The boiled crawfish were in abundance at Sherman’s inaugural Red River Mardi Gras and Jazz Festival last weekend; the same can’t be said for the buttery goodness of Italian-style bread sticks. As the sun set and the event hit its stride Saturday night, prospective diners at Little Italy Ristorante faced a menu of culinary options artificially limited by a teeming crowd that exceeded nearly everyone’s expectations.
“Our heads were spinning because it was so busy; we ran out of food,” said Little Italy proprietor Dana Tennyson. “We ended up doing a lot more business than we normally do on Saturday night. People seemed to be in a really good mood and having fun.”
Those people, in fact, numbered at least 1,200 — and that was just the paying customers. Individuals who attended the event but didn’t buy a ticket likely added a few hundred to that number, according to estimates.
“We were hoping for 1,000, and with the weather, it helped bring people out because people are tired of bad weather and they want to get out and enjoy it. So that was in our favor,” explained Sherman Downtown Preservation and Revitalization Executive Director Karen Tooley, the festival’s chief architect. “I was so, so thrilled with the musical performances.”
With a dozen musical groups stretched across eight hours and a quad of stages, the air was thick with sound. Jazz and Zydeco bands from around Texas helped to provide the soundtrack for the night.
“My dad drove up from Dallas and he’s a huge jazz fanatic, and he was having a blast – just a blast,” said Tennyson. “He came back (from the main stage) and he said, ‘I’m so glad you sent me out there! That was the best drum solo I’ve ever heard!.’ So he loved it. I saw Mayor (Cary) Wacker, and she was very happy with everything that went on.”
A fair statement, said Wacker by phone Tuesday afternoon. While the city did not directly fund the festival, it did agree to close down two streets around the Grayson County Courthouse and provided workers to hang signs. Wacker said local leaders liked what they saw.
“It was a great event. … Every person I’ve talked to — over the weekend and since — has talked about how much fun they had, having the community out for this and just being able to enjoy this unique aspect of Sherman,” said Wacker. “The organizers were really careful to respect what we value in Sherman, as a family-friendly environment. … We wanted to make sure it was a safe and friendly environment, and it truly was. People felt like it was their downtown, that they could come down and enjoy what the community had to offer.”
Tooley said the Sherman Police Department was instrumental in making sure things went smoothly. A spokesman from the Department said he did not believe that any incidents arose from the festival.
“I can’t thank the Sherman PD enough. Those guys that came out were as nice and as competent as could be,” said Tooley. “But they said they have one recommendation to the city, and that was to close more streets. So maybe we can work with the fire department and see how we can do that.”
That won’t be the only change coming next year, when the city appends “Second Annual” to the festival’s title. Organizers hope to add a parade on Saturday afternoon and several kid-specific activities on Sunday, giving the celebration a more weekend-long feel. Fulbelli’s owner Heather LaRosa, whose Galveston roots provided much of the expertise on the event’s planning committee, said that as the festival expands and grows, the hope is it will gain a regional perspective.
“The plan is to, in about a month, really start the planning process for next year and start trying to get the Krewes formed, have the Krewe parade, so there will be little things that go on all year long that keep people excited about it,” explained LaRosa. “I think it could absolutely be one of the biggest events, not just for Sherman but for the whole area. Because the plan is to get other cities and their chambers involved, so there’s this residual economic impact all around us. I think that this could probably become one of the most successful events in North Texas, period.”