changed over the years into something less than it was. It was time to go.

  6. David Loffredo

    Agreed – this had absolutely nothing to do with a “cultural shift” in Westport. I had two problems with it:

    1) It’s proximity to I-95 was both a blessing and a curse – but I found it to be overrun with people I’d rather not expose my three little girls to.
    2) It was expensive. Four bucks to ride down a slide? Even the all you can ride passes were I think $30 and only good for a couple of hours on a Sunday afternoon. Too little for too much – will survive with the better run Yankee Doodle and Weston Town Fairs.

  7. This was probably inevitable once Lou Santella (the Mayor of Saugatuck) retired and moved away.
    The Norwalk Oyster Festival is a simlar (larger!) event that is also run by volunteers, but they have the Norwalk Seaport as the base organization, which has more visibility than the SOI.

  8. Terry Brannigan

    I liked it. I really liked it. Sausages, Petters fried dough.

    Specifically I did not like the commercial elements (rides / games) but I loved seeing the same faces I grew up with as a kid sitting in Santella’s barber shop. These icons would sit on the baseball field listening to the music, shaking hands and even dancing with their husbands and wives.

    Even though I was turned down for a job at “The Arrow” (thank you Allen’s Clam House for 7 years of employment!) the Sons of Italy have always been great to the Brannigans I’ll miss it

  9. The Dude Abides

    Now you are making me feel guilty. In the 58 years here, I never went. Not sure why either? I sure like rides and good food. Good responses as to the reasons but maybe they ought to give it a rest for several years and try again. Not wild about the location as pointed out above.

  10. an interested reader

    This is sad to hear. Part of the charm of the Westport I remember as a child was the larger than life Italian community who were so much a part of the town I knew. I grew up until middle school on 2 streets in Westport, one in the Saugatuck area. I will never forget on one of those streets, we had wonderful Italian neighbors who barely spoke English and the women would lean out the windows on their large arms gossiping about the neighborhood and invite us kids in to sample some meatballs. It’s sad if that aspect of Westport life is now all but gone. And Terry, I remember The Arrow and the Nisticos who would start cooking your order as soon as they saw your face come through the door practically on Sat. nights after a day at the beach. Papa Nistico and many others were gifts to Westport and I’m just sorry to see this treasured history of Westport draining away slowly but surely. It was some town to grow up in and for some of us — some of the favorite memories were made by the active Italian community in Westport.

  11. David Loffredo

    There’s probably a better way to do this festival – re cast it into something more street fair/foodie event, and less of a carnival in a parking lot. Perhaps since there is such a concentration of restaurants along Riverside Ave and Railroad Place we could close a bunch of roads, have all the restaurants spill out onto the street, and use Luciano Park for some fun kids games. Smaller, more simple, collect donations for the Sons of Italy. You could keep it off of 33 so the train traffic would be rerouted, and perhaps take it up as high as the Bridge to get those businesses involved as well.

  12. The Dude Abides

    I am not sure where he is talking about??? I love the idea of just closing the streets and let people wander about but the Fest last several days, right? Why not go to Winslow and go big time??? Like a circus.

    • That would mean Winslow being used for some purpose other than a dog toilet, which I believe is forbidden in the town charter.

  13. Hush McCormick

    I don’t quite understand that place, Hmmmm . . . Beautiful piece of property but why no running track (just a two mile soft sandbed tract would do) or skating rink or some activity-minded facility. It is true is used to be a sanatorium in my day but I don’t see anybody out there now. Even the dogs are said to be unfriendly that make their daily visits and deposits.

  14. Although I no longer live in the area, I always visit Westport in July and hit the Festival. We had heard for years that it may go away due to lack of volunteers from the younger (but not all that young) generation. It did seem like an awful lot of “seasoned citizens” were doing the bulk of the work. If this is true, it would be a shame. My friends and I have talked about ways to bring back the Festival. Ideas like getting back to a smaller, more local event focusing on the music, food, drink, and games for the little kids. It has always been kind of two events in one, half Italian Festival and half cheesy carnival. I understand that the carnival drew people and money but what about some corporate sponsorship? Are you telling me that Westport can’t come up with some cash for this worthy non-profit event? Maybe next year. In the meantime, thank you to all that have made Festival Italiano such a great Westport event all these years!

  15. Not sure why they didn’t charge admission. Oyster Festival does – 10 bucks for a colorful paper bracelet.

  16. My husband and I would only go to the first night to see friends from long ago. We have no kids, so the rides were of no interest. A one-day street fest would be nice and accomplish the same thing, much like Georgetown Day does in that neck of the woods.

    • I agree that the festival just got too big, and somewhere along the way it lost the purpose for which it was started. The car raffle raised a lot of money which helped. Most of the members who sold books and books of raffle tickets are gone, including my dear brothers, Chip and Lou Santella. I remember my brother Chip sitting at my dining room table putting my name on tickets that he bought to support the charities. Maybe a Westport Day would be a good idea.

  17. I'm With Finally

    It’s about time! Maybe it was cute and quaint 20 years ago (or longer), but all I’ll remember of it was the pain in the arse it gave all of us who pay an arm and a leg for commuter parking and the human trash it brought to town. Good riddance. For those who want to resurrect something similar, put it out on Sherwood Island!