Story and photos by Sean P. Mulhall – Editor-In-Chief
The 45th annual Grand Rapids Festival of the Arts kicked off downtown Friday on a beautiful sunny day. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and the temperature reached an afternoon high of 81 around 3 p.m.
The Bruce Mathews Band started their set of original roots music and a few covers around 2:45. The few people that stayed to watch and passersby were treated to quite a show by the makeshift band of Ada Bible Church parishioners.
“This is our third time playing Festival,” said frontman Bruce Matthews. “We have been together, off and on, for about three years now… We all play at Ada Bible Church and get together for different things. It’s kind of like the Grateful Dead, different combinations of members will play, whoever is available… We always play Festival because it is great for the community and we love to be a part of it”
One of the biggest attractions was an unsanctioned, impromptu juggling performance. Will Oltman, a member of Bangarang Circus and Lil’ Darlins Vaudeville, learned how to juggle from a friend in the fourth grade and has continued to juggle for the past 20 years.
“I juggle machetes and torches, but draw the line at chainsaws,” Oltman said, referring to one of his most frequently asked questions.
Throughout the day people were wandering around, not staying long in one spot. Seating for musical performances were all less than half full. The streets were mostly empty, but around four o’clock, on the corner of Monroe Center and Ottawa, a huge crowd gathered and oohs and ahhs, followed by applause, could be heard blocks away. Oltman and a friend had attracted the biggest crowd of the day for a single performance.
“I was just asked to leave,” Oltman said. “Not by the police standing right over there, but the event organizers… Street performance is a real gray area in this town. Panhandling is legal, but street performance is not. I don’t ask for money, but if people want to donate some change that’s awesome. I’ve actually spoken with Mayor Heartwell about obtaining a street performance license, but it isn’t possible because they don’t exist… Bigger cities have them and are great attractions. It’s too bad really.”
Oltman wasn’t the only unsanctioned person at Festival. A man pushing a cart of hand-carved canes, who identified himself as “Gravedigger,” flew a little more under the radar. Gravedigger said he and his son-in-law sell personalized canes and walking sticks in the Heartside neighborhood.
“We got big ones, small ones,” Gravedigger said. “You want a face or a cat, my son-in-law and I can carve it. Whatever you want. I had a bunch of taller ones but they sold out pretty quick.”
Whether it was the legitimate or slightly less legitimate, there was plenty of interesting people and performances for Friday’s Festival-goers. With two more days left there is plenty fun to be had in downtown Grand Rapids this weekend.