FinnFest 2004 was a hit for Naselle-area residents

Livakat NW Kantele Players perform at FinnFest 2004, in Lake Worth, Fla. Wilho Saari of Naselle is on the right in the front row.<BR><I>PHIL RAISTAKKA photo</I>

LAKE WORTH, Fla. - If you are one of the handful of people who breathlessly followed the adventures of Anita and Phil as they traveled from Portland, Ore., to West Palm Beach, Fla., in last week's edition of the Observer, you are in the right spot. This week will continue that travelogue and attempt to answer the question of, "Why did so many pale-limbed blondes, silver hairs, and bald heads gather in the sunny land of milk and honey?"

Other than trying to answer the more complex questions such as, "Why did the lemmings march into the sea?" or "Why did more people migrate to the subtropics instead of to the polar regions?" - the reason for this gathering was fairly simple.

The twin towns of Lake Worth and Lantana, Fla., were hosting the 21st annual FinnFest 2004 annual convention from Feb. 11-15, with other related events starting earlier in the week and continuing later. The festival attracted thousands of Finns and others of Finnish descent from around the USA and Canada, as well as from Finland and other countries. Lake Worth's sister city of Leppeenranta, Finland, originally was a candidate for this year's festival, but Lake Worth's warm semitropical climate was a deciding factor.

Another overriding reason for the selection of Lake Worth, a suburb of Palm Beach, is the fact that Lake Worth-Lantana is an area where thousands of Finns and Finnish-Americans have settled. The Lake Worth-Lantana Finn community got its start in the years prior to World War II. In more recent times, large numbers Finns continue to move to the area for the winter months. It has had, and continues to have, a large "Finntown" which is a big factor in the area's social and political make-up.

Timo Hukka, the chairman of the festival, said, "This is the biggest ethnic festival in the United States. It attracts thousands of people from all around the country (estimates ranged as high as 20,000 people in attendance), the hotels are packed, and professors (and other presenters and entertainers) come from dozens of universities across the United States, Canada, Finland and other Scandinavian countries."

Among those attending, and representing the Naselle area, were: Carlton Appelo, Susan Pakenen-Holway of Oysterville, Sonja Kruse, Anneli and Don Raistakka of Portland, Anita and Phil Raistakka, and Kaisa and Wilho Saari. Wilho Saari was one the performers with the "Livakat NW Kantele Players" one of the folk music groups which performed at different times and venues at the festival.

The president of Finland, Tarja Halonen, attended the festival and stated, "Generations of Finnish immigrants have been among those who have shaped the great nation the United States is today. In the early days the vast majority of Finnish immigrants hailed from the farming regions of northwest Finland. They were known as hard workers, quiet but resourceful. No wonder many were able to make a good living and provide also for their families left behind in Finland. They were also proud of their heritage, passing on cherished traditions to the next generation and enriching the cultural life of their adopted country.

"Over the years, the face of immigration from Finland to the United States has changed. Today's immigrant is more often a high-tech specialist, celebrated cultural figure, or a vigorous pensioner spending the cold and dark winter months in the warmth of Florida. What is still true is the ability to combine the best of both worlds - the old and the new for the benefit of the society as a whole. This alone is enough reason to celebrate.

"FinnFest serves as an indispensable institution for maintaining and fostering the traditions of friendship and cooperation between the peoples of the United States and Finland. The 21st FinnFest in Lake Worth/Lantana proudly portrays the modern image of Finland in the United States, while honoring the valued traditions of the Finnish heritage."

The retired honorary Finnish counsel of Washington, Norman Westerberg, who has been an active participant in many of the Naselle Finnish American Folk Festival (FAFF) biennial celebrations, delivered an address titled "The Changing Finnish American," where he chronicled the history of Finns in this country.

