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Article Published June 5, 2019
The Best of Branford: Nicholson Chairs 2019 Branford Festival
Pam Johnson, Senior Staff Writer

Between Friday and Sunday, June 14 and 16, the 2019 Branford Festival will celebrate its 35th anniversary while also recognizing Branford’s 375th birthday and the 40th run of the Branford Road Race. With numbers like that, there’s no doubt this year’s Branford Festival will be a place to come and enjoy the best of Branford, says 2019 Festival Chair Melissa Nicholson.

“We’ve got all these pieces of the Branford puzzle going on in the same year. It’s very exciting,” says Melissa.

Even this year’s festival print helps to celebrate the town by highlighting another well-loved local event, the annual Branford Fireworks display. The contest-winning photo was taken by Rev. Bill Keane, pastor of First Baptist Church, one of the three church buildings located on the Branford Green.

“His picture is called ‘In the Land of the Free,’ and it’s a shot of Branford Point with the fireworks going off,” says Melissa. “It’s a beautiful print, and we encourage everyone to come out and buy one at the souvenir tent during the festival.”

Buying a print (or perhaps one of the limited edition Branford Festival 35th anniversary posters, featuring several scenes of Branford) is one way residents can help support the festival, which delivers three days of fun, food, and live entertainment with no admission charge, year after year.

This year’s festival begins with opening ceremonies on the green at 5 p.m. on Friday, June 14 and closes on Sunday, June 16, at 4 p.m.

“Basically, we offer the event free to the Branford public, and then hope that it comes back to us in different ways. So come down, eat some food, get a [rides] wrist band for your kids, buy a souvenir, or send us a small donation,” says Melissa. “It would be great if you can support it in that manner, because that’s what helps keep us going.”

Keeping a Good Thing Going

The lion’s share of the funding that supports the Branford Festival comes from its corporate sponsors, with many heavy hitters pitching in as Platinum and Gold sponsors, together with the event’s Apex sponsor, Ford of Branford.

“Our sponsors are heart and soul of the financial piece of this,” says Melissa.

To get an idea of how many sponsors it takes to help put on the event, Melissa asks those who go to this year’s fest to take a moment to take in all of the business and organization names to be found, from those on pennants hung from lampposts to the big banners backing the Ford of Branford Town Hall Stage.

After Melissa joined the Festival Committee eight years ago, she put her experience to work to build the festival’s corporate sponsorship program and helped to establish the Apex sponsorship.

“I do non-profit fundraising, so it was a natural for me to go with corporate fundraising, and [to ask] how can we beat the last year?” she says.

Working with Entertainment Chair Dennis Nardella (also a past festival chair), “about five years ago, we came up with the Apex sponsorship,” says Melissa.

Named for the peak of the façade at the tip top of Branford Town Hall, the sponsorship has been supported by Ford of Branford from the first.

“They became Apex sponsor, and that [main] stage is the Ford of Branford Town Hall Stage,” says Melissa.

A Talented Lineup

As festival chair, Melissa has the privilege of selecting one of the major bands to play the stage.

“This year, we have a Tom Petty tribute band on Friday night—that was my choice, and I’m so lucky we have Dennis to line them up,” she says of Damn the Torpedoes, which is set to play June 14, from 8:45 to 11 p.m., following opener Furious George from 7 to 8 p.m.

“And then of course, our Saturday night headline band is not a tribute band. It is The Lords of 52nd Street—three actual members of Billy Joel’s band! We’re very excited,” Melissa says.

The Lords of 52nd Street—Legends of the Billy Joel Band features Russell Javors (guitar and vocals), Richie Cannata (saxophone and keyboards), and drummer Liberty DeVitto. These formidable rock legends helped form Joel’s trademark sound and to sell more than 150 million records, according to their bio.

Playing ahead of Saturday night’s headliners is The Rubber Band from 5 to 5:45 p.m. and country music specialists Jump the Gun from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m. Entertainment begins much earlier on Saturday, when east coast, Connecticut, and local musicians will play the Main Street Stage (a small section of Main Street closed to traffic) from 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.

