Closure of Culture: Why Westport’s Italian Festival has reached its Final Curtain

Closure of Culture: Why Westport’s Italian Festival has reached its Final Curtain

by Petey Menz ’11 and Isaac Stein ’12

Westport Residents remember Italian Festivals of years past. Originally, the Festival was referred to as the "St. Anthony's Feast." Photo Courtesy of Miggs Burroughs.

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The Festival Italiano, an annual fair celebrating Italian culture that ran for 27 years, will not be returning to Westport this year due to rising expenses.
On the festival’s website, www.festivalitaliano.info, Roberta Troy wrote that rising contracting and setup costs mean that there was “no choice but to terminate Festival Italiano.”

“We have provided over $2.5 million dollars to charitable causes,” Troy wrote.  “We are proud of our accomplishments.”

Westport residents recalled the Festival with fondness.

“I always enjoyed the opening-night parade.  It was kind of hokey, very small-town-ish — much shorter than the Memorial Day parade, which goes on forever,” Westport historian Dan Woog said. “I’d stand at the end, right by the entrance to the park, and see lots of old Saugatuck residents standing watching, having a great time.”

Some residents, such as Jeff Arciola, believe that the departure of the Italian Festival, which was originally called the St. Anthony’s Feast, represents the loss of Italian culture in Westport. As the current operator of Jr.’s Hot Dog Stand, located at 265 Riverside Ave., Arciola was involved with the Festival because he viewed it as a way to contribute towards his heritage.

“In the late ‘80’s, I volunteered to assist with the setup and cleanup of the Festival grounds… and up until a few years ago I worked a Jr.’s booth to provide food at the Festival. I wanted to play a part in Westport’s Italian culture,” Arciola said.
Unfortunately, according to historian Woody Klein, the Italian community in Westport has encountered a long and steady population decline over the past half-century for a variety of geographic and social reasons.

As detailed by Klein’s book, Westport Connecticut, the Italian population of Westport was historically concentrated in one section of Westport, bounded by “the Saugtuck River, the railroad, and the Bradley farm on Saugatuck Avenue where Franklin Street and Saugatuck Avenue meet.”
However, Klein suggests that Westport’s Italian Community eventually left the Saugatuck area to “find a better home with more land, to escape the stigma of living in an ethnic community, and and because what had been an almost entirely residential community became more commercial after Interstate 95 was built.”

Woog agreed with Klein’s sentiments, citing the departure of the Santella family, which included prominent Westporter Lou Santella, who ran the Riverside barbershop until his retirement in 1999.

“As families like the Santellas moved away, and the aging Italians died, they took with them their memories of life in Saugatuck before I-95 came through and decimated that community.  Those memories of “old Saugatuck” were what sustained the Festival.  So I think the changing community came before – and helped cause – the end of the Festival,” Woog said.

However, while acknowledging that Westport’s Italian community has dwindled in recent decades, Arciola contends that there were additional organizational reasons that contributed to the closing of the Festival.

“There is no organized ‘club’ for the old Italian families of Westport, which is part of the reason why the loss of the Festival is so significant to the loss of Italian heritage in this town. In contrast, Fairfield still has an Irish festival, with dancing, music, and food…but it’s sponsored by the Fairfield Gaelic-American club. The Italian Festival was organized, set up, and sponsored by individual volunteers,” Arciola said.
This is a crucial difference between the Italian Festival and the Yankee Doodle Fair, which, according to Woog, is in robust financial and operating health because it is sponsored by a successful and unified organization — the Westport Woman’s Club.

“The Yankee Doodle Fair has been going for more than 100 years,” Woog said.  “It’s run by the Westport Women’s Club, which has a solid base of people and always perpetuates itself.”

However, the Italian Festival suffered from a lack of manpower that, according to Troy, ultimately ended the fair.
“Volunteering is virtually non-existent and sponsorships are dwindling so more and more of the set up has to be contracted and paid for,” Troy wrote.  “There is no way we can cut back expenses without destroying the character of the Festival, and that we will not do.”