The Little Party That Could
Four years ago the Greenwich Town Party quietly made its debut. It’s now one of the hottest tickets around. We take a look at what goes into planning and executing the biggest party of the year
The rain was coming down sideways and there were whitecaps in Greenwich Harbor when James Taylor took the stage at last year’s Town Party. But not even a virtual monsoon could put a damper on the festivities—or dissuade thousands of fans, young and old, from sticking it out for the chance to hear Taylor on acoustic guitar. “It was cold and windy,” recalls Riverside resident Valerie Erde. “We had on gloves and boots and down jackets. Every once in a while we’d sneak away to our car to warm up.”
For Valerie, one of a hundred volunteers who monitored parking lots, manned information booths and handed out wristbands, the festival was more than just a chance to hang out with friends and family for the day. It was a chance to also celebrate—and support—the town she calls home. “Some people volunteer at a homeless shelter, some people volunteer at a soup kitchen,” she says. “I volunteer at the Greenwich Town Party.”
Since its inception four years ago, the festival has become one of the most highly anticipated events of the summer season. It’s become so popular that organizers have added a second venue. This year’s event on Saturday, May 24 will take place at Roger Sherman Baldwin Park and Havemeyer Field. It will combine live music (featured artists include Carlos Santana, Buddy Guy and Dr. Dog), family-friendly activities (face painting, arts and crafts and carnival booths) and lots of good food—everything from barbecue and burgers to panini and cupcakes. As of press time, general admission tickets were scheduled to go on sale the first week of April. Available only online (greenwichtownparty.com), tickets are $80 and $50; seniors are $20 and kids 12 and under get in free (but still need tickets).
“It’s such a beautiful experience,” says Ray Dalio, music lover, philanthropist and longtime Greenwich resident. “It’s great going to a concert, but it’s even better when you’re sharing the concert with the people from your town, the people you live with.”
It was Dalio, founder of Bridgewater Associates, who dreamed up the party back in 2010. He and his wife were visiting relatives in Spain when they had the chance to attend a number of village fiestas. “I thought we should do that in Greenwich,” he recalls. “That it would be a way to have a great party; to bring the whole community together in the making of it, as well as the enjoying of it.” He envisioned it along the lines of a potluck dinner, where guests are encouraged to contribute something—anything—to the success of the meal.
Dalio put the plan in motion with the approval of First Selectman Peter Tesei and then floated the idea by his friend Mark Vallely over drinks at their club. Vallely, a Greenwich native, loved the concept. “We have this amazing community that we often take for granted,” he says. “But we also wanted to reinforce the idea that you can’t really enjoy something fully unless you are an active participant. It’s like a garden—it’s so much more satisfying when you do the work and get to appreciate the results for years to come.”
Let the Good Times Roll
With the support of key town leaders, a small committee moved forward, pulling the pieces together in just four months. “We wanted to create an event that people look forward to every year,” says Tesei. “Something that was unique, that people from all walks of life could participate in.”
Organizers played it safe and kept ticket sales to 3,800, though ultimately between sponsors and children, the event easily maxed out at its 5,000-person capacity. Blues guitarist Buddy Guy headlined. “No one knew what to expect,” recalls resident Anne Friday, a fashion consultant. “It was a picture-perfect day. It seemed to go off without a hitch. Everything was timed beautifully.”
The next year, with Paul Simon performing, tickets sold out in a week. Attendees got an unexpected bonus when Dave Matthews made a surprise appearance. “I was out there making an announcement and all of a sudden he walks on stage and starts singing happy birthday to me,” recalls Vallely, who serves as the president and co-organizer of the GTP. “Here I am organizing the thing, and I didn’t even know he was coming.”
Last year, with James Taylor on the docket, general admission tickets were gone in four minutes. “It was very tricky,” says Clare Brady, director of ticket sales. “Online sales were so quick.” Even so, Brady and her team managed to accommodate everyone who had come to buy tickets in person at town hall. “Some of them had been there since 7 a.m.,” she says. “We got to everyone in line. If you came at 10:30 you were out of luck.”
