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Abernathy's angst: restaurateur ponders August In Arkansas' poor turnout.

It's early evening on Saturday, Aug. 15 -- Day 3 of the four-day August In Arkansas festival.

The festival's founder, 43-year-old restaurateur Mark Abernathy, has just put his friend Mark Cartwright to work stamping hands at the entrance gate for the Willie Nelson & Family concert.

"Do you need more ink?" Abernathy asks.

Cartwright looks at the few pads of ink he and another person are using and says that with the projected 10,000 sets of hands that will pass through the gate, they're going to need more.

"I hope we run out of ink," says Abernathy. Then he mutters, "It'd be nice to run out of something."

The disillusionment he feels regarding the festival's low turnout is evident.

Although Willie Nelson and Ringo Starr & His All Starr Band drew good turnouts, the total attendance for the four-day music and cultural festival was low.

That took Abernathy by surprise.

Less than 100,000 people came. Some festival organizers are putting the number at 50,000-75,000; Abernathy won't even make an estimate.

When he announced plans last spring for what he hoped would be the first annual August In Arkansas, Abernathy predicted crowds totaling 250,000 people.

He believed a higher number actually would attend, although he didn't want to commit to a figure closer to 300,000 or 350,000 in case it didn't happen.

But his "safe" figure of 250,000 wasn't so safe after all.

No one will know whether the festival broke even until advance ticket sales from almost 50 Harvest Foods locations are reported.

"I won't consider this a success until all of our financial obligations are met or arranged," says Abernathy. But he says, "It had good attendance. It just wasn't up to our expectations."

Abernathy, on the advice of other festival organizers, made preparations for 400,000 people. So, even if the festival comes out in the black, the profit margin will be severely limited.

With a budget of more than $1 million, August In Arkansas is the most ambitious festival the state has ever seen.

Jim Sick, a park maintenance manager with the city of Little Rock, says, "When you put on something this big for the first time, you usually start small and get bigger and bigger, but Mark went for it all at one time."

For the Little Rock businessman, the event will be an education in dreams and a lesson in reality.

It's a lesson Abernathy will be sorting through for years to come.

Repeat Performances

Near the close of the Sunday night show, Abernathy, who says he missed 95 percent of the events, says, "I think I might go find my wife and go backstage and hide for a while -- all right?"

There was a defensive strain in his voice as he begged for a moment of fun.

"I didn't meet a single star," says Abernathy with a pout. But when he was backstage, Ringo Starr did walk by and give him a high-five.

Later, as Abernathy sat watching the fireworks, the words to one of the songs accompanying the display struck him.

"Jimmy Durante was singing 'Young At Heart,' and there was a line in that song that says you can go to extremes with impossible dreams," says Abernathy.

He pauses.

He becomes philosophical about what the August In Arkansas experience has meant to him.

"There were points where I was so totally drained that I thought to myself, 'Why don't I just stay home and cut my grass and wash the car and piddle around on Saturday like normal people do? Why do I have to be going through this roller coaster of emotion?'"

But Abernathy had some proud moments.

"Lyle Lovett was playing with a full moon overhead," says Abernathy. "I looked around and as far as I could see there were nothing but people smiling.

"It's things like August In Arkansas that make a community vibrant, that help solve problems and bring people together in a way that nothing else really can," says Abernathy.

He still has to figure what caused the other 150,000-200,000 people to stay home.

Unseasonably cool weather hurt drink sales at the festival, and Abernathy wonders if it helped or hurt attendance.

To music lovers, a $21 advance weekend pass was a bargain. But to single-day ticket holders who wanted to see crafts and other things more akin to Riverfest, $12 at the gate was too expensive.

There's a marketing question as well.

Did people understand that the festival offered more than music? Did the different price structures confuse them?

Abernathy remains confident.

"Would I do it again? Absolutely," says Abernathy. "I know that the next time, all the critical mistakes would be avoided."

But he won't do it without a guarantee.

"I can't overemphasize enough that we took it this far and I've risked and gambled as much as I can," says Abernathy. "We produced everything, and more than we said we were going to, and if it's going to happen again it's going to require this community to come forward and say, 'Let's make it happen again.'

"If that happens, we can deal with whatever we have to deal with and make it happen again.

"If it doesn't, then it was a one-shot glorious weekend."

