Final summer celebration is this Saturday and Sunday
It is simply the best neighborhood festival in the City of Madison, and as far as I’m concerned the best festival ever. I’m a little biased having grown up with the Willy Street Fair (September 15-16) in my backyard, but i’m sure all will agree this weekend’s event is the best expression of what it means to live, work, and play in the Marquette neighborhood.
We have arrived at the end of a great summer for festivals in the Marquette neighborhood despite the wish for a little more rain and less heat. The weather for this weekend will be sunny and in the mid-70s which will bring throngs of people to the 900 and 1000 blocks of Williamson Street.
The Willy Street Fair is a major fundraiser for Common Wealth Development and the Wil-Mar Neighborhood Center.
This year features six music stages, a multitude of impromptu street performances, fantastic foods and drinks from across the globe, fabulous arts and crafts, a legendary parade and an irresistible community raffle with over 150 prizes.
Common Wealth Development and the neighborhood at large have gotten pretty good at putting on this event. The food and retail vendors are more numerous, the music stages highly coordinated and more spophisticated, but the inclusive soul of the neighborhood still shines through.
View the schedule and musical acts here
In past years it was exquisitely raw and resembled an event put on by local residents who stayed up all night before to set up. My Dad and a fellow carpenter friend would work through the night to erect the main stage which was just donated scaffolding and plywood. Now the stage is not nearly as tenuous, including protection for rain.
Jim Wildeman’s Bubblemobile is emblematic of the funky nature of the entire festival and neighborhood. The Bubblemobile has been part of the parade since 1979, but it has had at least one other form, a yellow Chevy pickup.
Wildeman is the Grandmaster of the Parade and leads it with his 1964 Caddillac that includes several Willy Wonka-esque smoke stacks that emit bubbles. Jim stands in the backseat with a large metal hoop making bubbles that can get 3-5 feet long.
Other features have come and gone like a one mile run and the extension of the Fair into the 800 block of Williamson. But the event has been wildly successful for over 30 years and Common Wealth Development and the Wil-Mar Neighborhood Center have nurtured it into an effective fundraiser and promotional tool to assist its drive to provide affordable housing in the area as well as promote youth programs.
One indelible memory from the 1980s was the Loose Juice cart. It always parked out in front of my parent’s rental property in the 900 block during the fair. At that time it was run by Karleton Armstrong and a friend and I would wait for him to show up since he made a deal with us each year: electricity for lemonade. We would run his extension cord to the building to power his juicers and we got free lemonade for the rest of the Fair.
Related: A Terrorist Gave Me Lemonade
I wouldn’t fully understand the back story behind Karl Armstrong until I saw The War At Home in college. It was at that moment that I learned the proud history of activism in Madison indeed has its ugly sides. But for the most part, the people of the protest era that settled in the Marquette neighborhood worked to live and grow a community in a new way. That is why the today’s Fair and the other summer festivals and the neighborhood itself is frankly THE destination in the City.
What to see this year
Saturday’s schedule runs from 1:45 p.m. to 9 p.m with world music featured on the Main Stage, but the Folk Stage at nearby Madison Sourdough will also be active Saturday and Sunday.
At the corner of Willy and Brearly Streets will be the Electronic Stage (Saturday only) featuring Willy Street Beats, a themed lineup of DJs who will be spinning tunes, and giving workshops on such skills as production, “scratching”, and breakdancing; plus a skateboard demonstration in the Third Lake Ridge shopping center parking lot.
The electronic festival within the festival continues at Plan B with an afterparty starting at 9 p.m.
Sunday brings many of the traditional events that have come to define the Fair. The music continues at 1 p.m. on the Main and Folk stages, but also sprouting up will be the Culture, Kids, and Underground stages.
But before all that don’t forget the famous Willy Street Fair Parade that begins and ends in the middle of the 900 block of Williamson. Led by the Bubblemobile, its the most democratic parade around as anyone can join although costumes are appreciated.
The route starts on Williamson heads toward the lake then turns east on Spaight Street, south on Ingersoll Street then makes a triumphant home stretch run through the growing crowds on Willy Street back to the the starting point.
The Bubblemobile will sit in the middle of the street for the remainder of the Fair to allow anyone to make bubbles large and small.
The Willy Street Fair Parade, circa 1985. An earlier incarnation of the Jim Wildeman's Bubblemobile still retains the iconic bubble smokestacks. The author is pedaling furiously in the homemade pedal car. Courtesy: Richard and Judith Guyot.