PORTLAND — For nearly 50 years, early June has been parade time for Shoestring Theater Director Nance Parker.

But on Sunday, June 9, Parker and her team of volunteers will be bringing the theater’s oversized puppets down from their Brackett Street headquarters to the top of Exchange Street for the Old Port Festival parade for the last time.

“I can’t imagine a June without getting ready for the Old Port Festival parade,” said Parker, 62, who has been leading the Shoestring Theater since 1982.

The Old Port Festival, the culminating event of Portland Downtown’s Summer Kickoff Weekend, started in 1973 as a grassroots arts and music festival designed to generate vitality downtown. In March, it was announced that 2019 would be the 46th and final year of the festival.

Casey Gilbert, Portland Downtown executive director, said ending the organization’s involvement with the Old Port Festival will allow the group to focus on its other events, including the winter lights and Christmas tree displays; Downtown Workers Appreciation Day; the Summer Cadet Program; Peer Outreach Worker Program and Police Awards Breakfast, as well as ongoing efforts to create a “clean, safe and vibrant downtown.”

Gilbert said the organization will still hold its Summer Kickoff Weekend in the future – but without the Old Port Festival.

“We want to continue that kick-off regardless of what event may replace Old Port Festival,” Gilbert said. “We are going to kick off summer on the second weekend of June.”

Parker said she will be sad to see the tradition end. Although there will be other parades for Shoestring Theater, including the American Folk Festival on Aug. 23 in Bangor, none will quite be like the Old Port Festival parade.

“The Old Port parade isn’t my last big parade, but in my heart, this is the end of something that has been a big part of my life, my family’s life and the city’s life for years,” Parker said.

Portland Downtown’s Summer Kickoff Weekend will begin Friday, June 7, when simultaneous music and theater performances will be held from 6-8 p.m., with performances by Fresnel Theater in Post Office Park; Maine Marimba Ensemble in Monument Square; Sea Level & The Memorial Skylight in Congress Square Park, and Palaver Strings in Longfellow Square.

“The goal of the event is to showcase our entire downtown. Our footprint is from Congress Street, Franklin Street all the way up to Longfellow Square. We want to get people out moving from park to park,” Gilbert said.

Saturday, June 8, will feature New England Ocean Cluster’s Walk the Waterfront from 11 a.m.-3 p.m., including tours of the Portland Fire Department fire boat and a U.S. Coast Guard vessel. Saturday will also feature Shop for a Cause, a benefit event for LearningWorks.

The final Old Port Festival will kick off at 11 a.m. Sunday, June 9, with the annual parade down Exchange Street, featuring Shoestring Theater and the Maine Academy of Modern Music.

Parker said she expects a strong turnout for the parade and has heard many people who haven’t been involved in recent years say they aren’t going to miss the last one. She said anyone who wants to help the theater group with its 15 carnival heads and 25 puppets should be at the top of Exchange Street at 10:15 a.m.

The last Old Port Parade, Parker said, will be bittersweet since it will be not only her last one, but the last one for a puppet inspired by the late Susan Bergier. She was proprietor of the former Amaryllis clothing store on Exchange Street, and a strong supporter of Shoestring Theater and other city arts organizations.

“This has made me think about the end of large parades,” Parker said. “At my age, I have been thinking, I can’t do this forever. The end of the Old Port Festival has jumped forward that thinking for me.”

The festival will also have 45 food vendors, including many local restaurants; 110 Maine-based arts and craft businesses, and a traveling sauna from The Little Red Sauna. A pair of attractions that have been part of previous festivals – a climbing wall and Ferris wheel – will not be on hand.

There will be music on several outdoor stages:

WCLZ will be hosting local bands such as Snughouse at noon, Katie Matzell at 1 p.m., Dominic Lavoie at 2 p.m. and The Mallet Brothers Band at 3:30 p.m. at the corner of Fore and Silver Streets; the Coast/WPOR stage on the corner of Middle and Temple streets will feature Hailey Knox at 12:30 p.m., Nick Howard at 1:30 p.m., Joe Gallant at 2:45 p.m. and Logan Mize at 3:45 p.m, and The Maine Academy of Modern Music will have hourly performances at Commercial and Dana streets.

At the Children’s Stage at Post Office Park, Mad Science of Maine will perform at noon followed by Portland Youth Dance at 1 p.m and additional performances by students from Maine Academy of Modern Music.

Jeff Shaw, executive director and founder of Maine Academy of Modern Music, said the Old Port Festival has been great exposure for his students. The organization, headquartered on Presumpscot Street, has used the festival as the culminating event of its school year program and official launch of its summer camps, which still have openings.

“Our goal is to put our students on stage and in front of large audiences,” Shaw said. “It’s been great to be a part of that for the last 10 years.”

To accommodate Sunday’s events, streets between Congress, Pearl, Commercial and Union/Temple streets will be closed during the Old Port Festival.

While Portland Downtown will continue its Summer Kickoff Weekend into the future, it remains unknown if another event will fill the void left by the Old Port Festival.

“It will be interesting to see how the community responds and to see what comes out of the ashes in 2020 and beyond,” Shaw said.

Michael Kelley can be reached at 780-9106 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter:@mkelleynews

Shoestring Theater, seen here at last year’s Old Port Festival, has led the Portland festival parade for more than 40 years. This year’s festival, on Sunday, June 9, will be the last.

The 46th Old Port Festival on Sunday, June 9, from 11 a.m.-5 p.m., will feature live music, arts and craft vendors and more than 40 food vendors.

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