By Rob Montana
Now that Ithaca College and Cornell University’s commencement exercises are complete, Ithaca residents are ready to celebrate the city.
The Ithaca Festival is back this weekend – Friday, June 2, through Sunday, June 4 – and marking its 40th year of existence. According to its website, the Ithaca Festival began in 1977 as an arts festival called “Celebration Ithaca.” It has grown and changed through its 40 years as the festival directors have added their own influences.
“Forty years is an amazing milestone, that’s a long time! We’ve been spending a lot of time looking back at old programs and news clippings from the ‘70s on the event,” said Ithaca Festival Executive Director Ben Greenberg. “It’s a humbling experience to realize we’re just a small part of this massive long-standing celebration that has existed here for so long.
“It’s a real honor to feel a part of it, puts it all in perspective,” he added. “We met several times with Loretta Louviere, one of the original founders of the festival and she was generous sharing stories from the first year and talked to us a lot about their intentions early on.”
Festival organizers are hoping to offer a few nods to the first iteration of the Ithaca Festival.
“We will still be doing some things that we’ve reinterpreted from the first year – a balloon sculpture,” Greenberg said. “I’m working a newspaper suit that I read they wore the first year. Not sure yet how that’s going to turn out though!”
Festival buttons, T-shirts and other merchandise are on sale now at Wegmans, and will be available throughout the weekend; purchase of festival merchandise helps support the event – which is free to attend. The official artwork for this year’s theme – “Celebrating Like It’s Our First” – showcases the talents of local artist Trevon McBean.
The iconic Ithaca Festival parade will kick off the Festival, starting at 6:30 p.m. and going along Cayuga Street between Lincoln and Court streets. It moved to Friday night last year, with the elimination of Thursday as part of the event. The change seemed to go over well last year, Greenberg said, so it was kept for this year’s Festival.
“The Sim Redmond Band will be playing on the Commons immediately following the parade,” he said.
In addition to the parade, festival goers will be able to enjoy other staples of the event, including multiple stages of entertainment, special kids’ activities, and a multitude of craft and food vendors.
“We have around 100 amazing craft vendors, and the best food vendors the region has to offer,” Greenberg said. “And, Big Mean Sound Machine is playing a special set Saturday night with many special guests.”
A partnership with the Greater Ithaca Activities Center formed for the 2016 event and will continue this year as well.
“There will be a full day of festivities at GIAC on Saturday, including a charity basketball game and performances by The Empire Kings and many more,” said Greenberg.
The basketball game is slated for a 4 p.m. start, and a stage will be set up in the adjacent park; local food and craft vendors also are expected to be on hand at GIAC.
As for changes this year, the Ithaca Underground stage will be expanded to Saturday and Sunday in the Press Bay Alley lot.
“They’ve done such an amazing job cultivating a music scene that young people are excited to be a part of, we wanted to expand their presence,” Greenberg said.
Another new feature will be pony rides on Cayuga Street, near DeWitt Park, he said, “which is a new location.”
“And on Saturday we’ll have a horse and carriage to take people back and forth from DeWitt over to the festivities at GIAC,” Greenberg said.
In addition to the many offerings from the Festival, there are a few other special events taking place in conjunction with the celebration.
Tompkins County Poet Laureate Zee Zahava will lead an inter-generational workshop for writing and sharing happy memories from 11 a.m. to noon Saturday, June 3, in the GIAC gymnasium, located at 301 W. Court St. The event is free of charge.
On Sunday, June 4, there will be two events featuring performances. BLANK, by Nassim Soleimanpour, will be presented at 3:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. by The Cherry Arts at Cinemapolis, located at 120 E. Green St. The show is described as “a warm and surprising work that upends the things we thought we knew about theater and the stories we make of our lives.” Cost of admission is $15, but only $10 with an Ithaca Festival button.
A group of comics – headliner Madelein Smith, with Kelsey Claire Hagen and Sarah Benson – will showcase their talents at the Shiny Gemstones Comedy Show, set to take place at 5:30 p.m. Sunday, June 4, also at Cinemapolis. Admission is $10, and just $5 with a Festival button.
Greenberg is directing his second festival, after taking the reins for the 2016 edition.
“In my first year, I learned what an amazing place Ithaca is to produce an event!,” he said. “After coming from doing things in other cities, I was definitely conditioned to expect a lot of push back and obstacles when presenting new ideas.
“I found exactly the opposite here. There were eager partners and people were very welcoming to participate as we explored new things,” Greenberg added. “I think it’s partially due to the wonderful community we live in and it also is a testament to what a fantastic job all of the previous directors have done in building the Ithaca Festival brand as such a positive event for the community.”
As for changes made to make the second year of his tenure easier, Greenberg said there has been an emphasis on getting things done earlier.
“We’re also hiring a few extra hands on site to help out with things like trash, which will be nice,” he said. “Also, just bringing back as many of the same staff, so there is consistency from year to year is very helpful.
“We always could use more volunteers and its never too late to sign up,” Greenberg added. “Selling shirts or buttons is actually a fairly fun way to come to the event and interact with people. There’s an application on our website.”
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For more information about the Ithaca Festival, visit its website at IthacaFestival.org or its Facebook page at facebook.com/ithacafestival.