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Fest Vet

George Ray's 32 Years Behind the Scenes



Last Saturday, thousands danced in the streets to the sounds zydeco music, but amidst the joyful chaos, George Ray sat quietly content. Dark eyes peered up from under a bright orange hat, monogrammed "French Quarter Fest" in bold black letters. The wizened man kindly smiled, offering his hand in greeting, "Pleased to meet you." The familiar grip of a working man's calloused hand tightened around my own in a firm shake.

 

A cast of hundreds of unassuming workers dedicate their time and energy to bringing the French Quarter Festival to life. Though all of their dedication is commendable, George is a little different. He is the most tenured part of the fest, working for the institution since Year One.

 

You can see his life experiences on his face and hear the wisdom in his word. Maybe one can see the fascinating story that all New Orleanians share, a love for their city and its customs, in his face. Or maybe, his importance is simply illustrated by the team of workers running around with credentials that read only “George’s Crew.”

 

There was no crew when the festival started in 1984. Back then, George started running bags of ice and production materials and the stages only covered Jackson Square. George fondly remembers how he originally got the job, "I had been working for Peter Meyer Advertising since 1976, when Sandra Dartus, the original festival director, who I had worked with previously on other events, asked if I would like to try working this new festival they were planning." 

 

Ray says that the early years were challenging yet rewarding at the same time. He was surrounded by some of the greatest musical talent to come out of the Quarter such as the Dukes of Dixieland and Allen Toussaint. Then, he got to watch the party grow and expand every year. By 1991, FQF was occupying real estate in Woldenberg Park as well.

 

As time progressed, George continued to adapt to the changing demands, offering his colorful advice from the perspective of the common crewman, "They used to only buy 10 pound bags of ice, but in this Louisiana heat that bag would melt before you could get it to a vendor!" George shakes his head as he remembers the countless dripping bags of icy water, "I told them we needed to start buying the 40 pound bags and they asked 'But George don't you think that's too heavy for you to be carrying?' I told them no, these big bags of ice are going to be a huge relief for us.”

 

These days, the veteran has golf carts and a squad of helpers to move ice. Fest organizers describe the team's work as “special operations.” George’s Crew can be counted on to fill any holes whether that means moving materials, hanging signs, or picking up the slack on staging or loading trucks.

 

Adaptability is key to George’s success. He was living in Gentilly on Elysian fields when Katrina hit and flooded his house with ten feet of water. Not to be discouraged, he was back to working the French Quarter Fest the following year despite the record low attendance for the 2006 festival.  

 

French Quarter Fest and Satchmo Fest both rebounded beyond the highest pre-Storm goals, but George is not about to quit his day job, literally. He is still a loyal Peter Mayer Advertising employee during business hours and works security at both the Mahalia Jackson and Saenger Theatre at night. He simply laughs when I ask him how he finds time to sleep. 

 

During the Show, days working the festival start before seven in the morning when he first arrives at the site and begins delegating the day's work to his crews. In the evenings, he is the last man of his group to leave.   

 

This April, George played a different role this time. He continued supervising the crew, but found himself separated from his guys. Logistics dictated that the best place to station himself was outside of the primary staging area on Decatur. From his perch, he could direct the chaos and provide security for a space holding festival's materials. 

The loyalty and respect that others reserve for him is evident as countless workers enter and exit the doors beside us. All of them offer up a greeting to him and he returns an approving nod and an encouraging word.  "I get here before my crews show up because I want to be able to know ahead of time who needs to go where, and I can be there to make sure everything that needs to get done happens."  There is a severity in his tone as he recounts his mornings before the festival.

 

But not to be left twiddling his thumbs between callers, he greets people as they pass and offers them an official schedule, "I think I've handed out more of these than ya'll have." He mischievously taps the official guides in the cardboard box, clearly labeled with "Developed in Partnership with NOLA Defender"  

 

For someone to outperform themselves for 32 years there must be a secret. But, when asked how he manages to do such a good job for so many years, he merely shrugs and replies with characteristic humility. "People always say 'Oh George you do such a good job!' or 'Another great year George!' but it's my crew, they make me look good!" 

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Contributors

Renard Boissiere, Evan Z.E. Hammond, Naimonu James, Wilson Koewing, J.A. Lloyd, Nina Luckman, Dead Huey Long, Joseph Santiago, Andrew Smith, Cynthia Via, Austin Yde

Photographers


Art Director

Michael Weber, B.A.

Editor

Alexis Manrodt

Listings Editor

Linzi Falk

Editor Emeritus

B. E. Mintz

Editor Emeritus

Stephen Babcock

Published Daily