A Townie Homecoming Party - Back to Basics. Heritage-Fest Changes
Free Admittance This Year
Since 1981 East Providence Heritage Days has been planning and providing many culture centric events whose goal is to raise public awareness of the Arts and their importance and value to the quality of life in a community. The most notable of these events is the Heritage Festival which has become a yearly tradition. "For the past three decades our mission has been to provide cultural and educational opportunities that recognize, promote, preserve and pay tribute to the Arts and our many cultural heritages," said Heritage Fest chairman, Clarence "Junior" Butler. "It is our goal to foster understanding of and pride in our collective aesthetic, intellectual and social origins and to transmit in tangible fashion a sense of that pride, knowledge and appreciation to succeeding generations. Proceeds from these activities have been used to sustain the corporation's work as well as to benefit other non-profits," said Butler.
You know the names and faces; "Junior" Butler, Alba Curti, Diane Sullivan, Jim McKivergan and a few more. Some are no longer with us like Sam Abbood, Harry Mutter and Pete Holmes. This small group of volunteers has planned, organized and run Heritage Days since its birth. Add Pierce Stadium's Joe Medeiros to that mix of super volunteers.
Heritage Days has run the gamut of various entertainment venues. In its 37th year the committee is bringing it all back to its roots. Townie roots, if you will. Gone are the expensive national acts and gone, too, are the admittance tickets. In a move to get more residents back to Heritage Festival amid dwindling support, the festival is now totally free. "We have spent a lot of money bringing in some of the best entertainment in the world," said the popular Hall of Famer Junior Butler.
Just about every local type of entertainment has appeared at various Heritage Festivals. Bands, comics, fireworks, puppet workshops, Rockettes, Magic shows, Follies, ethnic activities and much more have dazzled crowds at Pierce stadium. "Of course, people like the bands and the great food we have," added Heritage mainstay Alba Curti. "We've had some of the most popular bands around. Roomful of Blues, The Association, Louis Camp Band, Beaver Brown, The Skyliners ...," added Curti.
In the early days of the Heritage Festival the city would help with some appropriations from the budget. The committee would raise additional funds from sponsors and an admission fee. "People think some of these bands work for nothing," says Butler shaking his head. "It costs us thousands of dollars to bring in the big names. Some of them require meals, transportation and hotel rooms. It's not cheap to bring in the best," said Butler.
Diane Sullivan, City Director of Recreation is also a long time volunteer. "Some of our best festivals were during those early years," said Sullivan. "We provide the community with great food concessions, games, music and a sense of community pride. It used to be the place to meet other Townies every year."
Junior Butler and company have been dealing with dwindling interest in recent years. "The numbers of attendees have been down for the past five years or so. As the big name bands grew more expensive and we are now receive zero funding from the city, we decided to change directions," explains Butler. "We know people were no longer going to pay fifteen bucks admission plus buy food and drinks. So now the festival will be free. That's right," said Butler pushing back in his chair, "free!" Butler is perplexed with some of the community feedback. "We've reacted to requests to lower or eliminate any admittance fees but now some people are asking why we don't have big national name bands. You can't have it both ways," says a frustrated Butler.
The Heritage Days volunteer Board of Directors and Officers decided to "go back to our roots." It's back to basics for Heritage Days - EP. "Our theme this year is 'A Townie Homecoming Weekend'. We want to revert back to a simpler time when friends meet friends and the music is local," said Curti. "We have a lot of talented musicians right here in East Providence and this year they are being featured."
Indeed, local Townies like Pat Lowell, Sarah Leonard, Pete Silva, John Baldaia, Bruce Zarembka, Paul Furtado, Crushed Velvet and many more notables with local ties will entertain over the three day weekend July 14th through July 16th. All activities will be in the Pierce Stadium baseball field and all days are totally free. The only costs will be for vendor food and drinks, including the always popular beer taps. (See story elsewhere in this edition on local musicians.)
People started to grumble a few years ago at what they saw as too expensive a ticket for a festival that maybe was getting tired. "Where can you go for top entertainment, great food vendors and all while in a beautiful stadium area like Pierce, for $15?" asked Butler. But complain they did, as people stopped coming. It started to slide when a former city manager, Richard Brown, stopped all city appropriations for the festival in 2008. The Heritage committee was forced to keep admission prices higher and seek out more donations. "It was tough. We had zero income, smaller crowds and big expenses," explained Butler. The oldie bands were getting older and didn't impress the music hungry crowd as much and last year the festival almost bottomed out as the crowds were very thin. "We tried a different approach with planning last year but it didn't work," admitted the trio of Butler, Curti and Sullivan.
"The city doesn't appropriate one penny for the festival as they used to, but we do get in-kind contributions like use of Recreation Center space for meetings and some staff at Pierce Stadium," said Diane Sullivan. "We appreciate anything we can get," she added.
"So we're going back to our roots," said Butler. "We have invited a group of mostly local musicians and bands who are well known and highly thought of around town. The music will be awesome, the food vendors better than ever and the admission is now free," Butler said. "Let's see."
The small crowds in recent years may not be totally the fault of any planning style. When the Festival started in 1981 there was no commercially working public internet. Cell phones were not available as they are today and technology was a fledgling social tool. Social media didn't exist and the world was different. "Today's young people are difficult to entertain," said Butler. "Yes it is a different society."
In addition to all of the music and food, Fanelli Amusements is providing a weekend of carnival rides. Festival attendees can purchase a wrist band and ride all night.
The Heritage Days planners still have expenses. The local bands get paid, police and fire are expensive and stage production and sound/lighting costs remain. The committee will cover these expenses by selling some refreshments (beer is always popular) and a partnership with several corporate, business and private donors. But this year will have no admittance fee for anyone.
Butler and company don't think the new major concerts at Bold Point and the other various summertime concerts in the city like Crescent Park, etc. are competitive threats. "Some of those concerts in the new Bold Point area will be pricey for folks. It shouldn't take away from us," said Butler. The Heritage Group tried to begin an alliance with Waterfront Productions to combine efforts, but the slow-moving process never developed. To date, the line-up of concerts and Waterfront festivals includes: The Beach Boys on Wednesday, August 9th, The Waterfront Reggae Festival on Saturday, August 12th, the Blues & BBQ Festival on Saturday, August 26th and Oktoberfest on Columbus Day Weekend, Saturday, October 7th. The dates don't directly conflict with Heritage Days. Ticket prices for the Beach Boys range from $25 to $50 per person.
East Providence Heritage Days will be held at Pierce Stadium on July 14, 2017 from 6-11 pm, July 15th from 3-11 pm and on July 16th from 3-10 pm.
"Free admittance, great music, delicious food vendors, family activities in a beautiful stadium and a full weekend of meeting old friends. Where else can you get all of that for zero," Butler asks. Back to East Providence's roots. Truly A Townie Homecoming Weekend.
(The Heritage Volunteers: Officers, Clarence Butler, Jr., Chairman; James McKivergan, Vice Chairman; Alba Curti, Secretary/Treasurer; Diane Sullivan, Recording Secretary. Directors, Rebecca Chace, Kelly Costa, Rick DiPasquale, Onna Moniz-John, Joseph Medeiros, Nicholas Shattuck, Mark Spremulli, Deborah Rochford. Honorary members, Audrey Partridge, Sandra Soignoli, Samuel J. Abbood, Peter Holmes and Harry Mutter.)