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Austinites still go nuts for Pecan Street festivals

Patrick Beach
This weekend brings another installment of the Old Pecan Street Festival.

Ask the folks who helped get it going and they'll be surprised, too, but it's a fact: The Pecan Street Spring Arts Festival this weekend will be the, uh, 32nd annual. We think. Anyway, it started a really long time ago. Hang on. Yes, 32 it is.

Back in the day, there were a number of artists living on Sixth Street, and Marcy Fletcher and Emma Lou Lin and some other folks 'thought it would be great to have a little festival,' as Lin put it.

'It seems like the first one was in a parking lot around Sabine,' Lin said. 'It couldn't have been more than a block long, and I'm sure we didn't close the street.'

Fletcher remembers it rather differently.

'It started in the 200 block and went all the way to the 600 block,' Fletcher says. 'The street was closed at Red River.'

Fletcher gives top credit to artist Michael Wolverton, who was instrumental in bringing in something like 125 artists to network, sell their stuff and hang out.

'It was live art,' Fletcher said. 'It was participation. It's what brought the life back to those burned-out, unbought buildings.'

From those modest and decidedly DIY beginnings, the thing has grown into a monster that fills and spills out of the historic district for two solid days, with upward of 300,000 people attending, more than 250 artists - sculptors, painters, you name it - festival food (gotta get that turkey leg), kids' activities and, because this is Austin, live music. And it repeats in the fall.

Headlining at 8 p.m. Saturday is Billy Joe Shaver, aka the dude who shot that dude in the face but is not Dick Cheney. That's the kind of character who has always had a home on the street.

Like bluebonnets in the spring, the festival is one of those things that seems, to those not sweating out the details on the inside, to sort of just happen. But it's a lot of work, even now that it's run by a professional production company.

Such was not the case in the beginning, and that wasn't the only difference. Consider the street itself: Antone's was freshly opened on Sixth Street. Fletcher was running Friends and Lovers, a gay- and lesbian-friendly bar where Andrea ('More, More, More') True performed. The first festival was held around Easter, and Fletcher recalls a 6-foot-4-inch Easter bunny running around. And the work fell to those who dreamed up the idea.

'We were worn out,' Fletcher said. 'We were up night and day setting up roadblocks and getting security and everything.'

One other constant, aside from the depth and diversity of artistic talent, is the cover charge at the gate. There isn't one and never has been.

'The most telling thing, what we've always pushed for, is always for it to be free,' said Shannon Sedwick, founder of Esther's Follies and current board president of the Old Pecan Street Association, for which the festival is a fundraiser. 'It's one of the few free festivals in Austin. Most people just tend to throw up the fences and charge something, but we always felt it had to be free. It's not elitist. We make money if the booths sell well. There are some sponsors; I wish there could be more.'

(It's worth noting that Eeyore's Birthday Party, which just had its 47th go-round last week, is also free, as are some other festivals.)

Even though Lin doesn't live on the street anymore - she lived above where Roppolos Pizza is now - she still goes to the festival every year. So does Fletcher. And of course Sedwick, playing Patsy Cline, is still pulling stuff out of her bra at Esther's.

Like Austin itself, the fest started small, stuck around, got big and had a lasting effect.

'It was a very different world,' Fletcher said. 'Keeping Austin weird came from there.'; 445-3603

Pecan Street Spring Arts Festival

When: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday

Where: Sixth Street from Brazos Street to Interstate 35 and adjoining streets between Fifth and Seventh streets.