That’s it. It’s over. After 46 years, the Old Port Festival is history.
I knew this was going to happen. We all did, since festival organizers at Portland’s Downtown District sent out their press release in March saying they were doing away with the annual event.
At 47, I don’t remember a time when there wasn’t an Old Port Festival. It’s always been there. I’ve had fun shooting pictures of it, playing music on its stages, eating the street food and having a few day drinks. That’s why I wanted to see it, start to finish, one last time.
I arrived on Exchange Street just before the Shoestring Theater parade kicked the whole thing off at 11 a.m. At the head of the line, where he’s been for over 30 years, was stilt-walker Greg Frangoulis.
“This is a great event,” he told me. “There’s nothing like walking down Exchange Street in a parade of a beautiful day. We’ll miss it.”
A few minutes later, the band struck up a wild drum rhythm and the procession took off down the pavement. Handmade paper mache characters and puppets whirled and danced. Mayor Ethan Strimling dressed in a yellow robe and what looked like a fanciful dunce cap, handed out high fives from the seat of his trademark scooter.
As the fabulous cavalcade passed, it reminded me of a New Orleans jazz funeral. It was colorful and estattic but also tinged with a hint of sadness.
I left the parade and came across a group of full-grown adults dressed as comic book superheroes. Batman, Captain America and Deadpool were in attendance. A little girl rolled by them in a stroller.
She crossed her arms, disgusted and said, “Now where’s Wonder Woman?”
A few minutes later, festival security asked the caped crusaders to leave because they weren’t official vendors.
“Hey, we’re not selling anything,” Captain America said. “We walk around here every Saturday night dressed like this.”
Sundresses, tank tops, shorts and sandals were the uniform of the day for those not fighting crime. Not a single cloud stained the blue sky and a breeze was coming off the water, keeping the temperatures under the bright sun this side of bearable.
Next, I bellied up to the Kuno food truck and ordered garlic beef on a stick along with fried spring rolls. The meat was tender and a little sweet. The rolls had a good crunch on the outside and a fair helping of vegetables within.
I washed the food down with lemonade from a stand where Ryan Hayes was busy making drinks. Hayes said he’d been working the festival for at least 10 years. He wasn’t convinced this was the last Old Port Festival.
“Whoever steps up to run it would be a real hero,” said Hayes.
On Fore Street, I found people signing a petition aimed at keeping the festival alive outside the watering hole Dock Fore
The petition was started by Shaun McCarthy, owner of Dok Fore and the building it sits in. He wants to present the petition to the City Council and City Manager Jon Jennings, to see if anything can be done to get the festival a reprieve.
McCarthy, who has done business in the Old Port since 1984, said he likes the festival so much, he’d like to see a second one held in October.
“I can guarantee you there’s more money generated in just this one day than in all the cruise ships that come in the entire year,” he said.
“I grew up coming here,” said Kellen Bonner of Topsham, after he signed the petition. “You get good food, great live music, all these people. I don’t know why they don’t want to do it anymore.”
I explained to him that festival organizers think the festival has done its job of promoting the Old Port. It’s run its course and they want to move on.
“This isn’t about promotion. This is about camaraderie, being with friends and family,” said Bonner. “I wanted to be able to share this with my kids and I’m not going to be able to have that chance — and that’s what really upsets me.”
McCarthy suggested I go up to the gift shop on Exchange Street known as Something Fishy and talk to the owner, Sandy Jones. She was also collecting signatures and had just sent her grandson down to McCarthy for more sheets.
“I believe we should keep this thing,” said Jones. “Summer begins with the Old Port Festival. I love it. The people love it. I feel that I was blindsided.”
That’s a sentiment I heard from several other people as I walked around, eavesdropping and inserting myself into conversations. Like me, folks, assumed the Old Port festival would always be around. They were stunned that something that drew 35,000 or so people to the city would be dumped.
I only met one person who didn’t seem to be having a good time. Geoff Ballou said he’d just as soon be somewhere else.
“I don’t like crowds,” said Ballou, sitting on the grass in Tommy’s Park. “I’m kind of a Scrooge. I’d rather be in my own backyard grilling, really.”
His companion had another opinion.
“You can put down that Taylor Marshall disagrees,” she said, smiling.
To see the festival out the door, I went to catch the Mallett Brothers Band’s set on the WCLZ stage. They attracted the largest crowd of the day by far, packing Boothby Square.
Fronted by the two red-headed sons of Maine songwriter Dave Mallett, the homegrown six-piece band played for over an hour. Down front, folks danced. A father twirled his daughter on his shoulders while they both waved their arms in time with the music. A woman in mirrored shades sang all the words to all the songs.
The band rocked on until festival officials in a golf cart pulled up and asked them to stop. It was a quarter-past-five and the party was over.
Before the band left the stage, one of the brothers, Will Mallett, said, “This is not the last Old Port Festival.”
His lead guitar player added, “We’re going to make our own next year, just like the old Old Port Festival.”
The crowd cheered at that.
I followed the departing crowd up Exchange Street, into the setting sun, wondering if they were right. Would there be another one?
Just then, another golf cart came screaming up the middle of the street, blowing its horn, scattering the sauntering masses. As it went by, I could see the driver’s hoodie read, “City of Portland Event Staff.”
“I doubt it,” I thought.
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