In Johnston, there has been a tradition as American as apple pie for the past 25 years. Back in 1989, the North Central Chamber of Commerce started the Apple Festival at the Governor Notte Park, and at its new home at War Memorial Park, the event has grown into a rite of fall for hundreds of families.
“It’s our 25th so we wanted to make the Apple Festival bigger and better. We wanted to add some new things, and we’re hoping it will bring some more excitement to the event,” said Deb Ramos, president of the North Central Chamber.
There are some new additions to the schedule, but the heart of the Festival has stayed the same for more than two decades. Apple Festival Chairman Lou Mansolillo says the object has always been the same.
“The whole family spirit in the community is what I enjoy. That’s really my overall favorite part of the festival, is people getting together and enjoying a nice fall day outside,” said Mansolillo, who has been volunteering at the Festival since 1990 and has served as chairman for the past eight years.
Even longer than that, Citizens Bank has served as the principal sponsor of the Apple Festival.
“We have a lot of branches in Johnston and it’s been an event for us that’s great to be involved in because of the family friendliness of it,” said Amy Kershaw, director of public affairs for Citizens Bank in Rhode Island.
The Apple Festival kicks off at 11:30 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 29, with a half-hour performance by the Johnston High School Band and Chorus. Entertainment continues throughout the day, with jazz/funk trio Knuf Said from noon to 1 p.m., the Johnston Dance and Performing Arts group from 2:30 to 3 p.m., Bob and Jen Mainelli from 3 to 4 p.m. and the U.S. Navy Band Rhode Island Sound from 4 to 5:30 p.m.
Musician Second Class Michael Sapien, unit leader for Rhode Island Sound, says that the crowd can expect to end the daytime entertainment on a high note.
“We’re a top 40 group and pretty high-energy show, so a lot of pop music – whatever’s on the billboard top 40,” he said.
Jen Mainelli-Pistocco, who has been performing with her father Bob since 1988, said that they too bring a familiar sound, touching upon jazz, contemporary and pop styles and the Sinatra-era songs that have always been popular with the Apple Festival crowd.
“We will be doing some Sinatra material and some swing stuff,” she said. “We’re just going to be playing a little bit of everything to entertain people.”
Music isn’t the only draw to the Apple Festival, however. On Saturday at 1 p.m., the signature event – the Apple Pie Competition – pits amateur bakers against one another, judged by a panel that includes Johnson & Wales pastry chef Mitch Stamm. The Apple Pie Competition, sponsored by Cherry Hill Manor, is an annual highlight for area bakers, and this year, bakers and audience members will have the added bonus of a “best of the best” competition featuring past winners.
Before and after the competition, festivalgoers can do some shopping at more than 80 vendor booths, offering everything from stained glass and handmade jewelry to chocolates and caricatures.
“Many of them have been part of the festival for several years, but we also have a lot of new vendors this year,” Ramos said. “I think it creates a huge opportunity for them to make sales, get leads throughout the year and just, in general, get some visibility.”
At the Chamber booth, visitors can learn more about the organization’s Scholarship Fund and enter a raffle to win a prom package that includes tuxedo rental, a gown, limousine service and a photography package. All raffle ticket sales will benefit the scholarship program, which supports students in the Chamber’s footprint communities of Johnston, North Providence, Smithfield, Scituate, Foster and Glocester.
In addition to shopping vendors, food vendors are an annual draw for families.
Mickey G’s Chamshack offers clam cakes and chowder, Chelo’s offers wrap sandwiches, Buddy’s Dinner offers grilled pizzas, House of Dough offers doughboys, Ma’s Kitchen offers steak and cheese sandwiches and Del’s Lemonade will also be there with refreshments. The Johnston Community Center Association runs the grill, selling hamburgers and hot dogs to benefit their community programs. Perhaps the most popular food item is the sausage and pepper sandwiches, a booth sponsored by Brigido’s Market, a family-owned business since 1943.
“We’re very customer-oriented. We get involved because we like to give back to the community and the people that shop here,” said Brigido’s store manager Edie Langlais.
