Growing Up Downtown - October 2016
Bay St. Louis Beachfront Festival
Pat Murphy reveals the history of the Bay's popular Beachfront festival, which ran from 1980 to the early 90s.
In the time period of the late 1970s and early ’80s there was very little happening in downtown Bay St. Louis. There were several bars and a couple lunch spots and stores but it wasn't the tourism destination that it has become over the years.
After attending this festival in Baton Rouge, I came home with the idea of trying to make something like that happen in Bay St. Louis. In my mind I was thinking that it would be a great way to draw people into the downtown area. I also was adamant that this festival had to be a free event.
I was on the board of directors for the Chamber of Commerce at the time and it was a pretty easy thing to get this organization on board from the beginning. The first year it was promoted as Downtown Merchants Day and Beachfront Festival. In the years following, the event was rechristened The Bay St. Louis–Hancock County Beachfront Festival.
My idea was to have each participating business pay a fee of $25 to defray some of the costs. The Chamber, the banks and the power companies all chipped in with larger donations of a few hundred dollars. I encountered a few skeptics who didn't want any part of it saying that it would hurt their business. Most got on board right away. The City of Bay St. Louis and Hancock County also helped out in various ways.
The first Beachfront Festival was held on Saturday, June 6, 1980, the first Saturday after Memorial Day. I borrowed two flatbed delivery trucks from my friend Terry Markel and backed them up to each other on Beach Boulevard at the intersection of Main Street. The trucks served as a bandstand.
My idea for this location was that Beach and Main was centrally located and all of the businesses would benefit from it. There were still people who thought the stage should have been closer to them. You can't please everybody.
My band played and was the only band to play. We made the whopping sum of $200. People were dancing in the streets of downtown Bay St. Louis. The event was great, everything that I hoped it would be.
In the middle of the whole thing, the mayor of Bay St. Louis came running up to me ranting about doing it once a month! My reaction was that I thought once a year would work just fine. After it was all over I received a commendation from the city administration thanking me for my efforts and promising future support.
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After the first year, we began holding the event on Sunday, which allowed businesses to either open during the festival or remain closed if they chose to.
From the very beginning, because I had seen it done in Baton Rouge, I always felt that the arts and crafts should play a big part. We probably had six or eight craft booths the first year. During the following year, I started going to other festivals and getting craftsmen and artists cards and compiling a list.
I discovered that for the good craftspeople to participate, you had to regulate what type of booths and products you allowed into your show. We put a requirement in place that all products had to be hand made by the artisan renting the booth. There were those who would try to sneak by, but we weeded them out as soon as we discovered them.
It did hurt us some with the craftsmen that the festival was only a one-day event instead of several days. This said, through the years the arts and crafts show became very popular and featured as many as 70 or more artists and craftsmen. My sister-in-law at the time, Kay Johnson, ran the arts and crafts show for me and did a wonderful job. This part of the event would have never happened without Kay's hard work.
In 1981 we experimented with two music stages at opposite ends of Beach Boulevard, one at DeMontluzin Street and one at Court Street. This arrangement was entirely too complicated and expensive so it was only done for one year.
Just handling the logistics — much less financial planning and advertising — in promoting a festival like this is a daunting task. We are talking about a lot of work here, folks. I have to say that it was a labor of love for me but after 1981 I realized that there was no way that I could continue to run the festival by myself.
My good friend and CPA Chuck Benvenutti's office was just down the street from my store at the time. After the second year, Chuck joined me in running the event. Again, Kay Johnson was also a huge help with everything across the board but especially with the arts and crafts show.
In 1982 we went back to one music stage centrally located on Main Street facing Beach Boulevard and the scenic waters of the bay. Some were upset because Main Street was blocked at Beach Boulevard but this was the formula that worked best for us through the years. We did eventually construct our own stage using 8x8 wooden panels bolted together and resting on scaffolding.
Several years later, in 1986, in an effort to open up the streets, we moved the stage down onto the beach against the seawall at the head of Main Street. The hill going up to the street and sidewalk made a wonderful natural amphitheater but moving and setting up musical equipment down there was a logistical nightmare.
From the event's inception, we experimented with other events and competitions associated with the festival. There were catamaran races, mullet net throwing competitions, volleyball tournaments, an annual 5k run, bike trials and, probably the biggest and most popular of all, a bikini contest. Thousands would line up in front of the stage for the bikini contest.
It was all good, clean fun with nothing suggestive or lewd about it. The contest judging was handled by the Hancock County Sheriff, the mayor of Bay St. Louis, members of the county Board of Supervisors, and Chamber of Commerce board members.
My passion for collecting old photographs began with the assembling of an antique photo exhibit for the festival each year, which proved hugely popular every year.
