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Charlotte Amalie
Monday, July 22, 2024


About this time each year for about as far back as any arts writer on St. Thomas can remember, a press release has gone out reminding us that coming up in a month and a bit is the next in a long line of annual musical events known as the October Sunday Festival.
Even in 1995, although the announcement of a scaled-down version came later, in the aftermath of Hurricane Marilyn.
But not this year.
"After 23 highly successful October Sundays, the committee has decided that we can no longer hold the event as the major party/fund-raiser which it has become," founders Fred and Polly Watts state in a release sent out this week.
In a way, the event – which developed into an annual effort to raise money specifically for the purpose of giving it away – built up to its own demise for essentially economic and human resource reasons.
According to a longtime festival committee volunteer, beer sales had been declining over the last five or six years, with the refocusing of the fest. "We went from arm-wrestling and beer-chugging contests to an event where families would bring their children and lots of different groups could raise money for their causes," this person said. While community participation increased, it became more difficult to find a beer sponsor.
"Advertisers understandably want to see a return for their money spent," the individual said, adding that a beverage sponsor is crucial, not only for product access but because "they have an event license that includes insurance. If you don't have that, you have to come up with $2,500 or $3,000 for insurance for the day, and that just about makes it prohibitive." Also, a beverage sponsor will provide advertising, "and without that, there's another major cost."
Meantime, for the last couple of years, Fred Watts said, he and his wife, Polly, "personally had been trying to scale back" and see the leadership go to somebody else. "It turned out that that just really was not possible," he said Wednesday night.
Last year, for the first time, someone else chaired the committee – Richard Counts. But he was unable to do so again this year.
There won't be, but there will
So, given these factors, this year there won't be the October Sunday Festival the community has come to know.
However, there will be a 24th annual October Sunday celebration. It will just be different. More specifically, it will be, Watts says, "a gathering of music-minded friends, like it began." In fact, that's the unofficial theme: "Like It Began."
In their release, the Wattses, referring to those still around from the early days as "the St. Thomas Survivors," state: "We plan to retain the last Sunday in October as a special day of music and fun… a party for all those who have worked with us and played music with us over the years." It will be, as usual, on the last Sunday of the month, that being the 29th this year, and will take place at Magens Bay beach in Shed No. 1, from noon to 6 p.m.
The organizers will supply ice, snacks and a small sound system. Those planning to join in are invited to bring their own food and drink and enjoy an afternoon of "acoustic traditional music and good friends." Watts says he hasn't reached out to other musicians yet, but he's pretty sure such regulars as Smoky Pratt and John Brittain (Blue Shoes) and Nicky "Mighty Whitey" Russell will be there. "Traditional" means "anybody's tradition," he said, asking that musicians interested in taking part call him at 775-2814 or 774-0673. The event will be open to the public at no cost other than admission to Magens Bay.
It all started with a sing-along
October Sunday – which never could escape the misnomer "Octoberfest," despite determined efforts – had its beginnings, of all places, on Virgin Gorda. It was 1977, and the Wattses and some friends were on a St. Thomas Dive Club excursion. At a beach campfire gathering on the British Virgin island, they got a sing-along going, Fred and Polly contributing American folk music, drawn from English, Scottish and Irish traditions.
"On the way back to St. Thomas," the unofficial history of the event circulated to the media in 1997 states, "Jimmy Loveland, who had just taken over Sib's Restaurant, suggested that it would be fun to do an evening of music in the parking lot of the restaurant. The last Sunday of October was chosen. . ." and the rest, as they say, is history.
Fest No. 1, a three-hour version, attracted some 200 friends and music lovers. Nicky Russell passed a sign-up sheet around looking for more people who wanted to play traditional country music, and he got a lot of positive feedback.
For 11 years October Sunday grew ever bigger in the annual get-togethers in the dirt lot across from Sib's. In 1988, the decision was made to look for a bigger venue, and the move was made to the Crown Bay landfill – where a new partnership began with Barnacle Bill's owners Bill and Judy Grogan.
The following year, after Hurricane Hugo hit in mid-September, the festival became an official fund-raiser for many "who were left needy by the vicious winds." Of that year's proceeds, $3,000 went to Lutheran Social Services, which was providing bridge loans to people waiting for insurance settlements, and another $1,000 went to the St. Thomas Humane Society.
In 1990, participating groups raised more than $15,000 for their causes and the festival committee brought in $4,000, which it donated to the Sibilly School steelband program. That year's festival added, for the first time, a second musical attraction, removed from the performance stage. Called the "College of Musical Knowledge," it was created to show audiences, especially young ones, how such instruments as the banjo, autoharp, mandolin, fiddle and human voice work.
Extra added attractions
In the '90s, the October Sunday musical menu was expanded to encompass everything from bluegrass and blues to reggae and rock. The committee brought in a dulcimer band and a square-dance caller in 1991 and Louisiana Cajun bands for 1998 and 1999. The festival was opened up to as many not-for-profit organizations as there was room for. Each, for a booth fee, set up its own fund-raising activity – games for kids, bake sales, face-painting, the first Christmas cards of the season, raffles, rummage sales and more.
The festival moved to its third permanent home in 1994, the parking green at the Reichhold Center for the Arts.
In 1995, five weeks after Marilyn struck, with power connections few and far between, the committee decided to convene in Emancipation Garden in hopes that the current would be reconnected there by the Sunday date – and to use a generator for the sound system if it wasn't (and it wasn't). Even so, the festival raised $3,800, all donated to the American Red Cross.
Two years after that, for the 21st fest, the committee honored its "founding fathers" – Watts, Loveland and Grogan.
Last year, the festival opted for a fourth venue – the Joseph Aubain Ball Park in Frenchtown. Even though Hurricane José ruffled everybody's feathers just four days before, the show went on, with the airport reopening just in time for the guest band, Charivari, to fly in from Louisiana.
The 1997 history concluded with words that apply just as well today: "For the musicians who began it, the organizations who have benefitted from it, and the audience which has supported it, it's been a long, winding and glorious road."
Bill Grogan added Wednesday night, "It had a good run. Like all good runs, it comes to an end, and you go out smiling." From the founder and owner-to-the-end of Barnacle Bill's, them's words to live by.
But let Fred Watts have the last ones: "I've got a feeling there will be someb
ody soon that will take up where we left off. We'll make sure the corporation with the tax exemption is maintained. There will always be a group of friends interested in sitting down and entertaining one another as we did."

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