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June 29. 2012

Sunny days make Pride festivals grow

Cleveland--The numbers 24 and 31 resounded throughout Ohio on the weekends of June 15-16 and June 23, as Columbus Pride celebrated its 31st anniversary and Cleveland Pride commemorated two dozen years on the North Coast.

Both weekends saw sparklingly beautiful skies. Cleveland, the site of the 2014 Gay Games, was treated to a rainbow nimbus around the sun just after 2:30 pm.

According to Columbus Pride organizer Lori Gum, between the parade and the two days of the festival, around 275,000 people attended the weekend’s festivities, with 187 vendors in Goodale Park.

“It was really fantastic,” she said. It was an amazing turnout this year, and I think we had really a large group of allies attend this year, with our theme being ‘Allies and Equality.’ It was a really supportive atmosphere.”

“We’re really thrilled with the turnout and it exceeded our expectations,” she continued. “It could not have gone better. It was really a big Columbus party, not just an LGBT event.”

Proving that was the over 200 companies that had booths at Columbus Pride. Connie Schultz, wife of Sen. Sherrod Brown and award-winning newspaper columnist, put the crowd at 230,000 in an article on AppealDemocrat.com where she described walking into the festival as walking into the future of marriage equality.

Next year’s Columbus Pride will be held on June 21 and 22, and the festival will remain at Goodale Park for the fifth year. It was held at Bicentennial Park downtown for years, but construction forced a move to Goodale in 2009. The site was so successful for Pride that organizers decided to keep it there.

Estimates of Columbus Pride attendance tend to vary widely because it is a mass of people wandering in and out of Goodale Park, making it difficult to get an accurate count.

In Cleveland, however, Pride is in a Lake Erie park accessible only by a pier. A Chronicle reporter counted 1,897 marchers in the parade, including some spectators who joined after it passed them. This is down from last year’s 2,533, but this year’s parade had 57 contingents, up from 40 last year.

“Ironically, while the parade had a lower number of attendees, it had a larger footprint in the staging area,” said Cleveland Pride president Todd Saporito, noting that there were more vehicles and floats than in previous years.

Subtracting the number of wristbands left over at the festival’s front gate from the total made put the day’s attendance at 19,400. Saporito expressed surprise that the parade was smaller than last year, but the festival was significantly larger than the 2011 total of 16,000 people.

The Beer Garden expanded this year, as did the Youth Towne area for 14 to 24-year-olds. Saporito noted that the build-up for the Youth Towne was funded by a grant written by Cleveland Pride with the AIDS Funding Collaborative, executed through the AIDS Taskforce of Greater Cleveland.

The collaboration worked. They had 800 wristbands for the area, but about 2,000 youth occupied it over the course of the day, while over 3,000 people crowded around it, dancing to the DJs performing specifically in the Youth Towne area on the north edge of the park.

“The entire area was blanketed with people,” Saporito said in an awed voice. “That was just absolutely unbelievable.”

While he was trying to figure out a way to control entry and exit from the Youth Towne, AIDS Taskforce executive director Tracy Jones was already talking about making it even larger next year. This year’s facility, completely enclosed, was almost four times the size of last year.

There was also an expanded kids’ play zone with face painting and flags donated by the Gay Games for children to decorate.

The closest thing to a hiccup in the day’s proceedings came with the late arrival of Brian Stokes Mitchell, the celebrity grand marshal of the parade, who performed that evening with the North Coast Men’s Chorus. He arrived late because of problems with his flight. Chorus members kept up minute-by-minute updates on his arrival from the airport to the festival.

“It was like at Christmas, when they’re tracking Santa Claus on Doppler radar,” Saporito laughed.

Stokes missed the parade, which was led by Pride’s overall grand marshal, Dr. Michelle Nicopolis of Cuyahoga Community College, who has forged relationships between Pride and many area college gay-straight alliances.

Saporito noted that Anthony Covatta managed the main stage and Brionna Brooks handled the performance stage by the Beer Garden, both of which had solid crowds all day long. He was especially impressed with the talent they brought in, including Robin Stone, Less Than 88 and Kids Tested, along with Justin Rancher, who led the audience in Zumba dance-exercises, getting the crowd moving in the 85-degree heat.

“He just did a fantastic job, had a lot of energy behind it,” he said, noting that Rancher’s routines facilitated getting bands set up on the stage without the audience getting restive.

Saporito pointed to a bevy of people whose efforts streamlined the production of Pride this year, including board members Nicholas Dybo, Jon Brittain and Dan Miller, along with Brian Tavolier, who handled vendor logistics, Jeff Schneider with festival logistics, and Chuck Mesrobian, who handled volunteers. He pointed out that Tavolier was accommodating additional vendors less than two days before the festival.

The Pride program, printed days before the later additions, listed 85 vendors.

Saporito also pointed to Melanie Woods, who handled the kids’ play space, and the Basement Beauties, a cooperative run out of the basement at Twist, a group of volunteers serving the LGBT and allied community. Saporito said that the Basement Beauties’ work at Voinovich Park on the Thursday and Friday before Pride got almost everything ready, and that they were the bulk of the volunteer set-up corps.

He also said that their sponsorship levels were way up, and that sponsors kept appearing. “University Hospitals came out of nowhere, eager to be involved,” he said. “In less than 48 hours, they were on board.”

He also pointed to collaborations with Chase and the Cleveland Clinic, as well as the Gay Games.

“There is a tight symbiotic relationship between Pride and the Gay Games,” he noted, adding that Pride can help bring people to the Gay Games in 2014, and the Gay Games can help Cleveland Pride grow.

“I really believe, probably for the first time in five years, every organization stepped up and partnered together to make Pride a success,” he concluded. “This year, it just really came together, and I can’t tell you how pleased I was with the whole thing.”

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