Thousands hit the streets for giant downtown party |[4/17/05]

Published 12:00 am Monday, April 18, 2005

Riverfest 2005 came and went – with a bang.

Organizers said the approximate 17,000 people who danced, listened to music, visited, ate from the more than 100 vendor booths, bought arts, crafts and gadgets and strolled the four blocks of Washington Street Friday and Saturday was at least as many as the largest crowd yet in the 18-year-old street party.

Last year’s numbers reached 17,000.

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“I’ve been on the board for five years, and this has exceeded any attendance,” said Riverfest vice president Jerry Boland. “It’s not about one guy – it’s about the whole concept – from the arts and crafts clear down to the headliner this weekend.”

The attendance numbers were imprecise, Riverfest president Sam Treubel said, because all tickets had not been counted by 11 Saturday night.

Riverfest’s headliner, country music singer Dierks Bentley, who has a current hit with “What Was I Thinkin’,” from his self-titled album, performed at 9 on the North Stage, one of three stages between China and South.

A popular attraction for young Riverfest attendants early Saturday was the National Guard Hum-V grenade launcher parked on Washington Street.

Staff Sgt. Clayton Johnston said about 1,000 children had climbed aboard the Hum-V just to see the grenade launcher.

Toy spitting lizards, made by Birmingham natives Jim and Mary Kearney, were a hit for children of all ages at the arts and crafts festival that covered Washington Street from China to Jackson streets.

The Kearneys make the trip to Vicksburg twice a year – for Riverfest and Vicksburg’s Downtown Fall Festival in October – to sell their $5 creatures on a leash. Jim Kearney said he invented the spitting lizard, a foam toy that releases water from the mouth, nine years ago, and he sells out every year.

Seven-year-old Colby Kirkland saw other children walking around with one of Kearney’s creations and had to have one of her own because “they’re cute,” she said.

Catherine Cox had her paws on a live creature – an orange and white kitten that was one of the cats and dogs on display by the Vicksburg-Warren Humane Society.

Bridgette Cortezie of the Humane Society said 14 animals had been adopted by about 1 p.m. Saturday at the booth that was part of the arts and crafts area.

Catherine’s father, David Cox, said the family adopted a dog from the humane society two years ago, but, since they already have two cats, they couldn’t adopt the cat Catherine held for more than 20 minutes.

She already had a name picked out – Sunny.

“It looks like the sky,” she said.

Bigger cats were the center of attention for many at The Great Cat Adventures’ tiger area, where people could have pictures taken with 4-week-old baby Bengal tigers, was also a hit at Riverfest. It was the second year for the company to bring the show to Riverfest.

Verle Creek, a worker with the federally licensed rescue center based in Amarillo, Texas, said at least 2,000 people dropped by to see the tigers. The money from pictures will go to feeding, housing and providing veterinarian care to the rescue animals.

When the gates requiring $15 tickets reopened at 6, the music cranked up and more people poured in. As the crowd moved toward the North stage at Washington and China where Mustang Sally, an all-women rock group, was performing, people bopped and sang along to the lyrics.

While the crowd around the stage grew, about 25 people took part in a meet-and-greet with Bentley.

“I can’t look at him without getting nervous,” 23-year-old Melody Bower said as she waited in line to get an autograph and have her picture taken with the country star. “He’s so cute.”

Bower said she listened to Bentley’s CD the whole week leading up to his 9 p.m. performance. She said she wanted to make sure she could sing along to the songs at the highly anticipated show.

Two boys were among the people given the opportunity to meet the singer. Will Conway and Steve Bryant were given passes by Boland, who said both boys are fans of Bentley.

“I had some extra meet-and-greet passes, and I thought it was important to give these kids a chance to meet him,” Boland said. “These are a couple of special needs kids – it’s important to me because it means everything in the world to these kids. They know the words to every (Bentley) song.”

Mark Stevens, who arrived at the North Stage about an hour before Bentley performed, said the crowd was the strongest he’s ever seen at Riverfest.

“I was at the original (Riverfest),” he said. “There has been tremendous growth since the first one. It’s morphed into a different thing. The weather has been good – that’s been a big factor, and they have chosen a good headliner.”

Rosalie Theobald, director of Main Street, said Riverfest was like having a weekend long Mardi Gras parade.

“By all indications, this is the biggest Riverfest ever,” she said.

Although the 18th year of Riverfest has come to a close, board members will begin preparing for next year’s downtown street festival in the next couple of months, Treubel said.

The double-elimination softball tournament that began Saturday morning at City Park softball fields will pick up again at about 1 p.m. today.