Venetian festivals, primarily a Midwestern phenomenon, have been lighting up the water for decades … but none longer than Charlevoix’s.
The 84-year-old festival has matured through the years, growing from a single evening’s candlelit boat parade to an eight-day festival of free-to-the-public games, music, and the hugely popular fireworks.
The first boat parade took place in Charlevoix in 1930, at the end of a sailing regatta held by the Chicago Club and the Belvedere Club.
The participants chose to celebrate by placing candlelit Japanese lanterns on their sailboats and circling Round Lake Harbor that evening, festooned by flickering, festive lights.
“The town then embraced the idea of starting a summer festival, similar to the Cherry Festival which had been started in Traverse City just a few years earlier,” said Dan Barron, the festival’s president.
Surrounded by Lake Michigan, Lake Charlevoix, and Round Lake, the festival’s maritime theme is a natural fit, but technology has upped the ante a bit for the themed boat entries, said Barron.
Candles seem to have become passé: Current boat parade entrants now sport amplified music and large screen video monitors.
This year’s theme is Mardi Gras. Through the years, Barron has seen boat owners get wildly creative, and has had many favorites float on by the judges.
“It’s hard to choose [one],” he said. Owners of a powerboat called The Belfry chose “Christmas in July” as their theme last year. They draped the boat in Christmas lights, dancing Santa elves, and a tree, an effort that snagged them the award for best illumination.
The winner of best sailboat last year, the 30- foot Oberon, was decked out in neon, lights, and accessories in a “totally awesome” salute to the 1980s, Barron said.
While the boat parade gets a lot of attention, the music continues to be the other “big” component of the fest, Barron said.
“I’m sometimes a bit ecstatic about our concerts,” he said.
The music mix usually includes original classic rock bands, country, and even a battle of the bands.
Classic rocker drummer Peter Rivera, the original singer/drummer of ‘70s band Rare Earth, is Wednesday’s opening act for ‘60s band Paul Revere and the Raiders.
Thursday night is country night, with Nashville singer Maggie Rose, along with headliners LoCash Cowboys, who bring in a hybrid of country, rock, and hip-hop.
Other performances throughout the festival include local artists Sleeping Gypsies, The Jon Archambault Band, and David Cisco. These acts are sharing stage space with “imported” performers like Louisiana’s Terrance Simien and the Zydeco Experience and Chicago American singer Prichard Harter.
Throw in the Venetian Games – 14 different athletic tournaments and games – the popular Kid’s Day, Venetian Fest’s famed worldclass fireworks, and you’ve got eight full days and evenings of fun.
“Venetian provides an amazing and unprecedented caliber of events and activities for such a small town. It brings the people of Charlevoix together,” said Barron. “And it has become the grand homecoming celebration when friends and family return to Charlevoix to celebrate their small town, their relationships and their blessings.”
The 84th Annual Charlevoix Venetian Festival will take place July 19-26. For a complete schedule of events, visit venetianfestival.com.