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Alive with Pride 

Since its inception in 2000, the Savannah Pride Festival has grown to become the second largest Pride festival in Georgia and the fastest growing in the Southeast.

In past years, the event was held at the Roundhouse Railroad Museum. Last year’s turnout was so large, it was obvious that a change was needed.

“When Savannah Pride first started six years ago, no one knew how big it would become,” says Craig Lariscy, sponsors director of the festival.

“We needed to start out with a space that would work with us. The Roundhouse was very much willing to work with us. Each year, the festival has doubled in size,” he says.

“Last year, it was so crowded at the ‘Roundhouse and the layout was not conducive to the festival. We knew we had to move to a larger venue.”

But where?

“We considered Forsyth Park,” Lariscy says. “The board of directors weighed the pros and cons. Bottom line, River Street made the most sense.”

As a result, the 2005 Savannah Pride Festival will be held Saturday, Sept. 17 from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. at the Rousakis Plaza on River Street. Its theme is Alive With Pride in 2005, in collaboration with the international Pride theme of Equal Rights, No More, No Less. It is expected that it will be the the largest Savannah Pride Festival held thus far.

The first festival was co-chaired by Carol Riles and Bobby Jeffrey. The idea had been bounced around by local college students and members of the First City Network before it finally got off the ground in 2000.

“A lot of people laughed it off,” says Jeffrey, who is executive director of this year’s event.

“The only obstruction in 2000 was the gay community itself. I thought it was a great idea, so I went to the First City board and said I wanted to form a gay pride festival.”

The first festival was a learning experience. “I remember that everyone had no clue what to expect,” Jeffrey says. “We expected maybe 500 people and protesters. We had no protesters and 2,000 people.”

In 2001, Frances Sahr was chair of the event. “Our goal is to be as large as Atlanta’s Pride, which draws 300,000,” Sahr said at that time. “We’re not prepared for that this year, but in future years, yes. Savannah is the Hostess City of the South, so what better place?”

That second festival was scheduled for Sept. 14, 2001. The tragedy of 9/11 might have doomed such a new event, but a large crowd attended the festival in spite of the terrorist attacks.

In 2002, attendance at Savannah Pride had doubled to 4,000. In 2003, attendance hit 7,000.

“It’s changed so much,” Jeffrey says. “It’s grown each and every year. I cannot put into words how impressed I am with the way it has grown.”

The theme of the 2004 festival was Break Through, and 12,000 people attended. The 2005 event has the potential to be even larger.

While the event is held annually to provide gay men, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered persons with cultural and educational programs and activities, it draws many straights, including friends, families and allies of the gay community.

For many people, River Street is the face of Savannah. “It’s the location of every other festival held in Savannah,” Lariscy says.

The move has received favorable reaction, he says.

“It’s been entirely positive. We are getting comments from everyone that it’s about time. Some people’s perception was that holding the festival at the Roundhouse was keeping it out of the public’s face,” he says.

“I’m sure we will have some people who came to the Roundhouse who won’t be as comfortable on River Street, but that’s more than made up for by the people who wouldn’t go to the Roundhouse who are coming this time because it’s on River Street, and they always felt it should be.”

There are, of course, unknown factors that may influence the festival. “River Street is a new venue, so there are possible problems, but I remember we wondered what the obstacles would be in 2000,” Jeffrey says. “We’ve been working closely with the City of Savannah and the Savannah Riverfront Association to make sure it’s a great festival.”

This year’s festival has received a record amount of financial and in-kind support from large corporations, such as BellSouth, Anheuser-Busch, Coca-Cola and more, as well as local individuals and businesses. Media sponsors include Connect Savannah, Fusion Magazine, GaySavannah.com and Z102.

“We will have 60-plus vendors,” Lariscy says. “These will include local restaurants, artisans and outreach organizations, quality rights groups and churches.”

Guest speakers will address topics of particular interest to members of the GLBT (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgendered) community.

“Every year, there’s a family focus,” Lariscy says. “This is a fun-filled event for everyone. There are interactive things for kids to do. It is free and will always be free.”

The festival is handicapped accessible and in particular reaches out to the hearing impaired. “A sign language interpreter is on stage signing the whole time,” Lariscy says.

An event of this size takes considerable planning. “It’s a volunteer situation, unlike Atlanta Pride, which has paid staff members,” Lariscy says.

“It takes 364 days to get ready,” Jeffrey says. “As soon as it’s over, we start planning. We’re already planning the 2006 festival and the 2005 one hasn’t even been held.”

The move to River Street means a greater upfront cost. “From the beginning, the Roundhouse didn’t cost as much, and River Street costs more,” Lariscy says. “But we expect a lot more people.”

The festival not only is put together by volunteers, it also is funded through the efforts of volunteers. Fundraisers are held throughout the year, in particular a series of rainbow theme parties -- the Red Party, the Green Party, the Purple Party, and so on.

The festival will feature more live music than ever, with headlining performers Kristine W, Pepper MaShay, Eric Himan and Lady Chablis.

A decision was made this year to book less expensive musical acts than RuPaul, last year’s headliner. “We decided that we wanted to spend a little bit less money on entertainment to have more performers,” Jeffrey says.

Lariscy says while this year’s entertainment lineup wasn’t as expensive, it is top-notch. Kristine W has had nine number one dance hits in a row. Those hits include “Save My Soul” and “The Wonder of It All.” Her upcoming single is “I’ll Be Your Light.”

Pepper MaShay is an international dance diva, whose hits include “Dive in the Pool,” which is the theme song of the hit series “Queer as Folk,” and “I Got My Pride,” which was featured on the hit series “Sex in the City.”

As the festival has grown in size, it also has grown in diversity, Lariscy says. Entire families, including parents, siblings and aunts and uncles, now turn out for the festivities.

“Six years ago, people were not as likely to come out as they are now,” Lariscy says. “We don’t use the expression ‘coming out of the closet,’ but it is a lot different than it was six years ago. To move from the Roundhouse to River Street is an indication of that.”

Savannah has provided a tolerant atmosphere for past festivals. “I believe we had one protester in 2002,” Jeffrey says.

“If someone wants to protest, it’s their right -- just as we have the right to have our festival on River Street.”



The 2005 Savannah Pride Festival will be held Saturday, Sept. 17 from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. at Rousakis Plaza on River Street. Visit www.savannahpride.org or e-mail info@savannahpride.org.



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