FruitFest is Madison at its most colorful and kooky

Jay Rath, Contributing writer

Now in its fifth year, Madison’s annual FruitFest promises food, family fun, and headline musical guest Debbie Gibson. The ’80s icon says she’s looking forward to the free June 14 event.

“Of course! It’s an honor to be invited and I hope you’re all ready to ‘Shake Your Love,’ ” says Gibson, referring to her 1987 single. “And with a name like FruitFest? Come on. It appears we all have the same sense of humor.”

“FruitFest is a great addition to the roster of events the city hosts each year,” says Madison Mayor Paul Soglin. “Whether you come to listen to the music, enjoy the delicious food, have a beverage with friends or join in the Fruit Loop, our city extends a warm welcome.”

FruitFest celebrates music, diversity, community and art. Last year around 2,000 attended, some traveling 90 miles. It takes place in the capital’s east-central area, on the 900 block of Williamson Street, known to locals as “Willy Street.” This year, for the first time, the street will be closed for the event.

“Our community on the east side is definitely rich with the LGBT community,” says lead organizer Corey Gresen, owner of Plan B, which bills itself as Madison’s “hottest gay lesbian bisexual transgender bar and dance

Since the 1960s, the district’s triumvirate of neighborhoods has been known for its counterculture sensibilities – and for public celebrations.

“The Willy Street-Atwood-Marquette area has had festivals for like 40 years,” says Gresen. “Now FruitFest is just one of those other things that has grown into a tradition within that community, and people look forward to it because it’s not just for adults. We also do a lot of kid stuff.” 

“It’s a good time,” agrees Steve Starkey, executive director of Madison’s OutReach LGBT Community Center. “We’ve had a presence there for a couple of years, and we’re going to be there again. It tends to be a younger crowd, but one thing I like is that it’s not a drunk-fest. It’s just people outside, getting together and enjoying summer.”

Reflecting FruitFest’s emphasis on all the arts, it will serve as a fundraiser for the “Madison Love Project.” It’s a nonprofit venture to commission a mural similar to those of the Baltimore Love Project, a series of 20 murals in that city spelling out “LOVE” in gigantic shadows.

“Madison loves to celebrate, and FruitFest is one of Madison’s most celebratory events,” says Anne Katz, executive director of Madison-based Arts Wisconsin, the state arts advocacy organization. “It’s great fun for all.”

Establishing FruitFest as a tradition took time. After living in Chicago and Los Angeles, Gresen – a Wausau native – was a little disappointed when he moved to Madison seven years ago.

“There was (LGBTQ) community but it was a little fractured, it seemed like, by the bars,” he recalls. “I just wanted to do something that would bring people together, for free, and enjoy music and talent and our community, with kids and parents.”

Fruitfest began modestly, in the parking lot of Plan B, 924 Williamson St. “We have yet to make any money on the event in five years,” says Gresen. “It’s pretty much break-even or a little less. But we have a lot more corporate sponsorships now. The first couple years were hard, because we were getting established.”

Gresen remembers that sponsors wondered, “ ‘What’s going on? Is this going to be a passing fad?’ I think they were worried at first about the legitimacy of FruitFest.” This year’s sponsors include Absolut Vodka, UW Credit Union, Alliant Energy, Mini (Cooper) of Madison and the UW Credit Union.  

“We’ll have a lot more art vendors, food vendors and food options, too,” he says. “They were also a little hesitant early on, but now FruitFest is like any other festival.”

Well, not exactly like any other. One of FruitFest’s more whimsical attractions is the Fruit Loop, a 5K run through the Marquette neighborhood. Participants are invited to dress as different kinds of fruit. Around 150 took part last year.

Another highlight is FruitFest’s “StarFruit” karaoke competition. Auditions are on Wednesdays at Plan B, with semifinals the Wednesday before the festival. The day of the event, contestants perform before a judge on the main stage. Professional musical guests during the day will include: Color Me Once; Irene Keenan, Jr.; God-des and She; and Hillary Barnes and Sandy Eichel.

But the main musical feature is of course Debbie Gibson. She was scheduled to appear last year but had to cancel. “I have passed through [Madison] a few times and recall the quaintness when on a theater tour,” she says. “I remember going to the antique shops. I look forward to seeing more this time!”

She was once the youngest artist to write, produce and perform a No. 1 single – “Foolish Beat” in 1988. But younger fans will likely know Gibson from her appearance in Katy Perry’s 2011 music video, “Last Friday Night (TGIF)” Gibson has become a popular performer at Pride celebrations.

“The LGBT community supported me from day one, when ‘Only in My Dreams’ came out in the clubs,” she recalls. “Also in my work on Broadway. You have all been the most fun, most discerning and most loyal audience for 27 electric years.” 

A meet-and-greet area will be staged for Gibson fans. There’s no rain date for the event, but a few showers won’t bother some.

“Last year, putting on rainbow eye makeup for Fruitfest was a highlight of my summer,” says Carmen Hotvedt, a violence prevention specialist with University of Wisconsin-Madison Health Services.

“There was something sparkly and fabulous about dancing in the rain to Martha Wash singing ‘It’s Raining Men,’ and then heading into Plan B for the rest of the rainy afternoon,” she says. “I welcome this LGBTQ music festival and its other activities, like the fun run, to my neighborhood.”

“Summer Camp Bingo,” a popular fundraiser for the Madison-based AIDS Network, will not be featured this year, owing to scheduling difficulties.

FruitFest is free and open to the public. There will be an after-party at Plan B featuring the band Dev; cover for that is $20. For more information, visit FruitFest Madison on Facebook.