Mansolillo says it’s a booth he doesn’t miss.
“That’s really become a signature item of the festival,” he said.
Throughout Saturday, guests can also check out a classic car show from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on the Little League baseball fields. The show is sponsored by Curreri Collision Center, and Ramos is expecting 75 to 100 cars, which will compete for prizes, including one for “best candy apple red.”
At the same time, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., the Rhode Island Blood Center will be on hand for a blood drive – a cause that is important especially in the Johnston community, where Johnston High School has consistently set records for having the highest volume of donations from any school across the state.
Afternoon will be a popular time to visit the festival, as the first 150 people to stop by the Dunn Building at 3 p.m. will have the opportunity to judge a cupcake cook-off.
“It’s a busy day on Saturday – a lot of comings and goings,” Ramos said.
New this year is Apple Festival After Hours, featuring campfires around the Memorial Park pond from 6 to 8 p.m.
“Because it’s the 25th anniversary, we wanted to do something special this year,” Mansolillo said.
The campfires will be lit by area Boy Scout troops from the Chamber footprint.
Thanks to sponsorship from The Fogarty Center, live music will extend into the evening hours from the band Loose Change. Ramos and festival coordinators are especially excited about this nighttime event, at which many food vendors will remain open.
“We’re promoting that people bring a blanket or chair and sit by the fire. People can get dinner or a snack and just relax by the fires. I think that will be a nice way for people to gather and enjoy the atmosphere and music,” Ramos said.
Sunday’s entertainment kicks off at 11 a.m. with a performance by the Academy Players, followed by “The Bubble Man” Bubble Party from noon to 1 p.m.
The Bubble Party is a big draw for kids, who can enjoy a free Kids’ Zone both days of the festival. The Kids’ Zone, sponsored by Lollipop Learning Center, includes activities, demonstrations, paddleboats, train rides and pony rides on the island, courtesy of Pine Ledge Stables.
“It’s so picturesque, having it there on the island,” Ramos said.
New this year is a Touch-A-Truck event, which will be available both days, set up between the pond and the shopping vendors. Children will have the chance to get up close to a Scituate Fire truck, an oil delivery truck from Rambone and Sprague, a tow truck from Curreri Collision and a cement mixer from Baccala Concrete.
“The past two years, the Kids’ Zone has been great. Both days are going to have different kids activities,” Ramos said.
Maria Evangelista, owner and director of Lollipop Learning Center, said sponsorship of the Kids’ Zone was a natural fit. The daycare center just opened in February, and they are looking to introduce themselves to new families.
“We can’t wait. We’re so excited,” she said. “We’re an advocate for children and their education. We have children at our center from Johnston and from surrounding areas, so I thought it would be a nice gesture to sponsor the program.”
Children can enjoy the Kids’ Zone while parents check out the Wellness Fair Tent, complete with blood pressure screenings, health care education materials and more, courtesy of CharterCARE Health Partners. The Wellness Fair was a staple of past festivals, and was resurrected this year.
“We’re bringing that back this year. We want to grow that area, and there will be goodies in there,” Ramos said.
Entertainment continues from 1 to 2 p.m. with country line dancing with Steve Falk, who brings dancers with him but also invites the public to join in. From 3:30 to 4 p.m., the High Steppin’ Dance Academy will perform, followed by a final performance from 4 to 5 p.m. by dance band Gemini.
Breaking up the day, from 2 to 3:30 p.m., is the Apple Pie Eating Contest, broken into three age divisions. Mansolillo looks forward to this event every year, especially since his wife, Johnston School Committee member Susan Mansolillo, is a former winner.
“I come from a family of pie eaters,” he said, laughing.
Running the Apple Festival is a major time commitment for the Chamber, vendors and volunteers, but Ramos says the investment is well worth it.
“It’s making people happy,” she said, adding that the 25th anniversary makes the Apple Festival that much more special. “This is huge. Twenty-five years, I think it’s a huge milestone.
It shows commitment, I think, to the community.”