Anyone who knows anything about downtown West Palm Beach knows that SunFest is our signature annual event. Headliner bands on massive stages, floating barges, and even a fancy new app for your phone. But SunFest started with much humbler beginnings…
The origins of SunFest in West Palm Beach date way back to the end of the 19th Century. In those days, businesses were newly established along Clematis and Datura, and street performing became a regular routine. Some of the earliest WPB settlers of the area participated, either as musicians or as business owners whose storefronts served as regular backdrops.
By 1902 or so, the City got involved, and local advertisers put up prize money for footraces and those with the best decorated cars. The whole shebang was highlighted by a 5-mile bicycle race, made possible by newly paved streets. Though small by today’s standards, the foundations of a more formal gathering were beginning to take shape.
In 1916, smack in the middle of World War I, the first Seminole Sun Dance was held along Clematis Street. The festival would officially last for three days, though many folks managed to stretch it into a full week. The Seminole Indians would set up an entire Indian village. There was a carnival midway, a baby pageant, airplane exhibitions, and even the “Miss Popular Lady” contest. Participants dressed either in their finest Palm Beach suits or in traditional Indian garb, and the whole event literally culminated in the official smoking of a peace pipe.
After a good eight-year run, the Seminole Sun Dance began to whither around 1923. Versions of the event were rekindled from time to time up through the fifties, but never with the gusto of those first eight years. By the time JFK was elected president, the Seminole Sun Dance was a thing of the past. But it would nevertheless serve as the precursor to SunFest, which would arrive over two decades later.
The first official SunFest event was held in May 1983, and it lasted a full 10 days. The festival was not gated then, so any member of the general public was able to attend. Tickets for the event were sold for $4.00, but it’s not surprising that folks didn’t buy many, given that they could wander up and watch their favorite bands for free. Sales were so paltry, in fact, that the organization gave up selling them altogether. By the time it was over, that first SunFest was estimated to have lost about $120,000.
Having failed rather miserably at budgeting for that first event, the SunFest board took to selling “shares” for SunFest to recoup some of their losses. In exchange for mailing in a few bucks, donors were given certificates commemorating their participation in the inaugural event. (Some of you reading this might have one of those certificates stashed away today. Not worth a dime, probably, but pretty cool nevertheless.) Those donations probably covered a small percentage of the festival’s losses, but more significant changes would be implemented in the years to come. That first SunFest board made the important decision to seek corporate sponsorship in an effort to make the festival more solvent. Suffice it to say that that strategy got wings…
Today, SunFest is all but enormous, stretching from Banyan all the way south to the bridge at Lakeview Avenue. Crowds typically approach 250,000, and the event calls upon assistance from over 2,000 volunteers. And, so as not to repeat the 1983 shortfalls, roughly 80 corporate sponsors contribute to the event.
So, as you get ready to listen to some tunes, have a couple beers, and take in some of the best people-watching on the planet, think back to some of your favorite SunFest moments. Maybe Lenny Kravitz back in 2000? Santana in ’97? Or maybe Weezer in 2010? Drop us a note and share your best SunFest memory, and then get yourself out there this evening and make some new ones.