In 1983, Chuck and I decided to have a poster designed by a local artist, Laura Feidler, and the festival had prints made to sell. I love the poster but we ended up with about half of them left over. The next year, my friend Elaine Bean designed the poster and we sold them. Once again, the poster is great and I love it but after this year we decided that the festival could not afford to underwrite the posters. In later years Chuck came up with a system of pre-selling half of the posters, which paid for the cost upfront.
Nadine Stamm, Barbara Brodtmann, Nancy Rupp and others designed really nice posters that were sold in later years. I still have several of my favorite Beachfront Festival posters hanging in my house. I can't say if they're that valuable but they are special to me.
I tried my best to use local entertainment although my friend Duke Bardwell's band did play the second year. My friends Guitar Bo and Ms. Dee were staples, as were Dock of the Bay owner Jerry Fisher's band the Music Company. Keith Hoda and the Country Sounds or the Louisiana Red Hots usually provided some great country music and I did always include my band (a little nepotism here, folks!).
It must be said that none of the bands or sound guys made much money, working for less than half of what they usually made. This event was something that all of the local players and the sound guys seemed to really enjoy doing.
One year a band that was going to headline pulled out on the afternoon before the festival was held. There were a couple of anxious hours for me before, at the last minute, I was able to book Texas blues legend Anson Funderburgh and the Rockets featuring Sam Meyers. Luckily, Anson and his band were playing the night before in New Orleans and happy to pick up an extra gig. Anson generously played for about one third of his normal fee.
The first Our Lady of the Gulf Crab Festival was held in 1985 on Pete Fountain's property, which is now the location of Chapel Hill. Prior to this, the event had been just another church fair. Brothers Joe and Billy Monti jumped on the festival idea and ran with it. I like to think that just maybe a little of the idea for this festival grew out of the success of the Beachfront Festival.
Whether this in fact is true or not is immaterial because The OLG Crab Festival has grown through its 32-year existence to be one of the premier festivals in this area. A lot of good people work very hard year round to present this festival every year on 4th of July weekend.
No matter how hard you try with these events, it is absolutely impossible to please everyone, and there are always differences of opinion. You can count on some people getting mad. It's a fact of life that there are always those who want to tell you how things should be done and everything that you are doing wrong. It was my experience that most of these suggestions usually benefited the parties who were making the suggestions.
Chuck and I always told people, "This is not a democracy, it's a dictatorship." The festival barometer was the saying, "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few." (Thank you, Mr. Spock.) In retrospect, our dictatorship always seemed to serve the event well. The festival was a huge success despite its few critics and naysayers. This event expanded and grew in size every year for the first eight years.
It's amazing to me now when I look back at the old newspaper clippings and photographs covering this event. Downtown Bay St. Louis was wall-to-wall people, literally thousands of people on the streets, more people than we had ever seen or thought possible!
In August of 1985 I closed my business on Main Street and went to work in Gulfport. My intent at the time was that Chuck and I would continue to run the Beachfront Festival. When 1986 festival time rolled around I was deluged with phone calls during the workday. This was normal fare for me at festival time, especially in the last weeks before the festival.
After about two weeks of this my boss called me in and had a serious discussion with me. After this discussion I realized that my job and running this event might not be compatible. However, I lost the job later in the year. Chuck Benvenutti and I continued to run the festival with the next year being the biggest event yet.
The Beachfront Festival was growing and getting bigger and bigger each year. Chuck Benvenutti and I talked after the festival that year and decided that it was approaching the time to turn over control of the event. For a couple of years, the downtown merchants association had been murmuring that they should be the group who ran the festival.
Chuck and I finally agreed and turned over control, all financial records and the bank account to the merchants association. We wished them well and the merchants group began running the event in 1988.
In 1988 the bikini contest was changed to an old-fashioned male and female swimsuit contest. In 1989 an admission fee of $2 per adult was instituted and the festival was no longer the free event that I had founded.
After promoting the Beachfront Festival with more emphasis on family fun, the arts and some wonderful children's events like a children's art village, the merchants association decided to give up presenting the festival after several years. The Chamber of Commerce made an effort to put it on for a year or two but after 1992 the Beachfront Festival ceased to exist and faded into a distant memory for most.
I make no judgment whatsoever concerning the eventual demise of this festival I had initiated. I'd be the first to admit that this event was truly a monumental amount of work for the very few people involved. I realize that it was a labor of love for me but certainly not for most. I am still adamant that the event would have been almost impossible to put on with anything other than one or two individuals making all of the decisions.
If I had to do it all over again, there's not much that I would change. It was great, great fun, a lot of wonderful memories and something that I'm extremely proud to have created and been a part of.
Unfortunately today, the Beachfront Festival is just a very distant memory for the many locals who were here at the time and an event that most newcomers have no idea ever occurred in streets of downtown Bay St. Louis.
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