The longtime festival director reflects on some of his favorite memories from the event.
I can remember when the Lions Club first started bringing big-name entertainment in. We brought in Dale Evans. We paid her $1,500 to come and entertain and we put her up and paid for her lodging and airfare. We packed the place. So we said, “Next year, let’s do it again.” We got Pat Boone. He entertained.
It worked so well that the Lions Club said, “This is a little too big for us,” so the festival took it over. They started bringing in all kinds of people. We had Festus from Gunsmoke, and it went on from there. It got pretty expensive, so we said “We’re gonna have to charge for this.” And of course, the people, they didn’t like the idea. But we had so much expense involved, we had to cover it somehow.
It’s been extremely successful. A lot of the other fairs around the nation, they’ve kind of picked up on some of the things we’ve done.
We hung our hat on the entertainment. That’s really what’s built the thing. I can remember when we had maybe 75,000, 80,000 people at the Strawberry Festival. We started bringing entertainment and the gates started picking up. Now they’re up to 22 shows and it’s been that way for a number of years.
All of the entertainers have been very gracious, and almost all of them have wanted to come back again because we treat them royally. Give them strawberries and all that stuff. Now we’ve got that new stage and it’s just gonna be awesome.
Anne Murray. We brought her in and, of course, we don’t allow alcohol on the grounds. I was backstage and she says, “I have got to have a beer before I go on and sing.” They sent me down to 7-Eleven to get a six-pack and slip it in the back door. I never will forget that one…I went down and got them, slipped them in the back door, “Don’t say nothing to nobody.” And boy, she dropped a couple of those beers down, she got out there and she sang like crazy.
Mel Tillis has been one of the best ones we’ve ever had. Every time we’d bring Mel in, of course being local, he would pack the place. We had such close ties with him. Glen Campbell was always a good one, too.
We picked Conway Twitty up at the airport coming back in. We stopped at our house, let him freshen up a little bit. He was there a couple times. Conway was always good.
I think one of the best shows we ever had there, it was two years ago. We had Donnie and Marie (Osmond). They were there and we got to meet them backstage. Marie kissed me right on the cheek and I didn’t wash for a month. I couldn’t believe the voice she had, gee whiz.
I remember when we used to have championship wrestling on Saturday night. That was the big entertainment. They would come in the back way in a 15-seater van, all of them together. All the wrestlers. They’d sit back there in the back and eat shortcake, drink a beer or two and one would come out on one side of the stage, one would come out from the other and they’d just get out there and beat one another up...they’d go back in that van laughing. They’d say, “I think the crowd enjoyed us, don’t you?” Lot of people don’t remember that.
I get a big kick out of those strawberry shortcake booths. I had the privilege one year, when George H.W. Bush came, to sit down and have cake with him. That was a great honor.
When Patsy Brooks was there, we bought that (Mr. Berry mascot) costume and nobody would wear it but me. They’d take me out and I’d wear it for about 30 minutes and have to get in, it was so hot. I hope that one day, they’ll get a Little Miss Shortcake, in other words, a female character like that.
I was sitting out there one day, watching people go by. I sat there next to this old man and I got talking to him. I said, “Where are you from?” He said, “Fort Myers, I come up here every year.” I said, “You having a good time?” He said, “Yeah, see that line over there?” This was before we had all the toilets. We used to have a deal where, if you go in the grandstand, there were no restrooms in there. They’d give you a “potty pass” and you could walk out and turn that back in. Every day, they had a different colored one. He said, “I stood in line over there for a half hour and when I got to the end of it, I was at the ladies’ bathroom.” That was funny.
I’m still active. You never get it out of your system. I’ve watched this thing grow to where it is today. We’ve had a good run over the years and I can only see it getting bigger and better. I never thought it would be this big. I’ve always had my heart in it and I always wanted to see it grow. We tried different, innovative things to make it happen and we always had a real active board who also feels the same way, so I wasn’t alone. It’s been a good run.