But there were high hopes when the event kicked off on Thursday night.

The Kick-Off

The rocking Cajun tunes of Buckwheat Zydeco carry almost to the edge of the amphitheater where the jazz sounds of Bela Fleck & The Flecktones are playing.

The Thursday mid-evening line-up of music along the river has kicked off, and a search has begun for Mark Abernathy.

"I just saw him going that way, and I don't think he recognized me," says Abernathy's wife, Janet. "He's just been in a daze."

"He's putting out a lot of fires that really he shouldn't have to mess with," says Sick, who increases the speed of his golf cart in an effort to catch Abernathy.

Sick says everyone has a question for Abernathy, whom Sick suggests should probably have more committee heads to handle problems.

That seems to be evident in the pace Abernathy is keeping. When his location is radioed over a walkie-talkie, he's generally gone from there to the next problem area before anyone has a chance to find him.

"The festival is too big for its first year," says Abernathy.

And when did he realize this?


Abernathy had done his homework. He had actually reserved Riverfront Park for summer 1991. But when he attended a national festival convention, he realized his event needed more preparation time.

Yet the extra year wasn't enough.

"I don't know that I would say it's taking on too much," says Abernathy. "It's just there were so many aspects to it that the controls became difficult."

Consider that more than 60 musical acts were accompanied by cultural events, children's activities and international food sales during the four days.

Abernathy, whom some volunteers recognize as the only one in control, is called upon more than anyone for help.

He can't walk past the row of food vendors without being bombarded with questions.

To wit, Muskie Harris, former Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, is helping the Centers For Youth & Families and the Thrasher Boys Club raise money through selling ice cream. He stops Abernathy to request that the street light near his stand be lit.

Abernathy explains that the lights aren't going to be turned on, but he takes a minute to help Harris find a solution to the lack of light.

After suggesting Christmas lights would be a fun alternative, Abernathy again attempts to make his way down the row of vendors. He's stopped by two women with requests for items needed by volunteers at a drink stand.

Abernathy knows that a quick and creative solution like the Christmas lights isn't going to be the answer, so he turns pleadingly to a nearby reporter and says, "Could you take some notes for me?"

All these minor details come amidst the day's larger problems.

A $3,000 Check

Earlier in the evening, there weren't enough small bills to fill the ticket locations throughout the festival. So Abernathy had to cash a $3,000 check at one of the restaurants in the nearby Excelsior Hotel.

After some of the other financial close calls he'd had in prior days, it probably didn't seem like much of a problem.

The festival was short of all its needed capital just days before it began. Abernathy won't give specific numbers but says local investors came through with the money.

And it's a weary but spirited Abernathy who comes through the first day of the festival. The day could have been rougher if more people had attended.

"It's kind of nice to have this Thursday as a shakedown," says Abernathy. But it's the blessing of Thursday night's light attendance that turns into his weekend curse -- like not enough people for a demographic survey commissioned by August in Arkansas.

Friday, the surveyors resorted to questioning off-duty August In Arkansas volunteers.

There just weren't enough festival participants.

Volunteer Power

More than 5,000 volunteers participated in the festival. "When you're dealing with that many volunteers, you've got some groups that are wonderful and some that just don't show up," says Abernathy. "If we do this next year, it will have a whole different structure."

Next to what he calls an accountability factor for volunteers, Abernathy says he encountered problems such as counterfeiting during the weekend.

And, for a time, there were too many volunteers who had use of the walkie-talkie system.

Terry Henson, who has helped with communications at other festivals such as Little Rock's annual Riverfest, was brought in two days before the festival to help organize the August In Arkansas communications system.

"If nobody can talk to anyone, then nothing gets done," says Henson. "It can make it or break it."

And Thursday, the overload of walkie-talkie chatter was hurting the festival to the extent that Henson had to retrain, and in some cases begin training, a group of staff and volunteers that night.

By Friday, the system was running much more smoothly.

"Sweet Sweet Connie" Hamzy, a Little Rock resident who has gained national fame as a rock 'n' roll groupie, is amazed at the professionalism of August In Arkansas.

"It's more organized that the Stones were on Steel Wheels."

But the workers at the Fountain Stage, one of four musical settings on both sides of the Arkansas River, don't agree that August In Arkansas is quite as well-planned as the Rolling Stones' last tour.

