Written by Dagmar Fors Karppi Friday, 08 October 2010 00:00
Working with the arts and crafts vendors at the annual Oyster Festival is right up Mel Warren’s alley. Mel Warren has been participating in Arts & Crafts events for 25 years. He comes by his involvement with the arts and crafts people naturally because he is one of them - another independent type and a leather craftsman himself.
“I chair the Arts & Crafts portion of the annual Oyster Festival myself,” said Mel. It is a typical artist’s viewpoint. He comes by it naturally – not only is he a craftsperson, but before that he was famous on the national scene in roller dance skating.
Before coming down with polio in 1958, Mel Warren and his wife Renee were in the National Roller Dance Skating Competition until1958; he was also teaching roller dance skating.
“My wife was skating in competition with another partner and she was a gold medalist; she and I won the Bronze. For two years we skated in national competition. I turned pro in 1955 when I started teaching and working as a floor guard at the Levittown Skating Rink – because there was no money in roller dance skating since it was run under the Skating Amateur Athletic Union.
“I had an eight-hour a day job, as purchasing manager for a firm in Westbury. I had the post for 19 years until they handed me a Golden Parachute and I had to retire at age 62, so did the people that built the company. In three years the company moved to Arizona.
“That had been my living, roller skating was for pocket money,” said Mel with wry humor.
Renee too worked: she waitressed at the Woodcrest Country Club; and she worked for the Scotto brothers who owned the Steerbarn – when they first started in business.
Mr. Warren’s connection with the Oyster Festival began when he volunteered there in 1995. The first year he sold his leather items; belts, pocketbooks and saddles. “I’m a leather craftsman myself, but I don’t do it at the festival anymore. I can’t be in my booth and run the show. The first year I tried it but it didn’t work.
“Managing the Arts & Crafts section is a full time job during the festival - from the set up to the knock down - and keeping the vendors and customers happy.
“Twenty years ago I did 20 shows a year, today I do six – but they are all high end shows,” he said.
“My responsibility is to bring in the vendors. We have 140 vendors, of which 50 are out of state. They cover a lot of categories: ceramics, jewelry, painting, clothing, photography, art, food condiments, stained glass and painted decorated glassware.”
He gathers vendors from his own contacts in the industry and at the shows that he takes part in. Each year he goes through the categories to make sure he can offer festival goers a good selection of items. The Arts & Crafts portion of the festival is touted as “Christmas Shopping in October”.
Mr. Warren makes saddles, belts, pocketbooks and wallets. “You can catch me at my home in East Norwich – in my basement. I dedicate it to my leather work.”
Setting up the Arts & Crafts is no easy job. At first they were located on West Main Street. People could stroll along the street and see their wares.
As the festival expanded they tried another location – Firemen’s Field. It turned out not to be a good location. A heavy wind blew in and knocked down some of the tents on the west side of the lot causing some havoc. Another year they set up the vendors in small tents in the parking lot behind Town Hall. They were always looking for the best location.
When Town of Oyster Bay Supervisor John Venditto said it would be possible for the festival to use Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Park’s parking lot for the food court, it also made it possible to put the Arts & Crafts there too – which ended up as the best solution of all.
Putting the Arts & Crafts in a large tent solved the problem of the weather and the wind. Mel set up a large exhibit size tent with lighting, that allowed the vendors to locate inside and be protected from the weather.
Today, he has two and a half tents, in an upside down letter U conformation. They are connected with a continuous aisle inside.
“It’s a great asset to the festival when the weather is bad. It affords people the opportunity to come inside when it rains. People in the food court run to the tents and hang out and we keep people there until the weather clears up. Before that, when we were in the street, people got into their cars and went home,” he said.
Weather is always something to contend with in an open air festival. Over the years the organizers have been lucky – when Saturday is rained out, Sunday has turned out well to cover the losses.
This last year, it was the second day when the weather tanked. “It was bad last year – really bad,” said Mel.
“This year I kidded about doing an ad saying vendors will be given life jackets and rubber rafts based on last year’s deluge. But, 90 percent of my vendors are returning. Some complaining and some not.”
He recently sent out letters to the vendors giving them the number of their booths so they know where they will be located inside the tents at the festival.
It’s all about the organizing, planning and hoping for good weather and big crowds. The weather is fine if it’s cold – that just whets everyone’s appetite – and the Arts & Crafts tent is set up just outside the Food Court.
“It actually protects the Food Court from the wind, he said.
Mel is always thinking!