2009-09-11 / Community

RMAC Holds 25th Anniversary Festival In Riis Park

By Mallory Wyman

"Rockaway is showing off!" said the Rockaway Music and Arts Council (RMAC), touting their first annual Fall Festival in this very newspaper in September of 1984. Now, 25 years later, Rockaway is gearing up for another display of artistic prowess at the 25th anniversary Fall Festival presented by the Rockaway Music and Arts Council on September 12 and 13 in Riis Park.

Back in 1984, the RMAC's main focus was its year-long concert series. The Fall Festival, "was started to fund the concerts," said Sharon Gabriel, a vice president, membership chairman, and head of the children's events at the festival. She has been with the RMAC for 30 years.

John Musumeci, Festival chairman, added, "[it was] the brainchild of former president Barbara Eisenstadt; she was the driving force behind the original festival." Musumeci started out with the RMAC in 1972 when they were just a small group of classical music buffs. He said the Fall Festival started out as a small event held at Fort Tilden with local artists that was "immediately successful." As the reputation of the festival grew it garnered interest from a diverse selection of artists and craftspeople.

The festival has certainly arisen from humble beginnings. The first festival attracted about 2,000 visitors and as for concessions, "We were baking chocolate chip cookies for sale. We were doing all of these things ourselves," said Gabriel.

Once Leon Locke took over a few years after its inception, the festival morphed into a two-day event and has since drawn thousands of visitors from all over. "We have huge crowds … We probably draw more people to Gateway in these two days, in terms of visitors, than for the entire year," said Steve Yeager, president.

While the vendors come from all over the country, said Yaeger, who has been with the organization 26 years, the most popular vendor is the pickle people. "It's incredible, absolutely incredible. They usually sell out within a day or so."

Now the Fall Festival has become a main event that takes all year to organize. "As soon as we finish, we start," said Fern Liberman, a 20-year member of RMAC and head of the arts and crafts portion of the festival. Regarding how big the event has become, Gabriel said, "Little did we know this would overshadow the concerts."

A lot of importance is placed on the selection of artists that show at the festival. A jury of council members decides on the vendors and each one has to submit pictures of his or her art work and the booth set-up for consideration. Liberman said, "Many of the artists have been with us for a very, very long time. We actually care about the artists that come," Musumeci said, "We only pick and choose the top of the top and that seems to have worked very well for us."

Due to the long arm of the recession, the number of vendors has fallen this year from an average of 100 in years past to about 70, said Musumeci.

Liberman and Yaeger both bemoaned the lack of community volunteers for the event. "We always have to beg for volunteers," Liberman said. Yaeger added, "[People] want to come to the festival, but we can't get anybody to help us."

The weather is the biggest wild card at the event. Liberman recalls times they have "toughed it through, and it has poured and you're completely soaked and muddy and you keep at it."

The only year the festival has not operated was in 2001. Due to the events of 9/11, the mayor shut down all fairs and festivals for fear of violence, said Musumeci. Patrons will find both new and returning artisans and craftsmen at the event as well as numerous children's activities, strolling musicians, concessions and several demonstrations.

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