History of Festival
Since its inception in 1985, Father’s Day Weekend in Branford has become synonymous with The Branford Festival. The Historic Town Green is transformed into a festival of crafts, activities, food, live music and much, much more. Whatever your interests, there is something available for the entire family.
Also, be prepared to renew old acquaintances. Over the years, the weekend has turned into Branford’s home-coming. Former Branford residents travel from all over to be reunited with family and old friends. It is without question Branford’s best moment.
HOW IT ALL BEGAN…By Maria Storm
Today, the Branford Festival is part of the community spirit that makes our town so unique. Year after year we gather on the Green, some of us back “home” from far away. We reunite with our families, gobble down strawberry shortcake and fried dough, and laugh with old friends we haven’t seen all year. We listen to toe-tapping music of all sorts, and maybe we even run, each year a little more slowly, in the Sunday morning road race. In fact, few of us remember a time when the Branford Festival didn’t mean the beginning of summer. And practically none of us know that it was an idle conversation between neighbors back in 1984 that started the whole ball rolling.
Judy Gott, then First Selectman, and Ray Figlewski, long-time Branford resident and local business owner, were chatting over barbequed chicken one summer evening, wondering how to encourage more residents to enjoy the newly revitalized town center. For several years, Ray had participated in the Falmouth, MA road race and admired the festive activities surrounding that event. In fact, he had organized a small road race in Branford modeled after Falmouth. Ray thought that, like Falmouth, Branford might be able to hold some sort of festival around the road race that would bring more people downtown.
Judy brought the idea to colleagues both in and outside of town hall. Their enthusiastic response encouraged her to further explore the possibility of a town wide festival . She recruited Roger Shaffer, another local business owner, to chair the event. The rest, as they say, is history!
Many of the highlights of our current Festival were already in place as separate events back in 1985. There was Ray’s road race, the Historical Society’s Strawberry Shortcake Festival, the Branford Rotary Club’s pancake breakfast and book sale and the Chamber of Commerce’s newly organized Greenspace event for local businesses, but they were all held at different times and locations. It took the vision and persuasiveness of Roger Shaffer to convince the organizers of these separate events to join together in a three day festival of commerce, food, and music.
Many of the unique features that make today’s Festival so special
- from the Festival print and specially designed t-shirt, to big name performers on Saturday night -were initiated by Roger that first year. In fact, Roger demonstrated the breadth of his vision for the Branford Festival by inviting Arlo Guthrie, a folk singer of national repute, as the main act that first Saturday night. To everyone’s surprise, Arlo accepted and to their equal surprise, over 10,000 people showed up to hear him sing. Many in the audience joined in as Guthrie launched in to “Alice’s Restaurant,” his trademark 18 minute anti-draft song that had catapulted him to stardom in 1967.
Five years later, the Festival had gotten big enough that a more formal operating structure was required. Bill O’Brien was asked to take over management of the event and he set up the Festival Corporation, separate from the Festival Committee, charged with organizing event logistics. The Corporation, chaired first by John Moss in 1990, and then by Bill O’Brien from 1991 – 1993, took on the responsibility of managing Festival finances. Thanks to Bill and John, the first year the Corporation was able to turn an operating deficit of $15,000 into a $31,000 profit. The Corporation’s continuing oversight since then has ensured that the Festival continues “in the black”, with every year a little bigger and better than the one before.
Since those early years, hundreds of volunteers have continued to make the Festival a success. Each year a new Chair, with their Co-Chair and committee members, oversee the details of Festival’s activities starting in January. They work with food vendors, musical acts, the Chamber of Commerce Expo Committee, kid’s activity events and souvenir vendors. They select the artist for the annual Festival poster and organize the Father of the Year contest. They also solicit financial support from both individuals and local businesses.
During the exciting and demanding week preceding the Festival, these volunteers work with staff from Public Works, the Recreation Department, and the Board of Education to set up the main stage, tents, tables, chairs as well as install lighting, hang banners, respond to the logistics concerns of individual vendors and clean-up after the Festival is over! And during the Festival, both the Police and Fire Departments are a tireless presence, making sure that from start to finish the weekend runs smoothly and safely. Without these individuals, many of whom serve year after year, the Festival could never take place.
