Street smarts

Three of the city's top festival organizers take us behind the scenes of your average street fair: water-main breaks, underwear flashers, 22,000 oysters and, of course, good music.
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Photograph: Martha Williams
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Photograph: Martha Williams
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TONY ABRUSCATO, PRESIDENT, SPECIAL EVENTS MANAGEMENT

What fests have you worked on?
Numerous fests including Northalsted Market Days, Taste of Lincoln Avenue, Wells Street Art Festival—I have been working on those for 16 years.

 

 

TONY ABRUSCATO, PRESIDENT, SPECIAL EVENTS MANAGEMENT

What fests have you worked on?
Numerous fests including Northalsted Market Days, Taste of Lincoln Avenue, Wells Street Art Festival—I have been working on those for 16 years.

What did you create that’s a Chicago festival “first”?
I don’t know who really started charging donation admission, but we jumped onto the bandwagon quickly. It was free, then we started to charge one- or two-dollar donations as a charity. You’d get a sticker or a button, it was this whole crazy thing. When we increased it to $2, it was festival suicide! Now it’s mostly $5 donation—and people don’t think anything of it.

Any crazy stories?
About ten years ago, the City of Chicago decided they’d do a great thing and make the street nice for Market Days. It was the hottest summer on record. The city repaved and the street never cured because it was so hot. The tents sunk into the asphalt and the heat radiating from it was unbelievable. We had people fainting—and you could just smell asphalt. Fortunately, the event was still insanely popular.

One year, at Oyster Fest, we served 22,000-plus oysters in one day—it was close to a Guinness World Record.

What are you looking forward to this year?
It used to be that festivals had a band and a few things to look at—now we have more activities. This year, Northalsted Market Days has a circus theme: rides and a Ferris wheel for kids and adults. We started a new national rib competition at Windy City Ribfest. To make festivals interesting, we have to keep reinventing ourselves.


KARA SALGADO, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, WEST TOWN CHAMBER OF COMMERCE

What fests have you worked on?
Do-Division, West Fest, Design Harvest and Green Music Fest along with Big Creek Productions

What did you create that’s a Chicago festival “first”?
Green Music fest is all ecofriendly. There’s no plastic bottles; food servers can’t bring Styrofoam. It’s hard to produce an event in an ecofriendly way—there’s only a few places to get biodiesel fuel generators refilled; ecofriendly cups are way more expensive.

Any crazy stories?
West Fest 2004, I was pregnant and my feet were killing me. It was the end of a 24-hour day of working. I turned off the generators, went home and took a shower. I put my head down on the bed and popped up two seconds later—I was like, “Oh my God, I turned off all the generators!” There was an ice-cream vendor and if the generator was off it would all melt. I drove 80mph, turned the generator back on and no one was the wiser.

I tell my operations guy not to call me before 6am unless something’s on fire. Last year I get a call right at 6, Saturday of West Fest. There was a water-main break—water was pumping out of the ground. I had to wake up Manny Flores, the alderman, who got a truck over there—everything was fine. You have to roll with the punches.

What are you looking forward to this year?
Do-Division was so big last year, we had what we call “high-class problems.” We had too many people. So this year we doubled the music budget and put another stage on the west end.


ERIN BAUER, FESTIVAL MANAGER, MAYOR’S OFFICE OF SPECIAL EVENTS

What fests have you worked on?
Celtic Fest Chicago, Chicago Country Music Festival, the Taste Stage for the Taste of Chicago

What did you create that’s a Chicago festival “first”?
For Celtic Fest, I organized sheepherders. They brought out six to eight sheep and two dogs, and they’d show how dogs can herd the sheep—that always drew a big crowd.

Any crazy stories?
Last year during Celtic Fest, we had a record rain—over six inches. When we first did a Men in Kilts contest at Celtic Fest, some of the contestants were flashing. It was upsetting—there were kids in the audience! I said to myself, “That’s it, next year we bring extra underwear!” Now we have a woman who dresses like a Catholic nun who brings boxer shorts—Sister Bernie. Last year, I saw the guy who flashed before; I said, “Hey! Put underwear on!”

What are you looking forward to this year?
This year Celtic Fest moved to Millennium Park. I’m looking forward to the festival’s Saw Doctors show. The sound in Millennium Park is so great.

 

Complete festival listings: May | June | July | August | September | October

 



 

Festival cover bands | Fair play | Festival food pyramid | Sunning spots | What to wear to this year’s festivals | Greasy festival food | Summer festival bathroom guide | Ethnic street festivals | Festival survival pack | Local craft beer at festivals | Summer festival organizers

 


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