Displaying items by tag: Hats Off

Thursday, 07 December 2017 11:00

Popular Summer Festival to Wear a New “Hat”

 

SARATOGA SPRINGS – A pair of music-centric street festivals which bookended the start and conclusion of the Saratoga racing meet for a generation are no more.

The Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce, main sponsors of the Hats Off and Final Stretch festivals, announced this week that it will instead feature a “Welcome Back to Racing” fan event promoting bands performing at a variety of on-site locations at bars, restaurants and hotels. 

“It’s a different downtown than it was 30 years ago,” said Chamber President Todd Shimkus. “We have so many more bars and restaurants. We think a better way to spend our time and money is to promote all the different bands playing at all the different restaurants. So, instead of us closing streets and setting up bands and stages, we’re going to collectively promote everything that’s going on inside the restaurants, bars and hotels downtown.”

Last year, the festival featured five bands each night over the course of the two-day festival, down from eight bands that performed at eight different venues each night just six years earlier, and the 10 bands who performed at the free festival in 2004. At that time, there were approximately one dozen different businesses and organizations sponsoring the event along with the Chamber and the New York Racing Association.

The cost to stage the events totals more than $30,000 and while Shimkus acknowledged sponsoring entities like NYRA and others are not contributing as much as they once had in years past, he said money is not a driving force in the Chamber’s decision.  “For us, it was the fact that we think there is a better alternative that is more supportive of the entire downtown.”

Shimkus also refuted some public comments that have been made, including some raised during this week’s City Council by local residents, that fears of vehicular terrorism played a role in the festival’s cancellation.

 “I can absolutely guarantee you the notion of a terroristic attack had nothing to do with our decision to make this change,” Shimkus said.  

The Hats Off festival, later complemented by the season-ending Final Stretch festival, was first staged in the 1990s as a way to increase crowds for the annual opening weekend of the racing season. 

“NYRA came up and Ed Lewi was with them and they were discussing what they could do to build up the attendance at the races on the first and the last weekend,” recalled Joe Dalton, who ran the Saratoga County Chamber for 40 years, before retiring in 2010.

“The Chamber basically put it together – myself, and Ed Lewi. NYRA said they would put up half the money and we would raise the other half. And it went very well,” Dalton said. “It attracted people and built up the first and last week of racing, attendance-wise. It benefitted the town and NYRA. Over the years, though, it built up so much that both of those weekends now have big crowds coming, so the need for it dissipated.” 

Susan Farnsworth was hired by the Chamber to coordinate the Hats Off and Final Stretch festivals, which she did for for 17 years. Among her duties were hiring a team that set up and tore down the staging, supplying equipment, securing city permits and coordinating with the police, and collaboratively working to secure sponsors and to hire bands

“The Hats Off Festival would draw about 20,000 people each night; Final Stretch drew about 15,000 the first night, and about 10,000 on the second evening,” said Farnsworth, who currently lives in Israel. “My favorite part of the festivals was watching people enjoying the music, seeing children dancing; The atmosphere was fun, friendly, welcoming. It helped secure Saratoga Springs’ reputation as one of the best small cities in America,” she said.

Farnsworth recalled how some visitors would schedule their trips to Saratoga to coincide with the festivals. “The original purpose (of the festivals) was to bring more visitors to town the first and last day of racing,” she said. “I am very sad to see this tradition end, but times change.”

“The primary change is that Hats Off has largely been, for 30-plus years, a bunch of bands the Chamber has paid for, with staging outside and downtown in a variety of different places,” Shimkus says.

“This last year, we had a stage on Caroline Street. We closed the road. We had security there.  We paid for a band. What we saw was that Saratoga City Tavern (also) had a band, Gaffney’s had a band, Spa City Tap and Barrel had a band – everybody on Caroline Street that had a space, had a band, and we went: What are we doing?”

Plans are being formulated to sponsor a July festival – it may be staged the Thursday prior to Opening Day – in and around existing bars and restaurants and could include locations such as Hattie’s alleyway, Henry Street venues and on Beekman Street.  

The Hats Off festival, which ran from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, largely drew crowds 21 and over. “Maybe that wasn’t the case 10 years ago, but it is now. Families are not coming to the Hats Off festival,” Shimkus said.  The specifics will be decided in the new year.

