Ron Maddox gets one last 'Taste,' his wayby Laura Yuen, Minnesota Public Radio
Minnesota's second-most popular festival, A Taste of Minnesota, got under way today on St. Paul's Harriet Island. The summer fest known for its cheese curds and fireworks has endured for a quarter-century. And it wouldn't have happened without co-founder and manager Ron Maddox, the city's father of festivals.
But this week, the group that owns the Taste signed a purchase agreement with new owners who say they want to raise the caliber of the event's music and food. That means that this year's Taste may be the last one that Maddox gets to do entirely his way.
St. Paul, Minn. — Ron Maddox loves to describe St. Paul with a little rhyme: It's a town where, he says, "The masses are ---."
Well, we can't print the last word of the rhyme without offending some people.
But Maddox's philosophy explains why the Taste of Minnesota offers the same middle-of-the-road standbys of corndogs and classic rock.
"We always wanted it to be based on the 'F's -- festival, freedom, food, fireworks, and free. Mainly, free," he said. "Yeah, there can be better music, there can be better food. But give us a little credit. We've put on something that's never been done before."
Maddox has heard all the complaints, and he has a good comeback: If so many things are wrong with his festival, then why do so many people come?
The Taste regularly brings several hundred thousand people out of their air-conditioned homes at the peak of summer. Only the state fair draws bigger crowds.
After this summer, he's still under contract to help manage the festival for the next two years, Maddox says. But he may have less control over key decisions. Capital City Partnership, the downtown booster group that is selling the Taste, declined to answer specific questions about the sale.
Maddox acknowledges that maybe it's time for new people to shake up the event he founded with the late Dick Broeker, a fellow mover-and-shaker of St. Paul's past. But Maddox said he feels like a football player reaching the end of his career.
"You're running down the field trying to catch a pass, and the older you get, you start hearing footsteps -- that are not even there, maybe -- 'cause you know you're gonna get hit," he said. "Do I feel like I've been hit? Yeah, maybe. But it's not important how many times you get knocked down. It's more important how many times you get up."
Maddox is 70. A former city council member and bar owner, he's survived seven heart attacks, a brain tumor, diabetes, and six knee surgeries.
Some have called him St. Paul's last Chicago-style politician. But last year, even Maddox couldn't deliver the community support he promised as a consultant to the Bridges of St. Paul mega-project across the river from downtown. He said that was his first political loss since he left the city council in 1982. "That one hurt," he said.
But as festival manager, he still patrols the grounds on Harriet Island in a golf cart, ready to jump in with a baseball bat to break up fights.
He's a bundle of contradictions, especially when he talks about the festival's unofficial dress code.
"We don't allow people to come in here with stuff all over their shirt," he said. "I've made people take off their shirts if it's something sexual, or something mean."
When reminded that he used to sponsor wet T-shirt contests as a bar owner, he allowed: "I understand that. That's fair. But what's wrong with a wet T-shirt contest?"
Maddox was always a showman -- while still in touch with the little guy, former St. Paul Mayor George Latimer said. And the Taste is true to Maddox's style.
"Ron is pretty good at judging what will appeal to popular tastes," Latimer said. "The fact is, he's put together a very popular, durable, urban festival that people gather to. Naturally, it's not going to appeal to everyone."
But when it comes to musical offerings, Star Tribune music critic Chris Riemenschneider said the Taste has outdone itself this year.
"This year's lineup is maybe the worst of all time," Riemenschneider said. "REO Speedwagon is just a terrible band. They're relatively popular, but that's it, that's it. Eddie Money is so past his prime. And then, this 'original oldies' package that has the Cowsills and Greg Brady. My god, why is Greg Brady booked at this event? I mean, this is laughable."
Riemenschneider was referring to Friday night's lineup, which features Barry Williams. He's the actor who played Greg Brady, way back in "The Brady Bunch."
Cities 97 radio host Brian Turner and event promoter Kevin Campbell plan to take over the Taste. The soon-to-be owners say they want to jazz up the event with more current acts, like singer-songwriter Jack Johnson, or celebrity chef Rachael Ray.
But big-name talent won't be cheap. The new owners say they plan to keep admission free but may consider creating special tents where people pay a little extra to see the celebrities.
Turner, a self-described "foodie," wants to expand the culinary offerings to include ethnic food and dishes from favorite local restaurants, similar to the festival's inspiration, the Taste of Chicago.
"There's a preponderance of festival food -- county fair or state fair-type food. We want to bring the original charter of the Taste of Minnesota into play by inviting more of the restaurant community and more of the chef and 'foodie' community to be a bigger part of the Taste."
Turner plans to learn a lot from Maddox, whom he considers a new mentor. Maddox will be a part of his management team, he says.
As for Maddox, he said he's not going to disappear. He plans to organize a big Latino-themed festival and is even considering another run in politics.
Maddox said he will be involved with throwing huge parties -- even if it's not the one that made him famous in St. Paul.
- All Things Considered, 07/03/2008, 4:54 p.m.