The Hampton Beach Seafood Festival . .  . and the Legend Lives On!

by Mike Bisceglia

Seacoast Scene, September 9, 2009

[The following article is courtesy of the Seacoast Scene]

Q:  What has 300,000 legs and eats lobster?  (Hint: It has been growing for the last two decades.)  No, it’s not the 'B’ movie, "The Sea Slug That Ate Rye Beach."

A: It’s the anticipated crowd at this year’s Hampton Beach Seafood Festival.

Yes, this is 2009, and the 20th anniversary of the Hampton Beach Seafood Festival.  And, yes, once again over 150,000 visitors will agree with the American Bus Association, which rates this occasion as truly "One of the Top 10 Events in North America."

John (Jake) Flemming
John (Jake) Flemming ran the Festival in many of the beginning years.

Okay, sure, this is the 40th anniversary of that little Woodstock shindig, but that was a one-time only happening and drew a crowd of one-half million.  A ballpark total-crowd estimate of visitors to the Festival is somewhere in the neighborhood of 3 million folks.  Oh, and one little note of interest: Lobster was not served at Woodstock!

You may ask, "So, how did this magnificent bird of the seacoast region come to soar so high?"  The truth is, the Festival almost didn’t get off the ground.

Back in the dawn of time, about 23 years ago, Lorraine Pivorotto was an advertising sales person for the Seacoast Scene. In the off-season, she vacationed in Florida and returned with a tale of a wonderful festival in a small, seaside community. She told her animated story to the paper's editor, Jack Daly.

"Sounds great," said Jack, and he meant it. "Why don't you go talk to Glen French." Glen, the then-president of the Hampton Chamber of Commerce, apparently didn't share Lorraine's vision. Lorraine, however, was not to be denied. She took her enthusiasm and her idea on an "end-around" to the board. The members listened and began to see the wisdom of Lorraine's dream. Wisdom and a dream, however, don't always become a successful reality.

With the blessing of the Chamber, Lorraine sought out some of the movers and shakers of the Hampton community to launch the endeavor. Enlisting the support of the Seacoast Scene's own Johnny Mac, Jake Flemming, owner of the Purple Urchin, and local realtor, Jimmy Kennedy, Lorraine and her crew scoured the seacoast region to nail down ten willing coastal vendors to be the mainstay of the initial festival. After all, how difficult would it be to attract ten businesses to participate? Everybody and his brother would want to be in on this, wouldn't they? Well, not really.

After scouring the region from Hampton Beach west to Dover, and north to Portsmouth, the group met to compare notes. They had come up with five willing participants. Well . . . maybe . . . sort of. Skepticism, inertia, fear, call it what you may, but local merchants were not lining up to join the Festival in droves.

No one knows (or wants to divulge) who came up with the idea, but someone hit on the idea of telling Restaurant A that Restaurant B was delighted to be a part of the Festival. Meanwhile, somebody else was whispering to Restaurant B that Restaurant A was thrilled to be a part of the venture. It took a good deal of coaxing, "shmoozing," pleading, stirred gently with massive doses of assurance that everything was going to be "just fine" in order to keep the ten . participants from wandering away from the herd.

Lorraine and "the three J's" must have been very convincing, because ten seafood establishments decided to commit their names, their staffs, and themselves to this, yet unheard-of venture. It can be said now, years later, and after having so very much success, that the group managed to entice businesses by assuring them that there was a definite plan in place for the operation. In reality, there really wasn't a plan, but there was an awful lot of enthusiasm.

In 1988, Festival plans became Festival reality at the Hampton State Park, at the southern tip of Hampton Beach. The location seemed a likely spot, since it offered plenty of parking and was out of the mainstream of "beach traffic" in the area of the Casino. The "intricate" plans for each entrant's table simply consisted of an "eyeball of a dream." Lots really hadn't been measured or allocated. Oh, and electrical power to each table simply was not a reality.