"It's a logistical nightmare," says stage manager John Cooke. "This is the only stage in the whole park you can't get a truck to."

Cooke says this area traditionally has been used as a stage for musical events in Little Rock, but he says the location doesn't make any sense.

For instance, Lyle Lovett's grand piano had to be carried by hand down a hillside to reach the stage.

"You know that it was a crazy decision, but it was made and you have to make it happen, so you do it," says Cooke, who joined the event four days before it began.

"Just Do It" could have been the theme for the whole festival.

August In Arkansas' director, Robyn Dickey, seemed to accept that attitude early on. Dickey was Abernathy's behind-the-scene counterpart who manned the festival's production trailer.

With a red hot-line phone in one hand, a cellular in the other, and at least two people standing in front of her waiting to ask a question is how Dickey spent most of her weekend.

After devoting 20 years to event planning, Dickey knows how to conserve her energy and handle problems in turn. She looked cool throughout the festival.

Abernathy, though, has a tendency to exert much of his energy at once. That resulted in some tense, even ragged, looks from him throughout the event.

Abernathy's friends rallied to his defense, though.

"Mark is probably one of the more sedate people out here," says Bob Williams, a stockbroker at T.J. Raney & Sons, who served as a troubleshooter for Abernathy during the festival.

Williams' role, along with that of several other troubleshooters, was invaluable, as the very nature of festivals seem to incite disorder.

On Saturday, August In Arkansas' 20-percent take from food vendors was being ferried straight from the vendors to the bands for payment. What seemed like high drama to an outsider was something Abernathy expected, though.

"We do that every day at Juanita's," says Abernathy of one of the two restaurants he co-owns. He says money is taken straight from the door to the bands.

There are special circumstances that arise with festivals as well.

For example, when Gov. Bill Clinton considered dropping by Sunday, Williams arranged three different plans for the arrival, only to find that Clinton chose not to attend at all.

For Abernathy, Clinton's failure to appear was just one more person who didn't show up, one more disappointment, one more contingency plan that failed.

Now comes the hard work of piecing together what went wrong, what needs to be done next year and how to hold together and continue to build the dream of August In Arkansas.

Mixed Fare On Food

Some Vendors Find August In Arkansas Participation Risky

"It's too expensive for me to pay for and not make my money back," says Glen Williams, who owns one of the four Flossie's Famous Funnel Cakes trucks that was at August In Arkansas.

While other funnel cake trucks did well, Williams struggled in his location near the Kids In Action! playground. He says he hopes the four-day music and cultural festival on the Arkansas River at Little Rock can do well next year.

But he doubts if he can risk coming back.

That's a sentiment many of the August In Arkansas food vendors share.

One vendor, who prefers not to be named, says that after paying festival fees, she doubts if she'll even break even.

The vendors were optimistic throughout the August In Arkansas weekend even though attendance was far below expectations.

"Maybe we'll do better over the weekend," is what many vendors said after a disappointing Thursday and Friday showing.

Time quickly ran out, though.

"Maybe for the concert this evening we'll do better," said Muriel Ogdon, who sold food for the German American Club, just before the Ringo Starr & His All Starr Band show Sunday night.

But it was too late.

That doesn't mean the club won't be back if there's another festival next year, though.

"We realize it takes some doing," says Ogdon of the festival's first year. "We'll give it a second chance probably."

Not everyone did poorly. Although Bemis Atkins only did half the business he expected to on Thursday, his weekend sales at his Shucks Grilles Country Corn stand will bring him back next year.

Roy Gil S. Pablo, whose Arkansas Philippines Association had a food and information stand, says the festival wasn't without its flaws, though.

"I'd like to work with them and give them allowance," says Pablo, "But there was a time when we had difficulty just trying to get a bag of ice."

Pablo says there were intangible benefits as people were introduced to his culture.

"In that aspect, we are a success," he says.

If enough of the international-type vendors think that, then at least some of them should be back next year.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Journal Publishing, Inc.
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Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:includes related article on food vendor's participation; Mark Abernathy; music and cultural festival
Author:Rengers, Carrie
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Aug 24, 1992
Previous Article:Taking the plunge: four Arkansas entrepreneurs discuss their experiences in a year of doing business.
Next Article:The Wright move.

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