State College has always been an excellent place in the summer, and the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts remains one of the big events of the season – and the year. Long before 4th Fest, before the Spikes came to town, the Arts Fest was the lone big summer moment.
For me, growing up in College Heights made it easy to take in the festival. At an early age, we biked downtown and browsed the art. As a kid, the art was secondary. It was mostly about Creamery ice cream, eating strudel and heading into Graham's to get baseball cards.
Before the borough's open-container law, "the wall" along College Avenue was the place to be. As a kid, we valued a wall seat to people-watch. We saw a lot while sitting on the wall – most of it PG-rated, but there were a few eye-openers for a young man born and raised in State College.
The year the borough outlawed open bottles and cans of beer, Zeno's sold plastic jugs of beer with plastic tops. People sat on the wall drinking from the plastic jugs – an ingenious way around the rules. Not surprisingly the, borough adapted the law.
I was not above mischief-making, either. In 10th grade, a friend (I'll call him "Pete") had a cousin living in an apartment above Allen Street. On a very hot Arts Fest Saturday, we found a way onto the Moyer's Jewelers roof above the heart of the Arts Fest at the intersection of College and Allen. Everyone looked so warm, we decided to do our part to help: dropping water balloons onto people below.
Luckily, no one got hurt and we got away with it. I'm pretty sure the statute of limitations has expired, so I don't think the borough police will be knocking on my door anytime soon.
In my summertime college Parks and Rec job, we used to take kids to town for Children's Day at Arts Fest. My only goal – and I mean my only goal – was to make sure that if I went in to the festival with 10 kids, I came out with at least 10 kids. I didn't really care if they were the same 10; just so the numbers came out even or slightly ahead.
During college, we thought Arts Fest was more about the fest than the arts. Friday Night happy hour meant Randy Hughes at The Phyrst. I used to join Randy on stage to sing the Stones' "Not Fade Away." My performances were bigger on Jagger-esque showmanship than actual singing talent. There were also the chants of "We are table Number 2 ... 2 ... 2. Where the hell is Number 4?"
We made sure to catch the last show of the night on Old Main lawn: the Phyrst Phamly. By the time we'd finished singing the "Unicorn Song" and "Seven Old Ladies Locked in the Lavatory," we were ready for a couple more hours of festival.
Saturday afternoon, it was all-day parties at the fraternities. We made our way to the one with the best band. Back then, fraternities had kegs and were allowed to run only one tap, so it would take a long time to get beers. We grabbed spots near an open window to watch the band and enable us to smuggle cases of beer in through the window – mostly to supply the girls we were trying to impress.
It was on a Saturday night I saw a guy, armed with a steak knife he'd stolen from Café 210, in a tree on Allen Street trying to cut down a steel cable holding up the Arts Fest banners. We watched and laughed as the steel cable won the match-up.
Through all the festival activities, the arts have remained. There have been great acts – I'll never forget watching Bo Diddley tear up the festival shell. Most years, I watch Randy Hughes re-join his bandmates for the annual Cartoon reunion, another high point of the weekend.
The days of my youth have passed, and now it is more about the arts than the fest. I enjoy seeing so many diverse arts from so many talented artisans. I love the live music.
But the Arts Fest has become more. It is one of those events that mark the passage of time. Each year, people return to see old friends, trade old stories and make new memories. Some years are a time to remember someone that may have been lost in the previous year.
That's the thing about a big annual event: It changes subtly while we change more rapidly. For years we ended up Arts Festival weekends on Old Main lawn watching the Sunday night Earthtones show. Then we headed to Zeno's to hoist a pint while listening to John Cunningham.
I can still recall a moment in 1996, looking up at the stars and the moon over Old Main lawn, just listening to music with friends. Part of me wished that I could just hold that moment, that summer evening, forever. But every year, the festival ends, summer ends and we realize that those are the moments that add spice and flavor to our lives.
The key is to enjoy the moments while you've got them.