Arrivederci Festival Italiano: Memories of Westport tradition ending after three decades
The smell of sausage and peppers, the pizza fritta booth, the parade down Riverside Avenue and Franklin Street, the pony rides for the youngsters, the music of performers like Johnny Maestro and the Brooklyn Bridge, it all lured in the masses to the Saugatuck section of Westport for 27 summers.
But all good things, they say, must come to an end, and Festival Italiano, a Westport tradition of nearly three decades, has been cancelled for this July.
Organizers of the annual summertime celebration last week announced "with sadness" that there will be no festival this year, which would have been the event's 28th year.
Bernie Izzo, a co-grand marshal of the festival in 2008 along with his brothers John, Jim and Anthony, told the Westport News it was an event where people often ran into "all the people you didn't see throughout the year."
In addition, "the music was beautiful, it was just a nice four days," he said.
Money raised by the festival, which was donated to support local charities, had dwindled to the level that it was enough only to cover expenses, according to a statement from Festival Italiano Director Roberta Troy. The number of volunteers and sponsorships that helped make the event possible had also fallen off, according to the festival's website.
"We did have a very successful festival in 2010," Troy said in the statement. "Unfortunately, virtually all the income was paid out in expenses. Our reason for existence is to provide scholarships and support for local charities, and there is little left for that. Although it would be fine if we could keep the Festival going just for the entertainment it provides for Westport and the surrounding communities, that is just no longer possible."
Izzo also said the festival had been successful in raising money for charity in the past, providing assistance to everyone from high school students going to college to the burn center at Bridgeport Hospital, because it was once "100 percent volunteer." However, about five years ago, Troy found through those who previously volunteered that she needed to hire people to pay for help.
Festival Italiano was founded in 1984 by husband and wife Michael and Carla Rea, who also founded the Westport Sons of Italy. But whereas Sons of Italy was formed to promote Italian culture and establish an organization that could raise money for earthquake victims in Balvano, Italy, the goal behind Festival Italiano -- established after the Sons of Italy -- was "to re-create the Italian heritage and culture in the town and further support community activities and organizations," according to Michael Rea.
There was once an annual event in Westport called St. Anthony's Feast, but that ended 32 years prior to Festival Italiano's launch.
"While we were honoring the past and reveled in the nostalgia of the event (Festival Italiano), we really as a community and a group had our eyes fixed on the future," said Michael, who added last Friday that it is now "difficult to think the future has ended."
Festival Italiano was a celebration of the proud Italian heritage rooted in the Westport's Saugatuck neighborhood, a community that was disrupted when Interstate 95 was built through its midst, compounded by the changing face of culture and technology that took place after World War II.
Carla Rea said everyone from police officers to firefighters to electricians donated their time to help make Festival Italiano a success from the start. But those times have changed. Troy said that in recent years "volunteering is virtually non-existent and sponsorships are dwindling, so more and more of the set-up has to be contracted and paid for."
She added, "No one from Westport Festival Italiano, Inc., receives any payments from the festival, so there is no way we can cut back expenses without destroying the character of the festival, and that we will not do. Several avenues have been investigated to keep the festival going within those guidelines, but they have not succeeded. With the economy sluggish and the constant threat of a rain washout we have no choice but to terminate Festival Italiano."
Izzo said Troy is a wonderful woman, "but she can't do it all by herself." He added that if people step up to the plate, and maybe commit to volunteering, perhaps there still could be a Festival Italiano 2011.
"Maybe it can be reversed," he said of the cancellation. "Maybe people didn't realize it was run on volunteers."
Former Representative Town Meeting member Tom Feeley recalled volunteering at the event in the late '80s with his wife Sandy.
They "did a stint with supporters Lynne and Jerry Minsky at the football `Toss a ping-pong ball, Win a goldfish' concession," he recalled. "Back then, you knew everybody who worked there and most of the folks who came to enjoy the rides, food and music. Like the movies, Klein's and many other wonderful things, it ain't the same place anymore."
While the festival was a place that many people would often run into old friends, Bill Meyer, chairman of the RTM's Parks and Recreation Committee, said he was always impressed by "how many people drove many, many miles to attend it."
John Izzo, former Selectman, called the cancellation of Festival Italiano a "terrible tragedy." It "went far beyond Italian Americans. So many thousands of people enjoyed it throughout the years," he said.
"In the beginning, police and fire volunteered," he said. "Now they cost thousands of dollars. It's a shame we don't have the volunteerism we used to have."
Carla Rea said there were some in the Italian community of Saugatuck who initially doubted Festival Italiano would be a success, or that the Department of Transportation would allow the festival to be staged in the railroad station parking lot.
"People were skeptical because they didn't think it could happen again," she said. "They didn't think history could repeat itself because the St. Anthony's Society was closed for so many years."
How wrong they were.
"It was like a phoenix. It just rose," Michael Rea said.
He added that Festival Italiano was sort of like a "class reunion of Westporters."
"It's going to be sorely missed by a lot of people," said Michael, who doesn't fault current organizers for throwing in the towel.
"Over the years, things have become more complicated, more expensive," he said.
But when the supply of volunteers was seemingly endless, the festival was able to donate generously to scholarships for high school students and local community organizations.
"The amount of money that was raised was unbelievable," said Michael. "It created a lot of good will."
Carla said she was surprised Troy didn't use the media to try to recruit more volunteers to keep Festival Italiano an annual event rather than a memory.
A call to Troy regarding news of the festival's cancellation was not returned.