By John Kanelis
There once was a standing joke in Amarillo that went something like this: If it's raining during the Memorial Day weekend, then we can blame it on Funfest.
The recent rain that soaked the Texas Panhandle through much of May couldn't be blamed on the one-time community extravaganza, which was shelved in 2002 after a 24-year run at Thompson Park.
Is it coming back? Not any time soon, according to two women involved with the organization that put Funfest on for so many years.
Edwina Wood is office manager for a southwest Amarillo orthodontist and is the public relations chair for the Junior League of Amarillo, the group that organized and staged Funfest. Teresa Prescott is an Amarillo homemaker who in 2002 was president of the Junior League when the organization decided to pull the plug on the event.
What was Funfest? It was a carnival of sorts, featuring food booths, games and "top-flight entertainment," according to Prescott and Wood. Indeed, Wood said the "steak on a stick" served at Funfest became a favorite treat for those who went to the event.
The entertainment usually featured top-of-the-line country and western performers. Tracy Byrd appeared there, as did Jerry Jeff Walker, Kenny Chesney, Rascal Flatts – and Reba McIntyre, before she became so big in the business that she's now known simply as "Reba."
What brought Funfest to the end of the line? Wood and Prescott believe changes in the city's demographics had much to do with it. Specifically, they said, it became more difficult for the Junior League to recruit volunteers from its ranks to put the event together, as more women have been working outside the home than they were in 1978, when Funfest began its run at Thompson Park.
In 1978, Prescott said, "Most Junior League members didn't have jobs outside the home. But when it ended, I'm guessing 70 to 80 percent of our members had jobs outside the home," making it difficult to find enough Junior League members who could commit fully to the effort it took to set up the Funfest complex at Thompson Park.
"It would take us three weeks to get set up," Prescott said, adding that Junior League members had to "commit fully" to seeing it through.
Membership at the Junior League has declined somewhat in recent years – along with other service organizations around the country. The Amarillo chapter today comprises about 175 active members. Prescott said Junior League of Amarillo had "around 200" in 2002 when Funfest came to an end.
Funfest used to run three days over Memorial Day weekend. Its goal was to raise money for projects that the Junior League would select.
The weather quite often played havoc with the event, Prescott said. "It always seemed to rain over Memorial Day weekend," she said. She recalled that one holiday weekend, the event got rained out completely. Nothing took place. No games, no music, no steak-on-a-stick.
A major part of the money raised would come from corporate underwriters, according to Prescott and Wood. In the event of a total rainout, the underwriters would cover the cost of the setup, helping the Junior League remain in the black, they added.
A "good year" raising money from Funfest usually netted the Junior League about $100,000, Prescott recalled, with roughly $50,000 to $60,000 coming during an average year.
The Junior League spreads its help around the community, said Wood. Even without a major fundraising event such as Funfest, she said, the Junior League is lending a hand to worthy organizations. This year, the League is raising money for the Medical Center League House, which is managed by Baptist St. Anthony's Health Systems. The League House provides housing for families of ailing children who are being treated at the medical center complex in northwest Amarillo.
"Every year we assess the community's needs and we vote on various projects we'd like to do," said Wood, who this year also serves as fundraising chair for the Junior League of Amarillo.
"We don't just raise the money," she said. "We also provide volunteers for these projects."
Prescott and Wood also noted that Junior League members were asked to commit considerable time at Funfest. Prescott recalled that "every League member had to volunteer for three shifts of three hours each at Funfest." That commitment became harder to get from Junior League members as more of them began taking full- and part-time jobs outside the home.
Prescott acknowledged that bringing Funfest – or some version of it – back doesn't seem likely in the near term. "We approached some potential underwriters," she said, "but we didn't get much response." She said the Junior League has talked as well with City Hall about getting some help in setting up the booths and the attractions at a venue.
The Junior League does play host annually to its Best of Texas event at the Rex Baxter Building on the Tri-State Fairgrounds property. It, too, raises money for the Junior League to distribute to agencies throughout the community.
Wood said "the '70s were a different time." As the Junior League's membership has changed, with more women working outside the home, the number of board officers has shrunk. "We're down to nine board members," Wood said. "We used to have 26 board members."