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.
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?
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.