Entrepreneur Resurrects Chicopee’s Fabled Kielbasa FestivalRich Kos says it was sometime in the early ’80s; he doesn’t remember the specific year.
What he does remember is meeting the professional wrestler Ivan Putski — known then, and probably still, as the “Polish Power” and “Polish Hammer” — as he made the rounds during Chicopee’s annual Kielbasa Festival.
“He was quite the hit as he walked around the grounds — kids, and grown-ups, kept running up to him,” said Kos, who was city solicitor then, and is now in his second go-around as mayor. “That’s just one of many memories I have from the old days.”
Seemingly everyone from Chicopee has a mental photo album crammed with snapshots from the festival and those ‘old days,’ meaning the ’70s and ’80s, when the K-Fest, as it was called, would draw north of 80,000 people to the rear parking lot of the old Fairfield Mall for its annual four-day run in September.
License plates from states half a continent away would dot the parking lot, and national and even international acts, including some of polka’s greatest legends, would entertain the throngs. There were rides, attractions, and the ‘world’s largest kielbasa’ contest, with the winner weighing in at several hundred pounds.
Alas, the old days eventually became solely the stuff of memories, as the K-Fest succumbed to many ills (more on all that later) in the mid-’90s and was discontinued.
And it might have remained a part of the city’s past if Tom Kielbania Jr. didn’t set about to create some new old days more than 18 months ago.
That’s when this serial entrepreneur of sorts — he’s been involved with everything from music (as drummer for the ’80s dance band Orange Crush) to real estate — decided the K-Fest could be revived, and it could succeed as a for-profit venture, even if there was no shortage of people telling him that was flawed thinking.
“There were a lot of doubters — some people told me I was crazy,” he told BusinessWest as he recalled how he brought back the festival roughly a year ago at Szot Park. He believes more than 16,000 attended that rain-bothered event, which did well enough in his estimation to convince him that he had made the right decision.
Year two of the ‘new’ Kielbasa Festival is set for Memorial Day weekend. Kielbania is expecting perhaps 40,000 people if the weather cooperates. They’ll be treated to a wide array of entertainment, including a host of polka banks and, yes, Orange Crush. There will be a wide assortment of kielbasa, Polish food, barbecue, and other menu options, as well as rides and other attractions.
“This will be a family event, like it was all those years ago,” he said, adding that now, as it was then, the K-fest will be a celebration of Chicopee as much as it is a celebration of Polish food and traditions.
For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Kielbania about why and how he resurrected this event once synonymous with Chicopee, and with others about what it all means for this community.
Spicing Things UpSteve Jendrysik is considered Chicopee’s unofficial historian. Thus, the retired social-studies supervisor at Chicopee Comprehensive High School can easily recite the life and times of the K-Fest, and has done so in many ways, including a regular column on Chicopee history he has written for the Republican since 1998 and as a major contributor to several of the Arcadia Publishing books on the city.
He told BusinessWest that, ironically, the festival was started not by a member of the city’s large Polish population, but rather by an Irishman, Neil O’Leary.
He owned a dry-cleaning business down the street from the main entrance to Westover Air Reserve Base, said Jendrysik, adding that it was O’Leary’s idea to create a community event centered around what was arguably Chicopee’s signature product. There were several shops producing kielbasa at that time, including Chicopee Provision Co., makers of the Blue Seal label for more than a century.
He pitched the idea to the Chamber of Commerce, and it eventually became the purview of that agency’s fund-raising arms, known as the Fireball Club (a men’s group) and the Super Cs (for women).
“This was a product of that era — in the ’70s, festivals were very big,” said Jendrysik, citing Wilbraham’s Peach Festival and the myriad ‘Tastes’ that became popular in the ’80s as other examples.
The festival started small, as a larger version of an event run by St. Stanislaus’ parish, he said, but eventually gained momentum — and much larger crowds — through the participation of big-name polka bands from around the country — including Jimmy Sturr’s Orchestra, Lenny Gomulka and the Chicago Push, and others.
The K-Fest, staged the week before the Big E and often featuring many of the same rides and attractions as the fair, enjoyed a mostly healthy 20-year-run, said Jendrysik, adding that there were several factors that eventually led to its demise in 1994.
Chief among them was simply fatigue on the part of organizers, he noted, adding that this was a volunteer-led effort, and there was quite a workload. But rising insurance costs also played a part, as did a lawsuit (one that threatened to push those rates considerably higher) stemming from an altercation during the festival and near one of its parking areas.
