Newport Festivals Museum

With just a week to go until 10,000 eager folks show up at the gate, Fort Adams State Park is getting all dressed up for festival season. The Newport Folk Festival arrives Friday July 28th, and WhatsUpNewp got a behind the scenes look at some of the preparations.

We found stages partially built, a handful of pitched tents, and various festival artifacts ready to be dusted off in time for the main event (see the “Late Greats” photo).

The “Late Greats” Signpost in Storage
The “Late Greats” Signpost in Storage

Interview with Tim Tobin

Site Director Tim Tobin is the General in charge of the Fort until the music team takes over. He met with us Wednesday as we surveyed the landscape.

“We’re actually a little bit ahead of where we want to be. We usually start building the site the Monday after the July 4th holiday. This year we started July 10th. Last week, was all about placing dressing rooms and office trailers on site, getting a lot of the fencing up, and setting up pedestrian barriers … the all-important the port-a-johns arrive next week.”

Tobin, who started out in radio, has been with the festival since the early 80’s and knows all the ins and outs of the site. “The four days before the festival starts are the craziest,” he noted. “That’s when we get the 40 or so tents that have to go up in various places around the site.”

The boots on the ground are the field crew, “about 30 guys once they’re all on site. The building of the main stage is a huge challenge,” getting permits to build and occupy it can be difficult. “Building the main stage is a full day task with a lot of climbing and scaffolding. We actually have 2 EMT’s on site the whole day just in case anything happens.”

Tents are Rising at Fort Adams

Another challenge for festival planners is the weather. “The best laid plans can go wrong if we get two or three days of rain. We’re using heavy equipment that could damage the lawn at Ft. Adams, it’s a big challenge to get everything in. And every year we tweak the site plan, it’s never the same as the previous year.” remarked Tobin.

Much of the reason for that is due to the growth the festivals have experienced. Both festivals now encompass four stages and the Jazz Festival expanded to three days a couple of years ago.

“The problem is that the festival keeps getting larger and larger. Of course it’s not really a problem, but we only have 3 weeks to get it done. When we started, we only had one stage, now we have four. Remember, we only got to the inside of the fort in the early 2000’s. Now its’s a big part of the festival, so much that in his new book, Rick Massimo called it a ‘festival within a festival.’ The level of stress can be high at times – I get up a lot at 3:00 AM.”

Inside the Quad at Fort Adams

It’s up to Assistant Site Director Allison Pangakis to supervise the food and craft vendors. Her goal is to provide a variety of culinary options; indeed, the festival has provided over 25 diverse food choices and most vendors return year after year. Many vendors are local, with “companies like Rhode Island Rentals and Newport Tents bringing tents to the Festival site Monday and Tuesday.”

Tents, port-a-potties, power, ice, bike racks… the list is never-ending. The festival runs primarily on generators – “National Grid is actually the back up,” explained Tobin. “We partner with Bike Newport – they parked 1600 bicycles a day last year. And we need so much ice, last year we contracted with Eastern Ice. Now we have a great big ice freezer in the garage with 1500 lbs. of ice available at all times.”

During the festival, Tobin attempts to hear at least one act but even that can be a challenge. Throughout the day, he’s in contact with Newport and RI State Police at the gate, he’s checking on the shuttle busses, overseeing parking, managing food and craft vendors, and taking care of last minute issues that arise on the festival grounds. He coordinates with private security, RI DEM, the Newport Fire Department and numerous others keeping festival-goers’ safe and happy.

The Newport Festivals Museum

We met Tobin in the old Museum of Yachting … which is now the Newport Festivals Museum, home of the Museum Stage during the festival. “The intention is to turn this into a museum that will celebrate both festivals from the beginning to the present,” explained Tobin. “It’s in the planning stages and still a couple of years off. There will be old photographs and memorabilia, but we’ll also still use it as a performance space.”

Fort Adams

No doubt Fort Adams itself is part of the draw of the festivals. The seaside location is breathtaking and the irony of a military fortress converted to a place where “peace, love and music” reign supreme, is noteworthy.

Fort Adams is the only former military fort used for a major music festival. It’s one of the oldest coastal forts in the United States, established on July 4, 1799 and named for then President John Adams. It was an active military installation through World War II and was summer home to President Dwight D. Eisenhower in the late 1950’s. In 1965, the land was given to the state of Rhode Island and it became a RI State Park. It was later designated a National Historic Landmark. For more information on Fort Adams, click on the Fort Adams Trust Site here.

The Newport Folk Festival runs July 28th – July 30th. It is sold out. The Newport Jazz Festival, presented by Natixis Global Asset Management, is August 4-6th. Tickets are still available here.