Cover Story

30 Years of Fabulous Lafayette took a leap of faith three decades ago with our inaugural Festival International de Louisiane. The rest is history.

by Phillip Arleigh Lank

Festival's founding committee included, from left, Michael Doucet, Julie Calzone, Taylor Rock, Sally Herpin, Cathy Webre, Philippe Gustin, Herman Mhire, Phil Lank, Donnie Robin, Tina Girouard, Herbert Wiltz and Lyn Bertuccini, pictured here in 1987.
Photo by Robin May

The letter to the editor was one sentence. It had been published by The Times of Acadiana the week following the premiere of Festival International de Louisiane. “Festival International de Louisiane is the best thing that has ever happened to Lafayette,” wrote Mark Bostick.

Even though his message was short, it was monumental in meaning and literally brought tears to my eyes. It was a poignant affirmation, one of many accolades we had received that the collective, untiring and community-minded efforts of a handful of Lafayette residents who created Festival International de Louisiane had been recognized and appreciated.

It all started as a Downtown revitalization initiative. Lafayette’s Community Development Department was created in 1978, and a number of City Hall functions were consolidated under the Community Development umbrella, including city planning and economic development.

One of my first initiatives as the department’s inaugural director was to embark on a comprehensive Downtown initiative. Downtown at that time was a mess — a 40 percent occupancy rate being an alarming example of how bad it was. A number of combative initiatives was launched: a Downtown Action Plan, applications for HUD Urban Development Action Grants, restoration and adaptive re-use of a significant historic property, a vest pocket park development, and a program whose original intent was to precipitate new and long-term support for the central business district among young urban professionals and the creative class — Downtown Alive! We also created the Lafayette Downtown Development Authority and Downtown Lafayette Unlimited, the membership-based, chamber-type advocacy organization to carry the load and the effort forward over the long term.

A number of these early initiatives have direct ties to what ultimately became Festival International de Louisiane. The Downtown Action Plan included a recommendation for a new Downtown festival. All three Urban Development Action Grant applications for projects in Downtown Lafayette were approved by HUD. (Note that this UDAG program was the most competitive HUD program ever launched; Lafayette’s ace in the hole was City Councilman Al Simon and HUD Secretary Moon Landrieu, former classmates at Jesuit High School in New Orleans.) These projects were a 20-year-old parking garage and a condemned hotel, both at the corner of Jefferson and Vermilion streets. The UDAG projects in the early 1980s stirred a significant community interest in Downtown as did our new organizations, DDA and DLU. Our first DDA director, Lloyd Gardner, was a native of New Orleans and a devotee of the Jazz and Heritage Festival who often suggested that we should consider a new Downtown festival.

Also occurring at this time was a growing appreciation of the importance of our French cultural heritage, and it resonated with me and my efforts at Community Development. Lafayette’s original City Hall on Main Street had been condemned, and its roof was ready to collapse. Historic preservation was an eligible activity under the Community Development Block Grant Program that our department administered for the city. And we developed the annual CDBG budget for City Council consideration. We wanted to include $200,000 in the budget for restoration and adaptive reuse, but we needed a tenant to make it a viable project.

The now-defunct "Festival Bubbas" were male volunteers who cooked for performers; the Bubba Tent quickly became the site of raucous jam sessions and international camaraderie.

A friend at the time was Philippe Gustin, the director of the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana. We talked about his agency as a tenant, and he was very excited about the idea, but early CODOFIL was a Jimmy Domengeaux entity lock, stock and barrel. Domengeaux readily concurred and the CDBG budget sailed through council approval. Shortly thereafter, we hired an architect, and soon after we were under construction. The results of this initiative: completion of an other

Downtown project, preservation of a condemned historic building — a landmark building — and a new working relationship with the leading advocacy organization for our French cultural heritage.

A collaborator with CODOFIL in the early 1980s was the government of Québec. It helped facilitate teachers for Louisiana’s French Immersion Program. As I recall, at that time, Québec had about a dozen field offices around the world, including three in the U.S. — Los Angeles, Atlanta and Lafayette. Great working and personal relationships developed between the folk at the Bureau du Québec and the Department of Community Development. One small result of this friendship was frequent gifts of Québec travel posters for our office, and there was always one for Festival d’ete International de Québec.

Festival International was always about more than just music.

In early 1986 we started having more serious discussions about a new Downtown revitalization initiative — a new festival — and how best to achieve it. As noted, we had many years of producing our Downtown Alive! weekly concert series. We knew that planning, organizing, programming, marketing, producing and funding a new festival was a big-deal commitment of time, effort and resources, but that it was doable, especially if we had the right crew in place. We had in-house staff discussions with Cathy Webre and Alanda Bennett of DDA/DLU, Taylor Rock and Roger Drake in Community Development, and feasibility discussions with Mayor Dud Lastrapes, Chief Administrative Officer Glenn Weber and City Auditor George Lewis, as well as preliminary discussions with select council members, particularly Wilfred Pierre who represented Downtown. I knew that any initiative we were going to put forward would take a major financial commitment from the city.

