ROCK ‘N’ ROLL ICONS.
TONS OF KIDS’ ACTIVITIES.
THIS IS HOW GREENWICH KICKS OFF THE SUMMER SEASON ON EMORIAL DAY WEEKEND.
“It’s an amazing experience,” Scot Weicker says of the Greenwich Town Party, now in its sixth year. “When I walk through the sea of Greenwich residents and families, I just look around and see so many happy people at this community event,” says Weicker, who has been the GTP event manager since the festival’s inception. This year’s headliners (see sidebar “Class Acts”) strike just the right balance for the all-ages crowd. “The music is fun, lively and engaging,” says Ken Hays, the GTP’s booking and production manager. “There is none of that rock and roll arrogance. They get on stage and they just play.”
It’s no wonder that tickets sell out quickly; on Febraury 2 general admission tickets were gone in twenty-two minutes. “The bands have created a lot of excitement around town,” Carl Kuehner says. Earlier this year, the real estate developer and Greenwich resident took over as copresident of the GTP, along with longtime board member Ray Rivers, who heads up development. “The board works year-round to create a day in which the entire community can participate in one way or another—donate, volunteer, perform or simply buy a ticket,” he says. “Our goal has always been to draw more and more people from the community to come together and celebrate.”
Local Talent—Beyond the Stage
It takes a host of individuals to pull off an event of this magnitude, most of them working behind the scenes. For Kerri Ryan, who heads up a 100-plus team of volunteers, the day is so busy she rarely gets more than a glimpse of the performers. “I grab a cup of coffee and take ten minutes, or so,” she says.
Stefanie Serrano is another GTP mainstay, who has been in charge of children’s activities since Day One. She’s expecting 1,500 kids to show up this year for face painting, Hula- Hoop lessons, carnival booths, inflatables and more. “We try to have things that are simple but exciting,” she says. “Everything has to be set up and broken down easily. It can get confusing when people come in to stake their spots. But the priority between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. is the children.”
From the start, the GTP has been a showcase for local talent. Fourteen restaurants and caterers will sell food throughout the day, everything from lobster rolls and pulled pork to burgers and milkshakes. Six bands will appear on the local stage in between main stage sets. More than fifty groups sent in submission tapes last year. “To play at the Greenwich Town Party is a rare opportunity,” says Weicker.
The GTP also teams up with local nonprofits and civic organizations, donating tickets to groups such as Kids in Crisis, Family Centers and Abilis, among others. Additionally, the GTP provides space for them to set up information tables the day of the event. Indeed, for Shari Shapiro, the executive director of Kids in Crisis, the GTP embodies the very spirit of community by giving kids in transition a chance to be part of something bigger, if only for a day. “They get to participate in the activities,” she says. “It makes them feel like they belong. And that sense of belonging is so important when you are in a crisis.”
Increasingly the GTP has become more involved with the community year-round. This past winter, it participated in the annual Holiday Stroll, Polar Bear Plunge and First Light ceremony. “We are trying to be an organization at the center of the community,” says Sara Allard, founder of Case Study Brands, the Greenwich-based marketing and branding firm that created the GTP’s distinctive four-circle logo and magnet. “It represents the party’s four main tenets: coming together, participation, celebration, and community.”
Last year, Case Study Brands launched one of the GTP’s most successful social media initiatives, The Heroes Campaign, which invited residents to nominate individuals who have touched their lives in some way and to post them on the GTP’s Facebook page. This year, on the day of the festival, heroes’ stories will be featured on a big-screen TV; a lucky fifty will receive a pair of free tickets.
“It recognizes the unsung heroes who are part of the fabric of our community,” says Sara. “It gives us a chance to celebrate their stories.” One such nominee is ninety-year-old World War II Air Force veteran George Chelwick. Born and raised in Byram, he was nominated by his wife, who sent in a hand-written letter and a picture of her husband in uniform as a young man.
In the spirit of Memorial Day, the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts will hand out red poppies to each attendee, a gesture that harkens back to World War I. Greenwich resident Michael Freeburg, whose firm Greenwich Wealth Management is a sponsor of the GTP, replicated the VFW’s buddy poppy program, as it’s called, as a way to acknowledge the service of veterans, past and present and fallen. As he did last year, he has purchased 8,000 poppies from the Connecticut VFW and enlisted the help of the Scouts, who spent many hours affixing the poppies to information cards. “We started with the GTP from the beginning,” says Kevin O’Shea, Scout executive of the BSA’s Greenwich Council. “The first year we welcomed people as they came in and helped with crowd control. Since then we have been happy to support it where we can.”
When An Idea Takes Hold
It was back in 2010 that Ray Dalio, the founder and CEO of Bridgewater Associates, first floated the idea of a community-wide celebration modeled after the ones he and his wife, Barbara, had attended while visiting Spain. Greenwich was still feeling the effects of the financial crisis, and Dalio thought it would give the town a much-needed distraction—a chance for the entire community to come together to spend a day enjoying great music, dancing and food. At the time, he described the event as a giant “potluck dinner,” in which everyone would contribute money, time or both.
Together with his friend Mark Vallely, Dalio enlisted the support of town officials including First Selectman Peter Tesei, and in 2011 the Greenwich Town Party was born. It took awhile for people to understand the concept. “At first everyone saw it as the event Ray Dalio puts on for the community,” says Ray Rivers, GTP copresident. “But that’s not the case. The goal from the start was to get the community at large to support it, so that we don’t have to rely on a couple of benefactors.” The GTP is steadily closing the gap. In 2015, 1,000 people wrote checks for sponsor tickets at $1,250 a piece; this year, that number is projected to rise.
“People didn’t really know what to make of it,” recalls Gary Dell’Abate, a longtime Greenwich resident and emcee for six years running. “They were skeptical. It was a learning experience for everyone, and for us as well.”
The learning curve was steep but fast. In 2012 when Paul Simon came to town, general admission tickets sold out in two weeks. That was the year Dalio’s pal Dave Matthews stopped by to play a five-song acoustic set. In 2013, with James Taylor on the docket, general admission tickets sold out in four minutes.
“Everything about that night was memorable,” recalls Ken Hays. “James Taylor on acoustic guitar. It was forty-five degrees, the winds were blowing twenty to thirty miles per hour, and it was raining heavily. I figured we’d lose half the crowd, but they hung in there like troupers. That was fun to see.”