More to Do and See

Tied into the festival’s Saturday fun is the Shoreline Chamber of Commerce Craft & Business Expo on the green, which takes place during the morning/early afternoon. Dozens of vendors, businesses, and organizations will set up booths and offer their wares.

On Sunday, June 16, the fest greets thousands of runners participating in the 40th Branford Road Race, which takes off from Montowese Street at 9:45 a.m. The race was instituted in 1979 by Ray Figlewski with his running partner Dick Wainwait; Figlewski continues organizing the event, now with JB Sports.

Throughout its three days, the Branford Festival will be anchored by its food court and kids activity offerings.

Kids’ activities and games take place on the back of the green (near the Academy) and stretch over to the Back Stage area (behind Town Hall). Free family fun Back Stage entertainment features community performance groups and artists on the half hour from 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday, June 15.

All of the fest’s ticketed kids’ rides are open Friday to Sunday and provided by Rainbow Amusements Co. Rides include flying swings, inflatables, a rock climbing wall, and more. The festival offers a special rides ticket rate (good all weekend)—40 tickets for $35; a price that hasn’t changed since 2014. On Sunday, a special Father’s Day discount wristband can be purchased that’s good for all rides all day.

On the way to the kids’ area, find fan food favorites like Spuds Your Way in the festival’s food court, which will be packed with new offerings and returning regulars, from funnel cakes to Italian ices, steak and cheese clubs, gyros, hand-cut fries, pizza, lobster rolls, and more. Many of the fests’ food offerings are purveyed by volunteers there to raise money for their community service organizations, including Branford Lions, Branford Exchange Club, and Branford Rotary Club. The Rotary Club puts out food from its grill all three days and puts on a Father’s Day breakfast that’s become a Sunday tradition for many. Another tradition (and actually pre-dating the Branford Festival): Members of Branford Historical Society serve up their signature, fresh strawberry shortcake on Saturday only.

Joining the Team

All of what’s in store for this year’s event can be found in the 2019 Branford Festival booklet, which features Keane’s photo on the cover. Find one in the June 6 issue of The Sound or pick one up at the fest souvenir tent. Another great location to learn all about the fest is the official Branford Festival website www.branfordfestival.com.

As Melissa notes, these three days of food, fun, and live musical entertainment are pulled together by a small army of Branford Festival committee volunteers and committee chairs, with the checks and balances provided by the all-volunteer Branford Festival Foundation (the financial arm of the fest).

“It doesn’t magically appear, full-blown, on the green,” says Melissa, laughing. “We start meeting in September [and] a week before the festival, we’re out there setting up and hanging banners. We really couldn’t do it without the volunteers, our board, and our committees and committee chairs. It’s a team.”

Melissa moved to Branford from Bethany in 2002 and joined the Branford Festival team in 2011, after a friend invited her to “come to a meeting,” she recalls.

“When I go to a meeting, my hand goes up,” says Melissa, who well remembers experiencing her first Branford Festival, shortly after she and her daughter, Katie, moved from their home in Branford Hills to her house in the town center, in 2005.

“I didn’t know the festival was there until I moved to the center of town!” Melissa admits. “But I’ll never forget it. I saw [long-serving festival volunteer] Charlotte Mattei directing traffic, and I thought, ‘Who is this, and what is going on?’ That was my first introduction to the festival and the people who put it on. I knew I wanted to be a part of it when I saw what was going on and how exciting it was.”

Mattei served as a principal committee member (and also a past chair) of the Branford Festival for more than 20 years, from the early 1990s until 2017, when she moved to her new home in Massachusetts. Mattei also helped to found the Branford Jazz Summer Series and Branford Holiday Parade.

Melissa says that type of community commitment from many volunteers is what keeps the Branford Festival going strong.

“These are tried and true people that have been on this committee for five to a million years,” says Melissa, adding, “We also always need new people to get involved, and we would love to see some younger people come in, too. We do have some younger people who have jumped in, and they are making a difference. I really do believe it’s such a group effort. You’re doing your piece, and [others are] doing their piece, and it all pulls together for a three day festival which is amazing.”