Organized fun in Springfield. In Springfield?
August 15, 1980
I had a lot more fun writing about Springfield’s annual summer Lincolnfests than I ever did attending them. Like most bad ideas, the celebration started with good intentions, but ended up just another Midwestern gawk-and-puke festival. Non-Springfieldians won’t get the local jokes in this, my initial dispatch about the event. (A later report can be read here.) Some are good, some aren’t—column-writers don’t get a chance to try out material on the road.
"BIGTIME FESTIVITIES FOR SPRINGFIELD" is the way they announced it. High time, I thought, though it's hard to know for sure what is "bigtime" in a town that hailed a concert by Kenny Rogers like it was the Second Coming. It may turn out that "BIG FESTIVITIES" would have been closer to the mark. The event is the proposed Lincolnfest, a three-day festival to be held in downtown Springfield over the Fourth of July weekend in 1981. The purpose—the excuse, really—is to celebrate what the Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau calls "the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln 'setting foot' in Sangamon County."
I confess that when I first read about the Lincolnfest I was skeptical. Mayor Mike Houston, for example, applauded it, saying, "It will offer unlimited free entertainment to all the citizens of Springfield." Free? The budget of the bash is $64,000. Part of that will come from "grants from the . . . public sector," and that means tax money, gang. The mayor also promised that the Lincolnfest will provide locals with "the opportunity to take advantage of their own hometown”—an opportunity our bright-eyed local businesspeople apparently have already made use of; the main point of the Lincolnfest, according to the official announcement, is to "help stimulate the economy."
But the more I thought about the Lincolnfest the more I liked it. The ringleaders are Bernadette Nolan and Fred Puglia. Nolan is active in local affairs, chiefly cultural; like so many of those who devote themselves to good works, she's served on more committees than a ten-term Georgia congressman. Puglia runs the city visitors bureau, which makes him the latest in a long line of Springfieldians who make their livings selling conventioneers a good time. Between them they've concocted quite a smorgasbord: ethnic foods, arts and crafts, music (including a symphony), theatrical performances (such as "Your Obedient Servant, A. Lincoln"), fireworks, carnival rides, parades, hot air balloons, even an appearance by Larry Sayco, the world yo-yo champ. There will be some seventy-five events in all, crammed into two and a half days during which 20,000 people are expected to drop by.
In the past, Springfield used to do this kind of thing right. I recall in particular an earlier Lincolnfest, in August of 1860, when the man himself was running for President. Dawn was commemorated with a gun salute. Special trains brought 180 carloads of celebrants into Springfield from around the state to join the thousands already there. A procession featuring twenty-two marching clubs, flags, costumes, bands, and floats, including a log cabin on wheels, snaked its way to the old fairgrounds west of town; later that evening a torchlight procession lighted the way to a packed speakers' hall.
Politics isn't so much fun anymore; the only group capable of that blend of naivete and single-mindedness is the evangelicals like Jerry Falwell, whose traveling tent show stopped at Springfield a few months ago. Perhaps as a result, modern festivals are events of economic rather than political or social significance. They were pioneered by small towns, most of which used them as real estate promotions or as elaborations of indigenous celebrations which sprung up to break up the monotony between natural disasters and epidemics, which until a few decades ago provided the only other diversion in such places. Only a few have survived intact: Beardstown's annual Fall Fun Festival and Virginia's barbeque each retain an unself-conscious, almost innocent small-town sensibility. Beardstonians don't invite a lot of outsiders, for example, because they can have plenty of fun all by themselves; among the games suggested for this year is the mummy wrap in which, according to a newspaper account, "contestants stand back to back and are wrapped entirely in toilet paper and judged on neatness and artistic ability."
It remains to be seen if the Lincolnfest meets this high standard. Already the project risks losing its sense of fun to its sense of high purpose. The mayor notes that the Lincolnfest will induce folks to stay off the highways over the Fourth, which may make it the first festival ever organized to further traffic safety. Chairwoman Nolan notes that it will "bring people of Springfield together . . . attracting all social, ethnic, and economic segments of the community."
A little bringing together wouldn't be a bad thing, though it's been tried in the past with mixed results. I recall that a few years ago the headmistress of an expensive private elementary school arranged a detour through the near east side during a bus trip so her westside pupils could see where the poor people live. A friend of mine still has vivid memories of the day in the late 1960s when she spent a day at the north side's Lanphier High as part of a student council exchange and nervously encountered both "hoods" and "colored kids" in concentrations far greater than were allowed at Springfield High in those days. '(This same friend also has told me how Franklin Middle School kids used to hate driving to the east side to attend ninth grade basketball games at Washington because the place smelled funny. It did. I know. I was there. But we thought the Franklin kids smelled funny too. They used "Jade East" the way Julia Child uses garlic.) In short, Springfield needs the urban equivalent of the farm-city exchanges sponsored by county farm bureaus during which incredulous slickers spend a day getting their shoes dirty while their country cousins come into town and learn what it's like to have to lock their cars. Maybe the Lincolnfest will do that.
Still, I worry about whether the Lincolnfest will ever really fly. For one thing, there's only so much partying a person can take; with the Lincolnfest on the Fourth, the state fair a month later, and the Sherman Ethnic Festival a month after that, plus assorted cow chip throws and Clayvilles before and after—well, I don't know about Fred and Bernadette but I've got work to do.
Besides, there are only so many reactivated cavalry units, pill rollers, banjo pickers, and Lincoln impersonators around here, with the result that the same people keep showing up to perform at all -these affairs. That may work in Vegas, but there they don't work the same audience night after night. Then, too, is the discomfiting fact that many of the twenty-two people who sit on Lincolnfest's executive committee were active in the local Bicentennial celebration. That fact will leave anyone who recalls the Bicentennial—a pastiche of patriotic cliches and kids dressed in Continental uniforms, neither of which fit—uneasy. Their involvement was ironic, since most of the committee members are Tory types who, were the revolution fought again today, would be put on the first boat to Halifax.
If the Bicentennial is a clue, what Nolan & Co. lack is not sincerity but showmanship. The Lincolnfest lacks that central symbolic theatrical event, the boffo headliner. Four years ago I made several suggestions for such events to the local bicentennial commission, which they rashly ignored. I make them again, in the hope that they will provide the Lincolnfest with that something special which will bring 'em in by the busload. For example, I'd like to see a series of tableaux staged with live actors depicting local life, from Springfield's west side (such scenes as, "Nine Holes Before Lunch," "Three Hearts—No Trump," "Not If He's Jewish! " "His Wife Finds Out") to the east side ("Saturday Night and No Bail Again," and "How Do I Spell Relief? C-E-T-A"). 1 also think a Leland Grove Folk Life Festival would be a hit, featuring demonstrations of such suburban arts and crafts as sidewalk trimming, expense account padding, and so on.
The best bet, though, is the recreation, complete with period costumes and sets, of a signal event from the city's past. We could do Lincoln setting foot in Sangamon County, but that would be dull. I recommend a replay of the 1930s coal mine wars, with the Springfield Junior League playing the Progressive Mine Workers, the Streetside Boosters as the United Mine Workers, the Springfield Clearinghouse as the mad train bombers, Sally Schanbacher as John L. Lewis, and the League of Women Voters as the National Guard, with the AFSCME bargaining committee portraying paid thugs on both sides. Think what a show the famous Easter shootout at Sixth and Washington would make!
Now that's—as the composer said—entertainment. □