Over the ensuing years, there were some minor efforts to resuscitate the festival and some much smaller events launched in its wake, including something known as the Festiv-All. But there were seemingly too many obstacles standing in the way of a comeback.
Enter Kielbania, who by that time was looking for a new, additional outlet for his considerable entrepreneurial energy.
Orange Crush, which started performing as an R.E.M. tribute band in 1996, was and still is immensely popular — it has played at more than 250 colleges and in more than 20 states, and a few years ago it released an original album — but music is a difficult business and, in this case, not as lucrative as it once was.A Chicopee native, Kielbana knew of the K-Fest’s history and success decades ago, and began talking with friends and people in the promotions business about turning back the clock, figuratively speaking.
As he mentioned, the idea met with skepticism from those who knew of the event, its rise and fall, and with question marks from those who understood none of the above.
“My wife is from Northfield,” he noted. “When I got the rights to the festival, I was ecstatic — I knew about all the possibilities; I knew what it could be as a business — but she didn’t get it, because she didn’t know the history.”
Music to His Ears
After several long and quite stressful months of planning — Kielbania says he lost 30 pounds while putting it all together — the inaugural version of the reinvented festival was staged the week before Memorial Day to avoid the considerable competition that dominates the summer weekends.
Attendance was roughly 12,000 paid — young children are admitted free, he said, adding that the four-day festival itself was profitable, and the year-round venture as a whole broke even, a solid performance for events of this kind.
“For a new event, usually it takes five years to become profitable,” he said. “The fact that my event was profitable in the first year … no one expected that; all my promoter friends told me I was going to lose or, at best, break even. We did way better than break even.”
He’s taken that first year’s success and the momentum it generated to create a show for 2015 that will be bigger in every respect, in large part because that first year convinced people that Kielbania was serious and, more importantly, capable of pulling off an event worthy of its name.
“I had a lot of people who didn’t think it was going to happen, and I had a lot of people who didn’t think this was going to work, because they remember the old days,” he said, adding that many didn’t believe he could properly honor the event’s legacy. “They didn’t realize that there’s new blood in the mix. We’re a different generation; we get things done, and we can get it done.”
That first year’s performance has also led to more support from some of the players in the business community — an outcome resulting in part from Kielbania’s efforts to convince business owners that, despite the event’s for-profit nature, it gives back to the community.
“This year, I’m hoping to put $20,000 back into the schools’ coffers, to the PTOs, and several nonprofits,” he said, adding that, as in those often-mentioned old days, those groups are involved with the operation of the event.
“I’m not trying to push the event or stress why people should go to it,” he said in reference to his formal and informal marketing efforts. “Instead, I’m focused on how we can benefit the city and how we can get the city to help run it, using the nonprofit organizations.”
Chicopee Savings Bank is one of those businesses that has stepped up to sponsor the event. Its president, Bill Wagner, remembers the old days, and believes Kielbania has shown that he can potentially replicate them.
“It rained for two days last year, and they still had a lot of people there — I was surprised at how well they did,” Wagner said, adding that the bank has gone to a higher sponsorship level this year. “I never thought he’d make it work, but he did, and you’ve got to give credit where credit’s due.”
Kos, who regained the corner office a few months before the 2014 event, agreed. He said Kielbania talked with him about his plans and impressed him with his resolve.
“We talked about how this was quite an endeavor, and he said he was up for it,” the mayor recalled. “He showed that he was.”
Ivan Putski will not be making an appearance at this year’s K-Fest, but there will be plenty of star power in other forms. The entertainment list includes a host of polka bands, including the Chardon Polka Band from Ohio and the Chris & Ronnie Polka Band from New Jersey, as well as many other acts, from A Ray of Elvis to a slew of tribute bands.
Meanwhile, Kielbania says he’s addressed the three main complaints from last year — lack of a dance floor, a shortage of Polish food, and not enough options when it came to kielbasa — and especially that last one.
“I have my own ‘Tour of Kielbasa’ tent, where I’m bringing in different kielbasas from Poland, Chicago, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, and lots of local guys,” he told BusinessWest. “I’m making it a kielbasa festival — I’m celebrating kielbasa.”
Food for Thought
Looking down the road, and not far down, Kielbania expects to take this business — meaning the staging of festivals and like events — to the next level.
He’s talking with a potential partner and is already mulling options for more events in Chicopee and well beyond, including a Kielbasa festival in the Berkshires and maybe another on the Cape.
At the moment, though, most of his energy is focused on bringing an end, or at least a sharp reduction, to talk about the old days and heightening attention on the present day.
And he’s already well on his way to doing just that.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]