Musical acts are the mainstay of the Festival and have included both local acts as well as regional and national touring groups guaranteed to draw a crowd to the Green on Saturday night. Main Stage performers have ranged from local groups such as the Fabulous Farquahr and Eight to the Bar, to original groups such as the Kingston Trio, The Association, and John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band, to tribute groups such as Get Back (the Beatles), Big Shot (Billy Joel) and Papa Do Run Run (the Beach Boys). Each year, we all anxiously wait to learn who this year’s main act will be. Few of us are ever disappointed with the Committee’s selection.
The High School Concert Choir, under the direction of Cathy Ann Roding, has always been a key component of the musical offerings as well. The Choir started off on the back stage where they not only sang but built the stage and organized performances by all sorts of kids’ bands and dance groups. In 1990, the Choir moved to the front stage where they have been a highlight of the Festival ever since. As Cathy Ann explains, “We have sung all over the world in some mighty impressive places, but there is nothing that compares with singing in front of our home town crowd!”
Jeff Vailette, Festival Corporation President from 1994 – 2002 and Chair of the entertainment committee for a number of years, is proud of the variety of groups that have performed over the 25 years of the festival. "We’ve had so many different types of groups perform over the years.” he says. “We have even offered classical music several times, first with the New Haven Symphony and later with the Wallingford Symphony. There’s always something to please every musical taste.”
Speaking of taste, there is no doubt that food is an essential component of the Branford Festival. That first year saw the start of many culinary traditions that still tempt us today including the Rotary Club’s pancake breakfast, the Historical Society’s Strawberry Festival, the Lions Club chicken and steak dinners and the Exchange Club’s fried dough. In addition, attendees of the first Branford Festival enjoyed an eclectic mix of clam chowder from the Indian Neck Inn, jelly beans and strawberries dipped in chocolate from Hilltop Orchards and cherrystone clams and boiled lobster from Bud’s Fish Market. Some of these food vendors no longer participate, but other vendors continue bringing culinary treats to suit every taste. No one has to cook all weekend!
And what would the Festival be without Saturday’s Chamber of Commerce’s Craft and Business Expo? Over the years, the original Greenspace has morphed from a 3 hour, 12 business event into an opportunity for almost 200 local businesses and crafters from as far away as Vermont, Massachusetts and New Jersey to display their wares to the over 4000 people who come to the Green on Saturday from 8:00AM to 4:00PM. “Despite this terrible economy,” exclaims Rosemary Sette, long-time Expo organizer, “more vendors than ever want to participate in the Expo.” She adds, “It’s a great opportunity for businesses to display their products and services and a great opportunity for Branford residents as well to learn about what the craft and business communities have to offer.”
As the original impetus for the Branford Festival, the Road Race provides an exciting start to Sunday’s Festival activities. When it started in 1979, the 7.5 mile race began at Caldors in the Branhaven Plaza. Approximately 700 stalwart runners participated that first year and the number of participants has been steadily growing ever since. More than 2500 people (1700 for the race, 400+ fun run, 400+ walk), both serious runners and casual enthusiasts, now participate in the Branford Road Race, with 40% of them local and 60% who have made the trek from other locations to join in the fun. In the early 1990s, race organizers added a family-oriented 2 mile Health Walk and a one mile Fun Run which allowed many more to participate.
These days, the 5 mile race starts and ends at the Green, with Ray Figlewski still cheering almost every runner in by name as they cross the finish line. “The Branford Road Race was created to bring people together,” explains Ray. “It amazes and pleases me that what co-founder Dick Wainman and I envisioned 29 years ago continues today, with many of the exact same people on the race committee. The event is still growing and still bringing people together”.
As the Festival has grown over the years, corporate sponsorship has become increasingly important to the Festival’s continued success. Corporate donors are acknowledged with banners on the columns of Town Hall, on the front of the main stage and with flags on Main Street lamp poles. According to Carmen Prusinski, Branch Manager of the New Alliance Bank on Main St., “The bank has been proud to participate in the Branford Festival since the beginning when we were known as the New Haven Savings Bank. We view our participation as a wonderful way to give back to the community.” Many other businesses in town continue to contribute with the same spirit of generosity.
For 25 years, the Branford Festival has been bringing families and friends together to enjoy a weekend filled with music, food and laughter. Its success is a reflection of the community spirit, community support and community volunteerism that make our town so unique. Thank you to all those who have played a part in making the Festival a part of Branford’s identity. Here’s hoping this wonderful tradition continues for another 25 years.
Maria Storm served on the Festival Committee for 8 years from 1993 to2000