What do severe thunderstorms, Hanson, risque art, the infamous beer incident and Sammy Davis Jr. have in common?
They’ve all been part of Mayfest.
Tulsa’s downtown festival of art, music and food actually began in 1973 as a gift to the city in honor of its 75th birthday from the Tulsa Junior League.
Jubilee ’73, as it was called, was held on the Civic Center Plaza. It featured arts and crafts, a children’s zone and music, much like today’s Mayfest. Unlike today, the food concessions were provided by local organizations.
The big event in 1973 was a performance by Sammy Davis Jr. with Skitch Henderson conducting the Tulsa Philharmonic Orchestra at the Assembly Center (now Cox Business Center).
It was Davis’ first visit to Tulsa, and he had some misgivings about coming, he told the audience of 5,000.
“A warm and enthusiastic greeting settled that question and Sammy relaxed, took off his tie and his coat and showed everybody why he is called, in the entertainment business, ‘Mr. Entertainment,’ ” wrote columnist Bill Donaldson in The Tulsa Tribune.
Davis sang his hits including “Candy Man” and “What Kind of Fool Am I?” and did impressions of Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney and Marlon Brando.
He established a strong rapport with the audience, a World reviewer wrote, and received a standing ovation after singing “The Impossible Dream.”
The weather is always an issue with Mayfest:
1989 – High winds blew most of the exhibitors’ tents off their frames and damaged wares.
1992 – Some vendors packed up early to avoid heavy rains and a painted silk merchant reported thousands of dollars in damage. Concerts by Tom Chapin and The Mamas and The Papas were moved into the Brady Theater.
2001 – It didn’t actually rain, but forecasts of stormy weather hurt attendance.
2002 – Rain and heavy winds knocked over tents.
2003 – Thunderstorms closed the festival early one day.
2004 – A 2-inch deluge caused traffic accidents, street flooding and power outages throughout the metro area. And at Mayfest, thousands of dollars’ worth of art was destroyed and opening day ended early. One vendor lost $11,000 worth of pottery.
2009 – Rain and 60 mph winds damaged tents.
2010 – Winds of 80 mph knocked over tents and periodic rain hampered attendance for the first two days.
Three boys named Hanson
In 1992, three young brothers named Isaac, Taylor and Zac made their professional debut at Mayfest singing soulful harmonies a cappella, wearing sunglasses, black jackets, white T-shirts and jeans. See their audition here:
They also performed at Mayfest in 1996, before becoming international superstars.
In 2005, shortly before their triumphant return to Mayfest, Taylor told a Tulsa World reporter: “We’ve traveled around the world talking about the first show we ever did, which was here at Mayfest.
“When we started off, it was three voices, three guys harmonizing. We were 6, 9 and 11 years old and just standing there singing classic rock ‘n’ roll covers like ‘Rockin’ Robin’ and ‘Splish Splash’ …”
Thousands of fans jammed downtown for that 2005 show, which featured two other local heroes – Leon Russell and Steve Ripley.
This year, the brothers have their own one-day craft beer and music festival, Hop Jam 2014 in the Brady district Sunday, which is also the last day of Mayfest.
Half-nude Miss Liberty
What good is art if it isn’t occasionally controversial?
In 1999, a 7-foot sculpture of a half-nude Statue of Liberty fondling her breast inside a birdcage with the word “Phallacy” on top was drawing complaints.
The sculpture, by local artist Thomas Marrinson, was among the artworks displayed in the lobby of the Mid-Continent Tower. It was part of the prestigious Invitational Gallery, but that didn’t keep tenants of the office building from registering their objections.
“We have tenants who are veterans. We have a general, an admiral,” said the Mid-Continent Tower’s property manager. “We have dozens of tenants objecting to this. And rightfully so. It’s offensive.”
Mayfest officials initially moved the caged Lady Liberty out of public view. The sculpture, which was damaged in the process, was later moved back for the gala Wednesday night opening after a compromise was reached: she had to be placed in an out-of-the-way corner and be gone by Thursday morning.
Marrinson, the artist, said the sculpture was intended to be provocative.
“I think if they thought about it, people wouldn’t get upset over the exposed breast. They would get upset over what goes on in our society,” Marrinson said.
The scantily clad Miss Liberty redeemed herself, despite her broken crown. Moved to an alternate location, she became the most popular attraction at Mayfest and a bidder paid $1,100 for her in the art auction.
The artist was invited to join the Invitational Gallery committee the following year.
Controversy erupted again in 2002 over the official Mayfest poster, by New York artist Paul Davis, which depicted a woman wearing a see-through gown, running through downtown streets holding a banner.
“It’s the kind of thing that no one in New York would even blink at, but in Tulsa – we’ve already gotten a few calls about it,” festival chairman Michael Patton said. “I hope it won’t turn into a controversy, but it already has a little. It is a bit risqué.”
The artist said he was trying to express exuberance, joy and fun.
The beer incident
It was a newspaper headline writer’s dream:
“Mayfest’s beer fuss hits court; trouble brews over brands”
“Judge hops to resolution of Mayfest beer dispute”
Reporters got in on the fun, too. “The participants in the great Mayfest beer fuss remain at lagerheads,” wrote one.
Mayfest had been relocated from the Main Mall to the Brady area in 1991 and ’92, a move that upset downtown merchants who relied on Mayfest crowds for a large part of their business. The festival was expanded from five days to 10 in 1992 and there was even talk of charging people for admission, but the idea was discarded.
And, the director, Al Kraizer, was accused of trying to give Miller beer, a major sponsor of the festival, a monopoly on beer sales. He had ordered tents and heavy equipment – first a beer truck, later a forklift and a cherry picker – to be parked in front of two businesses that were selling cans of Budweiser to festival-goers.
Kraizer said he was just trying to protect Mayfest patrons by discouraging unauthorized sales of beer.
The businesses, a caterer and a dinner theater, asked a district judge for an injunction against Kraizer. The dispute was settled out of court with the barricades removed and the business owners dropping their suit.
And Mayfest returned to the Main Mall area in 1993.