We then began to recruit some key folks from outside City Hall to begin formulating more specific plans. They included Gustin, musician Michael Doucet, parish government administrator Donnie Robin, University Art Museum Director Herman Mhire, artist Tina Girouard and her then-husband, musician Dickie Landry, tourism director Gerald Breaux, CPA Sally Herpin, publicist Julie Calzone, and arts activists Lyn Bertuccini and Renee Roberts.

As one might suspect, many ideas were generated, but we really needed focus, and that came during discussions I had with the Bureau du Québec. It offered to host an official City of Lafayette delegation to go to Québec and attend some festivals and meet with their organizers. All we needed to start the process was a letter from Mayor Lastrapes requesting this specific assistance; the mayor was totally supportive. I referred to our trip as “Festival School.” Because it was a government-to-government initiative, the government of Québec was able to organize a phenomenal trip with a van and a driver, and it covered a lot of our expenses. Festival School included visits to three festivals and meetings with organizers: Montreal Jazz Festival, Festival Folkloric du Drummondville and Festival d’ete International de Québec in Ville de Québec. The Jazz Festival was an incredible event in a world-class city, but one way beyond the scope of our abilities and resources. The Festival in Drummondville was nice but was solely a folkloric festival with huge international groups in native costumes. A folkloric festival was not what we were interested in.

Festival International 2000
Photo by Robin May

On the other hand, the Festival d’ete International du Québec seemed to be the perfect example of what we were seeking, a multi-faceted festival — music, art, food, theatre, film, street animation and an area set aside just for kids. And it all took place in Downtown Québec City using multiple open-air stages. It was free, and I remember the year we visited was the 25th year of its existence; “25eme” was plastered on festival signage all over town, and I remember thinking that it must be a great festival with 25 years of sustainability. We met with all of the key festival people and obtained a wealth of information on organization, programming, production, fund-raising and budget, and marketing. We also signed a formal twinning agreement promoting a future relationship and exchange of performers. And, most importantly, we met a very genteel African man. His name was Hadzi Kodzo, and he represented the Agence de Coopération Cultural et Technique in Paris.

The purpose of the Agence was to promote the cultural and technological development of emerging Francophone countries throughout the world, but primarily in Africa. Discussions with Hadzi suggested there was opportunity for potential relationship between the Agence and our new festival. It was this single development during our trip to Québec that propelled Festival International de Louisiane to worldclass status following our first year. But there was one caveat to our relationship with the Agence, and it was one not to be taken lightly: If we were to take advantage of the vast artistic and financial resources of the Agence, it would be necessary for us to hold our first Festival International in July 1987 in the middle of the Louisiana summer. The reason was a financial one. To save tens of thousands of dollars in trans-Atlantic air fare, the Agence wanted to send us the same African groups it was planning to send to Québec. Thus, to make it work, our festival needed to follow Festival d’ete International du Québec by a week or so. Consequently, we left Québec with everything we needed and more — an incredible festival model, a relationship with one of the best African music booking agencies in the world and a date for our first festival.

We thought we were going to be a spring festival, and now we were a summer festival, but having the extra time for planning, organization, production and fund-raising ended up being a good thing because we had a lot to do.

During the ensuing year, our founders group met weekly, in the evenings, for hours at a time. Starting a major festival from scratch requires considerable planning and organization, and we were determined to do it right. We didn’t want to produce another local festival with bumper cars and a festival queen; we wanted to create something magical with profound impact — an extraordi-

nary event that would be unparalleled in our community, something that would literally knock people’s socks off.

I remember early on spending hours upon hours trying to get our mission statement just perfect. We did and it has withstood the test of time. It still reads, in part, that we would produce an annual visual and performing arts festival celebrating the French cultural heritage of our area with emphasis on highlighting our connectivity with the Francophone world. While our mission statement was important, it was just a minor piece of what was to become assemblage of a million-piece jigsaw puzzle.

Based on our findings in Québec City and with our new festival model in hand, we divvied up responsibilities among our team and worked diligently to fulfill them. We had multiple needs, and every time we turned around we thought of something else that needed to be addressed. But just the basic areas of need included legal (creation of a private, non-profit 501c3), production (site acquisition, staging, sound and light, back stage, electrical, port-a-lets, trash, signage), musical programming (band selection, contracts, visas, ticketing and travel arrangements, hotel accommodations, artist hospitality, local transportation, credentials, scheduling), marketing (posters, brochures, signage, local media sponsors, press releases), fund raising (local private, local public, state, foreign), financial management, merchandising (T-shirts, pins, and other memorabilia), volunteers, security, foreign government relationships and protocol (Lafayette sister cities, foreign government sponsors) and other programming (art exhibits, film, theatre, Pavillion de Cuisine, Place des Enfants, Cajundome Extravaganza).