The subject of tickets is a thorny one. It doesn’t take a math whiz to crunch the numbers: Roger Sherman Baldwin Park accommodates 5,000 people. Greenwich has 60,000 residents. It’s easy to see how, and why, demand far outstripped supply. Then there’s the question of eligibility: only Greenwich town residents and business owners and their employees can buy tickets—with a four-ticket limit per customer. But once a ticket gets purchased, there’s nothing preventing a resident from giving it to a friend or a relative who lives in, say, Rye or Stamford. “Our priority is trying to give residents the ability to purchase tickets,” says Joe Siciliano, director of Parks and Recreation, who serves as the town liaison. “We do everything reasonably possible, but we can’t control everybody.”
“The reality is if you and I want to buy tickets and take people from out of town, that’s just the way the world works,” says Tesei.
Double the Fun
Introducing a second venue adds a whole new layer of logistical complexity in terms of staging, security, parking and crowd control. But with a total capacity of 10,000 between the two locations, twice as many residents as before will get to enjoy the festivities. For both parks, children’s activities run from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The music starts at noon and continues until 9 p.m. at Havemeyer Field and 10 p.m. at Roger Sherman Baldwin Park. There will be some overlap in entertainment, with several main-stage artists performing at both venues.
“Every year we have to keep raising the bar,” says Vallely. “There are hundreds of people behind the scenes working like crazy.” In fact, the original small organizing committee has grown significantly; in addition to Vallely and Dalio, nearly twenty residents work year-round on the event, most on a volunteer basis, handling everything from fundraising and development to social media and community outreach.
One such person is production manager Ken Hays, a graduate of Greenwich High School, the cofounder of the annual Gathering of the Vibes music festival in Bridgeport and the man responsible for booking the talent. “Ray and those closest to him will throw around some ideas,” says Hays. “Then I start reaching out to booking agents.” It’s a delicate balance—the entertainment has to appeal to a broad demographic. “A lot depends on their tour schedule, availability and price,” says Hays. In the case of this year’s headliner, Santana, it helped that the artist and Dalio are friends. Friendship aside, hiring a band of that caliber doesn’t come cheap and the cost of booking main-stage talent eats up a big chunk of the $3.5 million budget.
In addition to featuring well-known musicians, the Greenwich Town Party has become a launchpad for local talent. As many as fifty local bands auditioned this year for the chance to be one of nine hired to play during set changes; Hays looks for a mix of genres from jazz to funk to reggae to rock. “The quality of musicianship is amazing,” he says. “It’s awesome to be able to showcase some of the younger kids and put these bands in a spotlight and see them step up.” For Hays, part of the fun is figuring out the program. “I imagine a sunny, eighty-degree day in the park, and how I would like to see it flow musically.”
The event has also become a way for many of the town’s nonprofits and civic organizations to raise their profiles within the community. The GTP gives comp tickets to ten such groups—from Abilis to Kids in Crisis—for individuals or families who would not be able to attend otherwise. Additionally, thirty groups (fifteen per venue) are invited to set up tables and hand out information the day of the event. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for us,” says Lolli Ross, executive director of Abilis. “We’re such a big part of the community, but a lot of people don’t know we are in town.”
Moving forward, the biggest challenge organizers face is getting more people involved. Even at $50 to $80 a ticket, general admission sales barely make a dent in the bottom line. Two years ago, organizers introduced a “fair share” ticket, priced at $400, which more accurately reflects the actual cost of attending the concert. This year the goal is to sell 1,000 fair share tickets, says Ray Rivers, director of development. So far, individual benefactors have subsidized the event, through sponsorships packages and matching donations. “While many people love to go to the party, the support base needs to be broadened so the whole town owns it. I’d rather have 1,000 people put an extra $10 into the pot than three people put in $3,000 each,” says Dalio, returning to the original vision.
“It’s not a normal concert,” adds Vallely. “The single most important thing, besides having great bands, is to get everybody together to celebrate their community.”