The rumble of thunder soon drown out the grumble of harried restaurant personnel. The rains came, and first year of the Hampton Beach Seafood Festival was brought to an abridged conclusion.

There was one very bright note to the occasion. Local insurance agent, Bob Harold, somehow managed to convince the Chamber of Commerce that it needed rain insurance for the event. The answer was obvious.

"Rain insurance? Who ever heard of rain insurance?"

Jim Kennedy and Gus DeAngelo
Jim Kennedy and Gus DeAngelo discussing the event over a cocktail

Apparently, Lloyds of London had. Bob obtained a $30,000 policy. So, despite the rains, lack of accommodations, and sparse crowds, the Festival still managed to turn a small profit . . . a very small profit.

Lenny Bruce once said, "Pain plus time equals humor." Lorraine and her staff understood that concept very well. They didn't mention the Festival for some months. When it did come up in conversation, they chuckled about it. The seed of the event, however, had been planted. Ricky Gibbons and Mary Rae Preston, the designated co-chairs for the Festival worked with Lorraine and her corps of enthusiasts to enhance a second smoother event.

The first order of business was to re-attract participating restaurants from the first year. This was not an easy sell. They had to be convinced that more and better planning was to be in place if they were going to place their names on the event program. They received that assurance.

Next, the Festival had to be moved. The event was not going to sell folks on the reality that the seacoast shops and restaurants were open long after Labor Day, if those same shops and restaurants were located some miles away. The event simply had to located in the thick of Hampton Beach.

Next, if the Festival was to happen, it needed to depend upon the blood, sweat, and tears of volunteers . . . good volunteers . . . dedicated volunteers . . . and plenty of them.

It took some time, but the Chamber managed to obtain all of the necessary permits in order to hold the Hampton Beach Seafood Festival exactly where it held today, directly in front of that famous landmark, the Hampton Beach Casino, directly in front of one of the National Resources Defense Council's "Top Ten Cleanest Beaches in the Nation" . . . Hampton Beach.

It must be kept in mind that although the Festival had experienced its initial birth pains, it experienced them in a location far removed from its new location. Thus, once again, according to Johnny Mac and Jake Kennedy, "We were flying by the seats of our pants!"

"Very quickly we realized that we desperately needed electricity," Jake chuckled. "We had one outlet and 25 watts of power, and that was for EVERYBODY! We kept assuring folks that things were going to work out and be fine. They just needed to have a little patience. We were really sweating it, because we weren't how we were going to pull it off."

"Everybody came through," chimed Johnny. "Parsons Electric somehow began to produce power. Vic Lessard & Co. put in the poles. Hampton Electric strung wire. Voila! The tents had power, and we weren't liars!"

"Volunteers didn't quit with the electricity," said Doc Noel, current Director of the Chamber. "The Donahue Brothers donated coffee. Local personality, Bobby Houle, got us a segment on WBZ-TV's People are Talking. Publicity Coordinator for the Chamber, Pat Whitley, managed to attract 'Dancing With the Stars'" Tom Bergeron to emcee the event. Joe Daly, local singer, managed to attract talent, I mean really good talent, to come in and perform. Ray Grady, who designed the New Hampshire State Quarter, organized the sand sculpting contest."

"Everybody stepped up to the plate," said Jude David, the current Chairperson of the Hampton Beach Seafood Festival, "and everybody hit a home run."

"We had committees for everything," said Doc Noel. "We had at least 20 of them for everything we could think of. One guy who really earned his stripes, but didn't receive many accolades was Norm Boyles and his crew. Somehow, that group managed to control traffic to, around, and away from the festival as though they had been handling it for years. It was sheer poetry."

"And we can't forget the clean-up crew," Jake chuckled. "We got John McDonald and Brian Harrington. They were getting up in years, but they wanted to be involved. We thought that clean-up would be something easy for them. We never anticipated the heat or the amount of trash. They just about keeled over. They were troopers, though. They hung in there, and kept the place clean as a whistle."

