The three-day Branford Festival, an annual rite of summer, which will celebrate its 28th anniversary this Friday, almost didn’t make it past its fifth birthday.
That might come as a surprise to those among the 10,000 lounging on the Branford Green as folk singer Arlo Guthrie droned his 18-minute version of “Alice’s Restaurant” in 1985, the first year of the Festival. Or even to some who attended the Festival in its earliest years. A variety of food for every taste; free live music by celebrated bands; a craft and business expo that went on and on like a shopaholic’s dream: the event, by all appearances, was flourishing.
What few could see, as Branford’s Bill O’Brien, then a prominent commercial banker, recalled, was that the Festival had outgrown itself. It was deeply in debt. It needed a formal operating structure. It needed to be streamlined. It needed corporate sponsors. Judy Gott, then First Selectman, identified O’Brien as the man for the job.
He dialed former Blue Cross executive Bud Torello of Branford and asked for $5,000. Sure, said Torello. John C. Peterson, then publisher of the Shore Line Newspapers, agreed to eight full pages of advertising, worth approximately $700 a page. The late Bud Anderson, a local builder, donated a new stage, thereby erasing the cost of renting one.
Soon an operating deficit of $15,000 became a $31,000 profit.
“It was almost as if the town recognized the significance of this festival to itself and wanted to do everything in its power to make sure it went on,” the congenial grandfather of two said.
Even before O’Brien’s intervention, there were signs of a simpatico between town and festival. When First Selectman Gott and longtime resident Ray Figlewski hatched the idea of a festival in 1985, the Historical Society readily agreed to move its Strawberry Shortcake Festival to join the festivities.
Likewise, the Branford Rotary Club with its annual pancake breakfast and book sale; the craft and business expo sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce; and Sunday’s Branford five-mile Road Race, organized by Figlewski in 1979. Year after year, all have been fixtures in the festival.
And year after year, residents have returned to the Green for Father’s Day weekend. For some, like Jimmy Zanor, who’s lived in Branford since 1994, the sizzle of a hot dog hitting the grill - and the roasted aroma wafting through the soft air across the Branford Green, weather permitting - marks the beginning of summer.
For others, the staccato beat of the 2nd Company Governor’s Foot Guard blending with the glitter of children’s voices on the moon bounce signals the pomp and circumstance of another school year ending. Still others relish the festival as a chance to renew old acquaintances with former residents who travel from considerable distances to be reunited with family and friends.
“It’s Branford’s homecoming,” said Camille Linke, who first spread out a blanket on the Green for her 1-½ year old baby son in 1985 to hear “Alice’s Restaurant.” Now her son brings his own kids.
Said legendary Beehive Queen Christine Ohlman, a veteran performer at summer festivals who will be grooving on the main stage with her band the Rebel Montez and accompanied by the popular Sin Sisters on Friday night: “Branford has one of Connecticut’s most gorgeous settings: the beautiful Green, the stage that opens up directly from the historic town hall—this is the one where you feel like you’ve found the town’s communal soul.”
Communally commercial, that is. Thanks to the Chamber of Commerce, on Saturday more than 150 businesses, artists, and crafters congregate in booths under a large, centrally located tent to display their wares.
Above all, the Festival is, as O’Brien put it, “a real Branford event,” a way for citizens and organizations alike to demonstrate their willingness to support each other. It’s not just the Rotary Club using the funds it raises from its pancake breakfast and book sale to ensure, among other educational initiatives, that every third grader in Branford gets a free dictionary.
It’s also how, as choral director Cathyann Roding would attest, the town moved the Branford High School Concert Choir from the back to the front stage in 1990, where it’s been a highlight ever since.
“It shows they see the choir as real entertainment and a group of kids that they’re really proud of,” Roding said. And for a group that’s sung all over the world, she added, “there’s no greater kick than singing in front of our hometown crowd.”
But it is perhaps Branford Cares, a newly formed mission to mobilize the community of Branford to help those in the town unable to provide for their own basic needs, that best sums up how the Branford Festival - beyond the food, the free music, and the smorgasbord of activities - has distinguished itself over the years.
Choosing the Festival as the site to kick off the campaign to raise $300,000 by Labor Day was an easy call for Trinity Church Rev. Sharon Gracen, who is leading the effort. “There’s no better place to get the word out,” she said. “And knowing the people of Branford, I have no doubt they’ll respond.”
Precisely the reason the Festival has endured for so long, after all.
For more information about the Branford Festival, visit branfordfestival.com. To learn more about Branford Cares, visit branfordcares.org. The Branford Cares booth will be located on the Town Hall Drive side near Trinity Church.