TRAVERSE CITY — Some towns roll out red carpet for comedy festivals. Traverse City puts up a ferris wheel.
Meet the new, expanded Traverse City Winter Comedy Arts Festival, which merged this year with the National Cherry Festival’s 6-year-old Winter WOW! Fest to create a downtown winter playground for kids and families. It’s called Free on Front because almost everything there is free. Organizers plan to have it open to the public by 4 p.m. today.
“It will be amazing this year with all the stuff going on outside,” said Tia Shuyler. She coordinates travel and accommodations and other details for the 30 comedians who will perform in the four-day festival that started Thursday. “They won’t know what hit them.
“It’s definitely going to be funny.”
Front Street’s 200 block was to be cordoned off this morning and fitted with a synthetic-ice skating rink, a 50-foot ferris wheel and the beginnings of a sledding hill near Park Street as Elmer’s trucks haul in snow for the base and then head to Antrim County’s Shanty Creek Resort this morning for lighter, fluffy stuff.
GJ’s Rentals was scheduled to begin erecting the warming tents at 8 a.m. Two sets of red NCF bleachers should be in place along both sides of Front for the Sports Arena at the Cass Street end of the block.
Ice sculptures will be installed today and “live” ice carving areas on Friday evening will be set up at the Jay Smith Walkway and in front of Grand Traverse Pie Co. downtown.
Free on Front will offer free ice skating with free rental skates, ferris wheel rides, sledding as well as competitions and games all weekend. Ice bowling is on the agenda tonight. Other events through the four-day festival include rowboat races, slip-and-fall Olympics, monster dog pull, snowblower races, a tug of war and a frozen bed race on Sunday.
Evening events include a bonfire with free s’mores from 7-8:30 p.m. tonight at the parking lot across from the Park Place Hotel and laser light shows Saturday night on Front Street at 7:45 and 9 p.m.
Only the 200 block of Front will be closed to traffic during the festival. Other city streets will remain open.
“We’re trying to incorporate the best parts of the WOW Fest and the Comedy Festival, which has bigger regional draw because of the headline comedians who will be here,” said Trever Tkach, National Cherry Festival executive director.
The comedy festival opened Thursday with shows by Colin Quinn and Kathleen Madigan and will run through Sunday with 30 comedians performing at five venues: the State Theatre, City Opera House, Old Town Playhouse, Inside Outside Gallery and Horizon Books.
Today’s comedians include Robert Wuhl doing a live version of his smash HBO hit, “Assume the Position with Mr. Wuhl.”
One of the weekend highlights is a special performance by renowned standup comedian Dick Gregory at 6 p.m. Saturday at the City Opera House. He will be awarded the TC Comedy Fest Legends Award at the show. Gregory’s comedy and social activism, starting in the 1950s, made history and broke barriers during the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War eras. He also went on several hunger strikes. A vegetarian and nutritional consultant, Gregory has been an advocate in the health food industry for a raw fruit and vegetable diet.
Saturday’s shows also include a family-friendly interactive comedy act — ComedySportz: Improv for All — billed by festival organizers as a “uniquely clean, fast-paced and positive comedy show for the entire family.” Shows are scheduled for 1 and 3:30 p.m. at the City Opera House, $5 for kids and $10 adults.
Festival tickets range from 25 cents for the 10 a.m. Saturday kids matinee of “Despicable Me,” and from $5 to $35 for adult comedy acts. A full program of comedy shows, ticket costs and free events is available online at www.wintercomedy.org.
Yet another free weekend event is the Winter Sports Exhibit and hot chocolate at the History Center of Traverse City at 322 Sixth Street. It includes vintage snowmobiles and a historical exhibit of Benzie County’s Crystal Mountain ski resort. Families and others can have their photo taken on a real chairlift seat. Hours are Thursday-Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m, and Sunday noon to 4 p.m.
Festival food offerings include the Soup’r Bowl Soup competition between area restaurants from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at ECCO, 121 W. Front Street, across from Golden Shoes. Tickets are $8 for eight samples.
Festival-goers also can fortify themselves for Sunday’s events with cherry pancake breakfast at the Park Place Hotel Dome 9-11 a.m. Tickets are $3 kids and $6 adults. All proceeds benefit the Fresh Food Partnership.