Music in the Streets

Photo by Margot Landen -- Second line at the French Quarter Fest
Photo by Margot Landen -- Second line at the French Quarter Fest

French Quarter Fest celebrates 30 years

Always a highlight among Louisiana’s many festivals, the French Quarter Festival returns for its 30th year Thursday through Sunday.

Marci Schramm, the festival’s executive director since 2008, feels fortunate to have been with the organization through its 25th and 30th anniversary years.

Detroit native Schramm worked for Michigan Opera Theatre, Opera Pacific and the New Orleans Opera before she joined the French Quarter Festival, the largest free festival in the South.

“I hit two major anniversaries,” Schramm said. “I just love it. There’s something extra special about an anniversary year.”

Marking the special occasion, this year’s 30th anniversary French Quarter Festival posters include Simon Hardeveld’s vibrant image of a three-tiered birthday cake.

Originally intended as a one-time event, the festival was first produced as an attempt to lure local residents back the Quarter following extensive, inconvenient sidewalk repairs that kept people away and spurred complaints from neighborhood businesses.

In 2012, the festival drew 574,000 attendees, 49 percent local, 51 percent from out of town. The University of New Orleans’ Hospitality Research Center estimated that last year’s festival produced a $259.5 million economic impact.

Music, of course, is the soul of the festival. It features approximately 1,400 musicians performing on 21 stages throughout the Quarter.

A major stage on Decatur Street makes its debut this year. Other firsts include French Quarter Festival debuts by two classic New Orleans rhythm-and-blues acts, Irma Thomas and the Dixie Cups.

“Part of our reason for existing,” entertainment manager Greg Schatz said, “if not our main reason, is to showcase the talent and the music of New Orleans in the French Quarter.”

The festival’s musical lineup includes traditional and contemporary jazz, New Orleans R&B and funk, brass bands, folk and international music, singer-songwriters, gospel, Latin, Cajun and zydeco music.

“It’s mindboggling to me,” Schatz said, “when I see the amount of talent we have. It’s hard for me to imagine that we’d be able to pull this off anywhere else. Obviously, there are good musicians all over the world, but our particular flavors of music and combinations of music are very special.”

For the first time in its history, Schramm said, the festival has received coverage requests from The New York Times and CNN. A story about the event also appeared in USA Today.

The festival’s growing popularity brings new challenges to staging a major festival within the French Quarter’s finite space.

“This festival was New Orleans’ best-kept secret for so long,” Schramm said. “It certainly is not anymore. We’re growing so much and so fast.”

Last year, the festival persuaded the city to do Mardi Gras-style street closures in the Quarter.

“The people literally took over the streets in a way in which they never have,” Schramm said. “Kids on Decatur Street jumping rope, little street celebrations everywhere. People were having a great time in what became a pedestrian neighborhood.”

Growth also brings additional expense for the nonprofit French Quarter Festivals Inc.

“Our bill for the police and the city services is extraordinary,” Schramm said.

Sponsors such as Chevron, Capital One Bank, Abita Brewing Company, Harrah’s Foundation and many others help pay the festival’s giant tab.

Among the most important challenges for the festival is maintaining its original neighborhood charm, Schramm said.

“We’re looking into the future, trying to see how we can keep it feeling like a neighborhood festival, how to keep the specialness of it even though it’s becoming so big.”

Schramm sees an answer in smart festival growth.

“We’re producing a festival in the middle of a living neighborhood,” she said. “We try as hard as we can to respect it as a living neighborhood, with its residents and its businesses and its hotel guests and its parking lots. In the midst of shutting down lots of streets and filling those streets with hundreds of thousands of people, it is a balance.”

The French Quarter Festival has a staff of seven full-time employees and one part-time employee year round.

When festival time rolls around, its office fills with interns and seasonal helpers.

The festival site will see seasonal employees such as stage managers and site managers and some 2,000 volunteers.

“For months now we’ve been working seven days a week,” Schramm said. “Everyone here is exhausted, but that’s OK. When we get to the festival it’s worth it, because we see so many people who are loving the event, loving the neighborhood, enjoying the music.”

Schramm, the festival’s second-longest executive director, gives particular credit to Sandra Dartus, the festival’s first and decades-long director, for coming out of retirement in 2008 to help Schramm, then new in the job, stage that year’s event.

“She invented the wheel,” Schramm said. “I’m so grateful I had her here with me that first year. I didn’t have to blindly scramble to figure out what in the world I was doing.”

John Wirt is a music writer. He can be reached at jwirt@theadvocate.com.