Westerberg concluded by stating, "Finnish Americana is now undergoing a major and rapid change. The number of Americans of Finnish stock has decreased from its peak of 320,000 in year 1930 to about 100,000 today. The drop of about 35,000 in the number of persons claiming Finnish ancestry between 1990 and 2000 is about the same as the estimated number of Finns that have died during the 10-year period. The next 10 years may claim even a bigger loss.

"I believe that FinnFest USA has played an important role in keeping Finnish and Finnish-American culture and traditions alive in America. First- and second-generation Finnish-Americans have traditionally been in majority among participants in the local festivals, with third-generation Finns getting increasingly involved. The future will clearly be in the hands of the third- and fourth-generation Finnish-Americans."

Westerberg's conclusions are undoubtedly very accurate. However, the Lake Worth festival did little to provide encouragement for the continuation of such festivals if the ratio of older to younger Finns is any indication. The eyeball method of research showed a much higher representation of the 50-, 60- and 70-plus-years-old generations rather than the 30- and 40-something age groups. And there were very few teenagers and 20- to 30- year-olds, in comparison, say, to an increasing number of younger people who are taking part in the biennial Naselle FAFF.

Naselle is chosen for 2006 FinnFestEarly in the festival, the board of directors of FinnFest USA recognized the success of the Naselle FAFF when the board voted to accept a proposal from Naselle, Wash., to host the 2006 festival. The tentative date for the event is July 26 - 30, 2006.

The press release on this decision stated: "John Kiltinen, president of the FinnFest USA board said, "We are pleased to be going back to the West after not having had a festival there since the one in Seattle in 1999. In Naselle, we all get to share in the success they have had for years with their biennial local Finnish festival."

"Susan Pakenen-Holway, FinnFest USA board of directors member from Naselle, presented the proposal to the Board. She said they will call it the "Smallest FinnFest Ever," pointing out that Naselle is a very small town. The slogan will be "Little Village, Big Heart" (Pikkukyla, Iso Sydan).

"The plan calls for using venues in the nearby city of Astoria, Ore., for earlier events. The activities would center there during the opening days, and then move to Naselle for Saturday, when the festival would take on the character of the traditional Naselle festival."

In granting the 2006 festival to Naselle, the FinnFest board extended its appetite for holding the festival in widely diverse geographical areas. The 2004 festival was in Lake Worth, in the extreme southeast part of the country, in a large population area. The 2005 festival will be in Marquette, Mich., in the country's northernmost midsection, located on the southern shore of Lake Superior in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Marquette is a much smaller town than Lake Worth-Lantana, but has a four-year college located within its borders. And the 2006 festival will be held in Naselle (and Astoria) on the far northwest edge of the country, in the smallest town to ever host an international FinnFest. The 2007 festival is scheduled to be held in Finland.

Some wag suggested, since Naselle FinnFest 2006 is being held during the conclusion of the national Lewis and Clark celebration, that a possible name for the Naselle FinnFest might be the Lewisnen-Clarkala Fest. Hmmm, might be worth considering.

The Gulf Stream Hotel, a renovated 1920s-era hotel adjacent to the Intracoastal Waterway, which spans Florida's east coast and other coastal states for hundreds of miles, was this festival's headquarters. Many of the art displays, lectures and small group presentations, as well as meetings, were held in that venue. The hotel, with a bright yellow exterior stood out and was just as decorous inside with the restaurant and lounge areas finished in an art deco motif. (One of the Upper Peninsula Michigan representatives, a "yooper" which denotes the Upper Peninsula residents, immediately labeled the decorating scheme as "art decola" to go along with the FinnFest program.)

The twin Florida towns went all out in providing other venues, including the high school auditorium where over 800 attended the elaborate opening program. Ten other locations, including a waterside park, a restored community playhouse, churches, Finnish social clubs, hotels, restaurants, a rest home, and a golf course provided venues for the myriad of events, which were held during more than a week full of activities and program presentations.