When asked about the emergencies that occurred during the Festival, Jimmy Kennedy laughed, "It was amazing. We had folks with walkie-talkies watching for problems. We had an ambulance on stand-by. It was set to take a patient to a hospital on a moment's notice. And, we waited . . . and we waited. Finally, we determined that there was something wrong with the communications system. Monday, after the Festival was over, we took the walkie-talkies in to be serviced. The electronics guy checked them out. He said, "These are perfect. I guess you just didn't have any emergencies." Come to think of it, I guess we didn't."

"Yeah, but we can't forget what happened to Brian Warburton, the now State Parks Director, was really working to help set things up," said Johnny Mac. "Brian happened to be standing near the ambulance when his nose started bleeding. We quickly bundled him into the ambulance. The lights flashed. The siren started. Then, before it could pull away, Brian was out the door with an ice pack against his nose. That was it. One nose bleed, and the ambulance didn't leave the curb! Come to think of it, that may have been our only medical emergency in twenty years!"

"Initially, there were about 60 volunteers to do about everything," Doc Noel reminisced. "Now, I suppose there might be ten times that many."

"Jim Toomey of The Whale's Tail," was great," Johnny Mac said. "He would allow the volunteers to congregate in his restaurant. It was our unofficial headquarters."

"When the event was over, all of us who could still walk met over at the Ashworth," said Jimmy Kennedy. "It was the only place around large enough to accommodate a gathering this large. The event is still held there, it's about two seeks after the Festival. It's a grand event now, and the Chamber really shows its gratitude to all those who help out."

"Everybody had a great time," said Jake. "They still do! The stories from the each and every Festival are myriad. And, you know, they're generally all true!"

Johnny chuckled as he remembered Johnny Pal. "He was terrific. Everybody liked him. But Johnny wasn't the happiest camper at the Festival. We had three food tents, and his area just happened to be the closest to the pony ride area. I guess he just wasn't thrilled about the natural aroma surrounding his salads."

"He had been selling salads for a dollar on Saturday," said Jimmy. "Then, he found out how popular they were so he raised his price to two dollars on Sunday. A woman was about to buy a salad on Sunday, but when she saw the sign she complained, "I paid a dollar for this salad yesterday. Now, you're charging me two dollars!" "Hey, lady," said Pal, "That was yesterday. Today's Sunday!" It meant absolutely nothing, but she stopped complaining and bought the salad anyway!"

Along with the temperature, the sale of Coke soars during the Festival. It is such a huge seller, in fact, that there are four stations dedicated to the sale of the refreshing soft drink. It was during the heat of the first Festival in front of the Casino when Johnny Mac and Brian Harrington, frazzled from their volunteer efforts, decided to take an unscheduled break for some "optional refreshment" on the patio adjacent to the Purple Urchin.

"We relaxed watching people working while searching for us. Finally, somebody decided to go to the walkie-talkie to ask for our position. I told him politely that we were at Coke Station No. Five."

"Five!" He howled. "Where the #@$* is Station Five?"

Ginny McNamara, Doc Noel, Jude Dionne
Vice Chairperson of the Seafood Festival Committee, Ginny McNamara, Doc Noel (HB Chamber of Commerce President) and Jude Dionne (Festival Chairperson).

"Right above you," I said calmly. "Look up."

He did, groaned, and walked away. In a few moments, we were back down to help."

"One of the greatest ideas," said Vice Chairperson of the Seafood Festival Committee, Ginny McNamara, was the use of the busses to shuttle people to and from the event. "This is another case of great volunteer involvement. We have 24 busses from 13 satellite locations picking up and dropping off people at their designated stops every 15 minutes. The drivers are all volunteers and work for tips only. These people are amazing!"

