By festive Emmet
I don’t have to go to the Maine Lobster Festival anymore. I have put my time (30 years) in at Rockland’s public landing during the festival date, always the first weekend in August.
The annual festival was fascinating at first, because there was always a story for a NEWS reporter at the public landing. Back in those days (I hate that) the sardine plants were going full tilt and Rita Willey beat all comers in the annual fish packing contest on the festival stage. Willey could pack 400 cans an hour and won the title five times. You have to remember that these women were paid on a piece rate and the fastest packer made the most money.
Willey was so good that she ended up on the Tonight Show and eventually packed sardines on national television with Johnny Carson. I was always a big Rita fan and felt bad when she lost her crown one year to rival sardine packer Pat Havener. I did a story for the Sunday Globe and Havener’s picture ended up on the front page. If you ask Willey today, she will say that she only lost because she cut off half her finger on the festival stage.
The festival highlight for many was the Friday night naming of the Maine Sea Goddess, on the stage near the Courier building. Many people thought the pageant was the highlight of the summer and hundreds packed the festival grounds every Friday night. The newspapers were always tipped off a few hours earlier, so they could get their stories in on time. But sharp observers would always watch Jim Moore, a reporter for the Portland Press Herald who also “moonlighted” for the Portland television stations.
When they did the contestant’s walk across the stage, Moore would only shoot film of only one contestant. That contestant would be named the winner a few minutes later.
My favorite festival moment was when I was on the stage (brief career) as Blackbeard, the Pirate. I actually had a black beard. Another Press Herald denizen, Ted Cohen, who sadly replaced Moore, was my sea hag, dressed in old fish nets. Dason Decourcey, the old emcee was singing some corny song and Cohen said “Do you dare me to blow cigar smoke in his face?” I dared him.
With hundreds watching, he walked across the stage, stood next to the crooner and blew smoke from his cheap cigar into the singer’s face. I didn’t really see what happened because I was rolling across the stage, laughing.
You had to be there.
Everyone thought it was part of the act. Only Saul Zwecker, who ran one of the sardine plants, complimented Cohen. “The funniest thing I have ever seen,” according to Zwecker.
Again, you had to be there.
The festival was one of my biggest mistakes. I wrote the story about the pageant winner. She happened to be the daughter of Main Street merchant Paul Arvidson, who was a great guy. When the paper came out on Saturday morning, the story was not there. I had written the story, all right, but never sent it to the NEWS. I suspect that Paul thought I had done it on purpose, which I would never do. Getting the pageant winner right and on time was a huge thing with three newspapers and a radio station in town. Getting “beat” by the Courier and Press Herald was the ultimate humiliation.
Every year we wrote a story that the Hell’s Angels motorcycle club was coming to the festival. We waited and waited, but they never showed.
My favorite festival story was from Florida Frank. Florida Frank had a festival tactic for finding a woman. He would buy shots of tequila for every woman in shouting distance at the Black Pearl, which was always festival center. Frank who billed himself as “the smartest man in New England” figured he had a much better chances with alcohol-addled women. Naturally, he would have a few shots with them.
One festival Friday night, Florida Frank took a walk from the Pearl to stop his head from spinning. He (literally) bumped into Chief Al and a posse of Rockland police officers. “You working, Al?” was all Festival Frank could come up with. Al said “No, we like to dress up in our uniforms, badges and guns and hang around the street corner in our spare time.”
The next morning, Chief Al was proudly leading the parade down Main Street in his shiny cruiser, siren blaring, lights flashing. Frank ran up to the police car and yelled to Al, who momentarily turned off the siren. Frank leaned in the window and yelled “Are you working, Al?”
You had to be there.