The programs were generally outstanding while presented to very small audiences. From lectures to panel discussions to art displays, which were included in the $50 registration fee - to ticketed events including dances, cruises, tours, choral groups of varying sizes, vocal soloists, cabarets, vocal duets, plays, dancing groups, Finnish cooking demonstrations, movies, a golf tournament, string quartets, bands, and reaching a conclusion with a grand banquet - there were an overwhelming number of activities to keep the festival attendees picking and choosing in attending programs of interest. If anything, a criticism would be that there were too many presentations to attend in the short span of the festival.

And while all of the above activities were ongoing, the park adjacent to the main hotel featured the Tori (marketplace) for food and craft vendors, a dining area, as well as a single stage for continual performances by vocal, instrumental, and dancing groups. The park area was open for the afternoons on four days and was very similar in size and program content to that provided at the Naselle FAFF in the school commons, courtyard, gymnasium and football stadium

The lectures and panel discussions which Anita and I chose to attend all presented topics that were either relatively unfamiliar to us or were topics that we knew about and wanted to learn more. All of these presentations were very informative and featured presenters well-versed in their topic or who had been part of the actual events.

The "pay-per-view" programs that we attended were outstanding, with perhaps the exception of one play by Canadian actors that this viewer thought missed its mark. The play's attempts to present a humorous view of a middle-age Finnish male attempting to find a wife - five wives? - after losing his first mate. Many of the near capacity audience thought the play "Let's be Darlings" was satisfactory, in contrast to our view that the play lost its humor by its over-explanation of the obvious.

The other ticketed events that we attended were topnotch. Maarit Vaga, a soprano soloist born in Finland, who migrated to Canada, has lived in Seattle, and who has performed at the Naselle FAFF, was one of the featured singers, and she was heard in many different programs and venues. One of the early programs featured her, along with Finland-national-opera baritone Jaakko Kortekangas and organist Mark Heiskanen of Ohio, along with the Amerikan Laulajat, a male chorus with 50 to 60 members The chorus is composed of senior men from six Canadian and American choirs who are primarily "snow birds" from Finland, Canada and the United States. This concert almost filled a large church with a seating capacity for 300 people who only paid $8 per ticket.

Kortekangas so impressed us that we attended our last concert at the festival where he performed with only his piano accompanist Ilkka Paananen to a small audience. We were in a group of only 30 attendees in the Lake Worth Playhouse, a wonderfully restored community theater, which seated well-over 300 people. It was almost like having a private concert with a world-renowned opera singer at the generous cost of $12 per ticket! What was amazing was the fact that more people didn't jump at the opportunity. Again, too many choices, too many opportunities, to be able to hear them all.

Another of the outstanding performances that we selected was the play "Honoring Raul Wallenberg." Wallenberg was a Swedish Lutheran diplomat who worked to save thousands of Hungarian Jews from the Nazis during World War II. The play, based on survivor testimony, news reports, letters and historical documents, along with vocal and violin solos, was amazingly powerful. The play was presented to a less than capacity audience in the Playhouse at the miserly cost of $15 a ticket. Again, a case of too many choices, too little time, perhaps?

Each day that we were in attendance, we made it a point to spend some time in the Bryant Park-located Tori to be a part of the festival crowd as the Finns ate, viewed, and bought all things Finnish (Hot dogs are Finn food, aren't they?) while being able to listen to the continuous on-stage entertainment for five to seven hours a day. Again, it was very much like the Naselle FAFF format with a similar number of people in the Tori area.

The Lake Worth FinnFest 2004 was able to attract international attention, performers, and financial support. Other than the $50 per person registration fee and a nominal charge for some of the ticketed events which couldn't have brought in so many topnotch presenters, the festival was well supported by corporations, foundations, and individual sponsors. Twelve sponsors, led by Finnair's $10,000 donation, contributed over $26,000 to FinnFest 2004. Thirteen other sponsors also contributed an untold amount of money to the festival. The Naselle FAFF can only dream about having such financial support.

Next week: Now that the hard work is done, what does one do for fun in sunny southern Florida?

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