The most critical area on our festival planning “To Do List” was fundraising. No money, no festival. And we had no money — we only had an idea. How to sell it became my main focus. We estimated we needed a minimum of $125,000 cash. We had a lot of commitments from foreign agencies and governments to sponsor performing arts groups, and I brought to the table a number of in-house resources from my department and City Hall overall. But we needed to pay the sound and light guy from New Orleans, the staging crews, the local bands and a whole array of other costs.

My intent all along was to approach the Lafayette City Council for a major contribution. To that purpose, I wrote a white paper extolling the benefits of major festivals to local communities and the fact that they meant big dollars to the local economy. Bringing Councilman Pierre to Québec also helped set the stage for council consideration. But before it even got to the council, it needed to get the blessing from my boss, Mayor Lastrapes. I anticipated full support, but his actual response was classic: “As long as it’s OK with George (city auditor Lewis), it’s OK with me.” I included $75,000 in my departmental budget request for the festival, and it was a 5-0 vote for approval. When you look at the importance of decisionmaking in the overall scheme of early festival development, it was the City Hall folk who made it happen: the mayor, the council, CAO Weber and auditor Lewis.

Also making it happen were two Lafayette businessmen, Herbert Schilling and Larry Smith. Schilling was a friend and neighbor, and we had a long-standing relationship with Shilling Distributing and Downtown Alive! and other special events we had produced. I approached Schilling and told him what we were planning would be unlike anything that had ever happened in Lafayette, and that it would far exceed his wildest imagination. It took a second meeting with Schilling, but I left that one with a $25,000 commitment. A similar conversation with Larry Smith at Acadiana Bottling resulted in another $25,000.

Regretfully, this early festival supporter and friend died a few years ago. Here, too, the financial commitments from both of these community leaders were essential in moving the festival from an idea to reality.

So, when July 1987 rolled around, we were organized, we had a plan for most contingencies, and we had money. Importantly, too, we had bonded as a producing team. We were ready for the premiere Festival International de Louisiane.

And there is not a lot more to say other than it was an incredible, extraordinary event. Every day the festival crescendo just kept building. The musicians, especially the Africans, were simply intoxicating. The festival-goers were mesmerized. The crowds were huge. I was sitting with the sound guy on the main stage across from today’s Le Centre International looking down Jefferson Street. It was one massive crowd as far as I could see, totally entranced by the Master Drummers of Rwanda. I remember saying to myself, “Look what we’ve done.”

Photo by Daniel Landry

The overall event shattered expectations of all who attended and could not have been better. From the raising of the international flags to the Mayor’s Breakfast, from Pavillion de Cuisine to Place des Enfants, from artists hospitality to festival-goer behavior (not one reported incident) — every aspect of Festival International was successful. Our founders group was overwhelmed by non-stop kudos from festival-goers. We felt like rock stars, but, secretly, we had tears of happiness in our eyes.

And the accolades, like the first published one from Mark Bostick at the beginning of this story, continued for months. A very special one came from my boss, city CAO Glenn Weber. He wrote, “The organization and commitment which accompanied this extraordinary event in our community was, in my estimation, unparalleled.” And then he added: “In a time when the general spirit of the Lafayette community has been ‘down,’ it is especially notable from the Festival crowds that the hope of better things to come was in the air.”

A few days following the festival, our founders group got together to “recap.” Nobody could stop talking. Festival stories galore. We were back on cloud nine. But there was also business to discuss. We had made some money with food and beverage and merchandise sales, so we had a good nest egg for our next event. The city would be back with its $75,000, and Schilling and Smith with their $50,000. Lafayette Parish Government — this was pre-consolidation — would make a $5,000 contribution, and we picked up another business sponsor for $5,000. And many of our foreign government sponsors would be back. Most important, the Agence de Coopération Cultural et Technique committed to us for another two years — with one caveat: Hadzi Kodzo told us he didn’t want to come back to Lafayette in July — too hot. So we no longer had to piggy back with the Festival d’ete International du Québec for Agence performers.

They would henceforth come directly to Lafayette from Africa.

Thus, we were able to select more palatable dates for our next festival. We purposely chose the last weekend of April. April is a very comfortable month in Lafayette. Plus, and paramount from our decision-making process, we wanted to go head-to-head with the Jazz and Heritage Festival in New Orleans.

Bon Festival!

View 30 Years of Fest Photos in classic Black and White by Robin May