By John Davis, Oxford Citizen
Robyn Tannehill came to Oxford to attend the University of Mississippi in 1988. The art major from Florence, Alabama was just looking to get a degree, and then get a job. <>
She ended up doing both, and changing the city from a financial standpoint at the same time.
Tannehill, who currently serves on the city's board of aldermen, had a vision 21 years ago and that was creating a festival that has turned into one of the largest in the state, and become the second biggest weekend in Oxford behind any of the biggest Ole Miss football games.
The story as to how the annual Double Decker Arts Festival has become what it is today starts not long after Tannehill was out of school. She served as the assistant director of the Oxford-Lafayette Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Foundation.
She then became the Director of Tourism which gave her just enough experience and knowledge in that chamber community world to realize that most every other community had some sort of festival that highlighted whatever there thing was. Oxford didn't have one, and it “miffed” Tannehill that was the case.
“I just couldn't figure out why we didn't with so much good food, music and art here, why do we not have a festival?” Tannehill said. “I found out there had had been several music festivals, smaller venue, one-day festivals but nothing that was an occurring event. There had been at the time what was called First Saturday which was done by the Yoknapatawpha Arts Council which was art on the courthouse lawn once a month.”
Building on those smaller venues, Tannehill, who was 23 when Double Decker started rolling, went about raising the money to host a yearly event. The “little girl from tourism” as she was called by alderman Ulysses Howell, came and talked to John Leslie, the Mayor of Oxford at the time. He assured Tannehill that there would be no city money given for the event.
“The first thing I did was I told my tourism board and Pat Patterson was on my board at the time. He was 100 percent behind it, and he was my right hand for the festival,” Tannehill said of Patterson. “He was in a golf cart all day, loading ice and trash. We had a large number of University Sporting Goods volunteers that were helping me.”
Vaughn Grisham, a professor at Ole Miss, dealt with a lot of economic development issues and one of the talks Tannehill heard him give was on crowd counting and estimating attendance. She wanted to know how many people would have come to the first festival, because she wanted it to be the first of many, even if others never thought it would go past the spring of 1996.
“I wanted it to be free and if you're not selling tickets and no area is blocked off, how do you know how many people came? He said you stand on the roof of the buildings and you take pictures all during the day,” Tannehill said. “He got a group of students to do this for their project and that's how many people we knew we had and it was about 9,000. I think there was 65,000 last year. I'm not sure it would be that big, but I knew it would work. I'm not sure I pondered the number that would come, but if the weather was decent, I knew it would work.”
The other right hand of Tannehill was Nan Davis, who was also on the tourism board. She said everyone was super supportive on that side of the things. Leslie, however, wasn't for shutting down any streets. Patterson handled that aspect, along with the help of Bob Vasileyv, Tannehill said. She wanted the festival to revolve around good food, music and art and she wanted the art to be good quality, the kind of art that was worth what people would pay for it.
Local food vendors were recruited to sale the refreshments to festival goers. Finding all local bands was tougher to do, but she was able to get two volunteers to help book everyone. Laura Antonow helped jury all the art and set up the vendors.
“I get credit for the idea all the time, but I did not pull it off by myself. There were tons of people involved,” she said. “Everybody I met with got excited and that made me more excited. I went to Coca-Cola and they gave me $10,000. I went to Budweiser and asked them for $10,000 and they said we want to sell beer. I told them as long as I was in charge of the festival, there would never be beer sold at it simply because there are 18 places you can buy it around the Square and I wasn't taking business away from them. Not that I didn't want beer there, but I wanted it to be a huge day for every business and not take away from anyone's sales that day. They said I was right and gave me $10,000.”
The $20,000 that Tannehill had funded the first festival. Thankfully, there were enough local bands that took her up on the offer to play for free in 1996 for double the money in 1997. The headliner of the first festival were the Steel Magnolias from New Orleans.
One of the funniest stories about the first festival involve the band. With Leslie not for any of the groups using city hall, Tannehill turned to Bill Plunk, the former chancery clerk of the county, for help.
“I needed places for these bands to change clothes and go to the bathroom and whatever so I needed a key to the courthouse,” she said. “Bill gave me a key so on Monday morning, he called me and said it looked like Big Bird exploded in the courthouse. The Steel Magnolias wore huge Indian head dresses that are colorful and they just shed everywhere. I'll be honest, I never looked that night. When it was over, I locked the door and was out of there. It was hilarious. We still crack up about that.”
Getting bands to play for free was just half of the issue. Tannehill couldn't afford stages for them to perform on either. She was able to find two people at the Beacon who drove 18-wheeler rigs and found out what they did with them over the weekend when they weren't hauling stuff. She was able to convince two to be dropped off on the Friday before the event.
“I got a staple gun and burlap and went all the way around them and then laid plywood on top of them and those were our stages,” she said with a laugh. “Now we have a 2 percent tourism tax and investing in that grows it even more. At the time, all I had was the 2 percent hotel/motel tax which was about $16,000 a month, at the most. It's just grown.”
From the very first Square Fair on the lawn of the First Presbyterian Church, to the best dressed pet contest, the event that made Tannehill say “we're doing this again,” the annual festival has gotten a ton of support from city leaders.
“You couldn't stand another person in front of Bottletree and the lawn and there were about 65 pets in the best dressed pet contest,” Tannehill recalled. “There were hundreds of people watching that silly thing and people just loved it. It was the perfect day. Oxford just embraced it and loved it from the start.”
And the idea for the name? Tannehill said it all came together when the city got the famous English buses when she was first starting out as the tourism director.
“We got them in June or July and then had the festival that next April. I hadn't even been there a year. It was the cool, new thing and it provided an easy icon to work around,” Tannehill said. “Everybody loved them and embraced them right away and nobody else had them. We designed the festival around logos and Neil White helped me do that. We came up with several and we decided on the Double Decker bus. We also planned the dates around Jazz Fest in New Orleans because that way, I could piggy back off of their bands.”
There was one naysayer in town – that is for another story – regarding the first festival, and while things could have been better or run smoother, the festival improved. One thing that Tannehill made sure to improve from the first to the second festival was the collection of trash.
“One thing I underestimated was the trash. I thought I had thought through everything. I had Billy Lamb build these big A frames and hand painted all the signs for the event. Coke gave me plastic banners and I bought sharpies,” Tannehill said. “I thought I had covered every detail and then day of, realized I never asked the city if they would get the trash. So... my husband and Goodloe Lewis and several others drug trash behind city hall all day long. And somebody sold shrimp. And there were shrimp peels everywhere. So about 1:30 in the morning, I look around and there is just stuff everywhere. I knew that the mayor would never let me have this again if this wasn't cleaned up. So my husband and I stayed up all night and picked up every single cigarette butt and shrimp tail. We did the whole things ourselves.”
When Tannehill was awarded a plaque during last year's 20th anniversary festival, she was overwhelmed.
“To walk out there on the stage and look at all those people, and say 'Oh, wow' and it's still doing what the intention year one was and that was celebrate music, food and art,” Tannehill said. “That's what Oxford does well. It has still maintained that same family flavor, but it's on a totally different level. Everyone that has planned it, has had the same passion for staying true to those three things being front and center and it being quality. I think that's the difference between this festival and a whole lot of others. I think there are a lot of others who would double the amount of vendors just to have someone mail in a check. That's why I think ours is better and why the art vendors sell so much. We have people that come ready to spend money because they know it's going to be quality stuff.”