From its chancy beginnings to its present-day success, the Hampton Beach Seafood Festival has simply grown and flourished to become one of the true mainstays of the New England seacoast region. Attendees to the event come from as far away as Pennsylvania and Canada. Amazingly, each and every hotel, motel, and B&B in the region is booked far in advance of the actual weekend. In fact, most attendees are so thrilled with the Festival that they book their room for the following year while attempting to track down the best lobster roll in this year's Festival.

An initial thought was that the crowds would appreciate the seacoast after Labor Day. Venders could push clothing and souvenirs that didn't move during the summer. And, restaurants, and maybe one or two motels might make a buck on a tourist or two. The initial thought couldn't have been any more wrong!

A reluctant 10 restaurants participated in the Festival's first year of operation. Currently, the number of entrants is capped at 55.

Initially, the Festival was seen as a showcase for area restaurants and eateries. The idea was to allow attendees to appreciate that businesses in the area remained open beyond Labor Day. Seafood was sold by purchase of tickets, and tickets were used to procure "tastes" of the savory dishes. Soon, it was discovered that folks definitely wanted more than a mere taste of the food that makes the seacoast famous.

"The restaurants serve delicious seafood," said Jake. "They are not, however, equipped to cater. That just isn't their bag. Yet, when the Boardwalk's Jimmy Trainor found out how to produce and vend complete lobster dinners, the rush was on!"

John Tinios, owner of the Galley Hatch, was one of those reluctant to participate in the Festival during its infancy. He became involved, but he did so begrudgingly. Then, an amazing thing happened about ten o'clock in the evening on Saturday of Festival weekend. It was John calling the Hatch from the Whale's Tail.

"Who's working, and how much food do you have," he asked excitedly.

"We're closing, and nothing's ready," came the reply.

"Well, bring in a third crew and start cooking. Cook all night or we won't have anything to serve in the morning. This thing is really booming!"

The booming continues to this day. The Festival is such a terrific crowd magnet that in recent years the Chamber began awarding "BESTS" in numerous categories. And, if you think participants don't take those awards seriously, brother, think again! Drive Route 1-A and you'll easily spot a marquee for "The Best Clam Chowder in 2007!" or a sign featuring "The Best Lobster Roll in 2008! Yes, these folks are proud, and the pride is justified!

But wait! There's more! The Festival's entertainment has definitely changed since the early days of Louie the Lobster and Gladys the Clam. Yes, WHEB FM 100.3 added background sound to the event. And, there was a two-day slate of entertainment featuring everything from Recycled Folk to Joe Daly & the Once-a-year Irish Band, and from Black Comedy to Dup Bueno. It was all great fun, and very entertaining. Times have changed, and so has the entertainment. What does this year's Festival feature? Well, it may not have everything, but it will certainly do until everything comes along! Here is but a sample: a show by Sky Dive New England, a 5-K road race, a cooking demonstration featuring Billy Costa, a concert by the Drifters, and another by the Air Force Band of Liberty, and, of course, two nights of fireworks and more. After all, the Hampton Beach Seafood Festival has been voted the largest non-spectator event in New Hampshire.

No, the Festival is officially NOT a "seat-of-your-pants" operation any longer. The governor of New Hampshire holds a VIP party at the Purple Urchin to help launch the occasion. His arrival reminds residents and tourists alike that the Festival is far more than simply a feeding frenzy. It is a boon to regional merchants, and it is a time to celebrate those in the region who help to make the area such an amazing location.

No, Lorraine Pivirotto may not have been able to foresee the impact her transplanted idea would have upon the New Hampshire seacoast. She did, however, believe the festival idea had merit. People believed in her and her idea. And, the hard work of so many makes the entire project seem to be a veritable cakewalk from set-up to take-down.

This article celebrates the perseverance and dedication of Lorraine and so many others (and, yes, persons omitted from this piece was solely the writer’s oversight, and I apologize ferociously)  who have taken the idea and turned it into a twenty-year old institution.  The actuality of the Seafood Festival is truly a wonderful accomplishment and certainly a great labor of love.