“Everybody out there that’s freaking out, just be a little patient and know that the Chamber has always done what’s in the best interests of the downtown,” Shimkus said. ‘When we announce our final plans, I think everyone will go: ‘Wow, that’s a really good idea.’”   

Published in News
Friday, 12 August 2016 13:23

My SPAC Moments: On Stage

Editor’s Note: You probably know Susan Farnsworth from her long tenure with the Saratoga Springs Downtown Business Association. Or the Saratoga County Fair. Or Hats Off / Final Stretch. Or even at SPAC – but as a planner, who was brought in as a consultant to help plan all the SPAC50 hoopla that you are enjoying this season. But what you don’t know is that Susie got a singular honor: To be asked to sit in as a performer on the SPAC stage as part of an ensemble when she was a Skidmore student in 1973! She acquired life-changing experiences at a formative age. And they happened at SPAC. I promised you when we began this series that we were going to surprise and dazzle you. Susan’s remembrances are one big way we are fulfilling this promise.

- Arthur Gonick

What I remember most about playing on the main stage at SPAC was that it took a long time to get over the amazing feeling of playing for thousands of people and I was too innocent to be scared. I was asked for my autograph. If I had been aware of the caliber of the local musicians with whom I was playing, I also should have been in awe. The band’s leader was from Ohio. I believe he was discovered in Chautauqua - by the wife of Craig Hankenson (the President of SPAC at the time). She brought him to Saratoga Springs. He wrote all the music and the lyrics to the songs we were rehearsing, and he had some musicians he brought with him from Ohio.

He put a sign up at Skidmore looking for a flute player, and I answered it; I auditioned and was accepted, I played flute and sang backup. I was happy because I was self-taught on the flute, and didn’t read music for this particular instrument. I started on clarinet in fourth grade and played it until about 10th grade. When my sister started on the flute, I picked that up and never looked back.

We rehearsed in a local farmhouse he rented from a dentist; there was an alleged deal with Columbia Records and we would be his studio musicians. We rehearsed 5 days a week, from 10 p.m. to about 2 a.m., then I would get up and go to classes. It was exhausting. I never once thought about money for this gig, as any musician who loves to play can tell you, this is the natural, default position. We didn’t play at local bars or music festivals, we only rehearsed for the album. So when we were asked to open at SPAC for Maria Muldaur (Midnight at the Oasis) and the Headliner, America (Horse with No Name), we said yes. I believe that is when we got some local musicians to join us (including Peter Davis and Butch Walkanowski).

The curtain went up, I remember looking out and being very happy that I couldn’t really make out the audience…thousands of faces. The original music was nothing to write home about, but the band was tight, the arrangements were great and we got applause. The adrenaline was ridiculous. The Columbia Record deal fell through, I doubt that I would have seriously considered leaving Skidmore for the road tour that would have been necessary, (I remember my father being extremely anxious about this possibility) but it was a moot point. That fall, the bandleader composed a song for me, for flute and guitar. We performed it together at the Spa Little Theater: me on flute, him on guitar, no vocals. I remember it was a haunting and beautiful piece. I played it from my soul. It was very different from his other music.

We got a standing ovation. That was the end of my musical performing career, I left on top. I have been friends with the local musicians that were on stage with me that night ever since. I remember that the bandleader and I were also hired to bring food and drinks specified in the performers’ riders backstage to the Green Room for a whole summer.

Two memories stand out to me from that; John Denver was furious that the string instruments kept going out of tune during his first set because it was not a climate controlled environment, and he threatened to leave at intermission. The other was Linda Ronstadt was on the stage, and I was in the wings about 15 feet from her. She is a tiny little thing. She opened her mouth and belted out a song with a fullness and volume that astonished me. I couldn’t believe that it could be coming out of her tiny frame. SPAC was an important part of my life the whole 40+ years that I lived in Saratoga Springs, from the Jazz Festival to the Ballet, Orchestra and special rock concerts.

I was thrilled to be asked to help plan the 50th Anniversary season celebration, and spent 3 ½ years working with Marcia White and the SPAC team. I left the country in January 2016, the parts of the celebration planning I did were finished, and I am watching everything unfold -one after another -from afar.

Congratulations to everyone.

 

Susan Farnsworth now resides in Israel with her husband and his family.

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