Barry Schlecker of Barry's Events in Wilmington, Delaware: Brandywine Festival of the Arts
Thirty More Seconds ... with Barry Schlecker
photograph by Ron Dubick
You could say Barry Schlecker is a festive sort. He is founder of the Newark Film Festival, the WilmFilm Festival, and OUTflix, a gay and lesbian film fest. The 2012 Newark and Wilmington festivals, which were scheduled to be held in September, were canceled at press time. Schlecker—and his Barry’s Events—is also known for reviving the former Brandywine Arts Festival (now the Brandywine Festival of the Arts, Sept. 8-9) as well as the Old Fashioned Ice Cream Festival at Rockwood (which was held in July, shortly after this interview was conducted).
DT: You’ve become the king of the festivals. Seems you can do no wrong.
BS: I find it easier to take something that’s broken and fix it, than to start from scratch. We’ve done both. The up side of fixing is faster, if you do it right. I equate it to a person who opens a restaurant: great location, bad food. So we just go in and fix the food. That’s what we did with Brandywine.
DT: As you enter your third year, has it gone as well as you would have expected?
BS: The Brandywine Festival of the Arts is interesting because it had a history and you can’t put a price tag on 50 years. It started in 1960 and probably ran really well for 40 years and the last eight or nine years were troubling. I think it was the combination of changes in management and philosophies. So it went from a fine arts and crafts show to what could be described as almost as bad as a flea market. I mean in the sense that there was no quality control or jurying.
So when we talked to the state about taking it over, it had only missed one year. I spent many months interviewing artists and craftspeople who had done the show over the years and simply asked, “If you were me, what would you do that wasn’t being done?”
It all came back to bringing in people who belong there, jurying the show, bringing it back to its original tradition. I had tremendous help with local artists.
What I didn’t realize was the national scope of the show. We got artists from 20 states or more. More than half the artists are from out of town and travel 30 to 40 weeks a year. And the show had lost its respect in the marketplace. I talked to some patrons of the show who said they depended on this show every year to buy their holiday gifts and home furnishings.
We just set up a jury program. I used a lot of the local artists as my sounding board. One of the other things I learned is historically, people came there to buy. So it was great that a 49-year tradition only had a one-year hiccup and then we were able to bring it back.
The only thing I didn’t count on, I had never run an outdoor event. We literally re-create a city at the Brandywine Park. It takes about a week to do. We also limited the amount of artists from 300-and-some down to 240.
The first year was extremely successful, we got great press, we had great weather. We also added a food court. So even though we had our traditional carnival food, we brought in six or eight good, local restaurants and vendors for a food court. We had wine and beer. We added great music. So it became art and artists first, then good food and good music.
Last year we were about 10 percent off in attendance from the first year of 15,000, probably down to 13,500. But we also had terrible weather for two weeks prior to the event. And literally up until the day before the event, we weren’t even sure we could do it because the water had risen so high in the Brandywine. But the Friday before the event, the water went down almost six feet.
So Brandywine became a little scary the second year, but we got really lucky. The only down side was parts of the park were flooded. So we had to shift artists so a few of them didn’t get really good spaces because we had to use spaces we normally didn’t use.
The word up and down the East Coast was that Delaware was flooded out. So even though we had beautiful weather and it broke the day before, we probably lost a couple of thousand people who normally come in from D.C. to New York City. But both years, I’m guessing 80 percent of the vendors were happy because most of them signed up for the next year.
I did get great reviews by the combination of good weather and good help. It really made the difference. As I told one reporter, it wasn’t the cure for cancer, but we did bring back something. And I never realized the financial economic impact that the festival had on this area. We guestimated it was $1 million-plus to the economy. You have all of these artists paying for space and living in hotels and eating at restaurants and buying gas. We have people coming in from out of town. The artists themselves probably sold about $300,000 to $500,000 worth of art. We had 15,000 people, children and dogs. It was a great economic boon.
Ninety nine percent of the neighbors were happy. We do tie up traffic and parking. But we rescued what I think was a very important Mid-Atlantic art event—probably one of the oldest in the area. Some of these artists have been doing the show for 40 or 50 years.
DT: Tell me about the Newark Film Festival. (Editor’s note: The festival was canceled in early August.)
BS: This will be our 8th year. It was probably the first event I really got into. I got into it out of my love for documentary and independent films. And I’ve used this before, but my idea was, if you’re a film buff and you like independent and documentary films, you have three choices if you live in Delaware.
One, you go to the Ritz in Philadelphia, hope you don’t run into traffic or pay a $75 parking ticket and also pay 15 bucks to get in. Or you hope you’re home the weekend it comes to Theatre N. They do a great service for the city, but if you miss that weekend that you’re away, you might not see that film. And then you wait for Netflix or Redbox, and those independent and documentary films don’t hit them as quickly as the mainstream.
So my idea was to gather 20 to 25 independent and documentary films of that year and bring them all together in one area, the Newark Film Festival, and show them over a week’s period. Even though we always hear 25 films, we average showing each one of them three to five times. So we literally have 125 showings. And in the last five years we’ve incorporated some local filmmakers. We spun off from the film festival two other film festivals. Five years ago we took some of those films we showed in Newark and played them again in Wilmington two or three weeks later. We call that the WilmFilm Festival. That’s become more of its own festival because we’re planning on showing some of the films from Newark, but also incorporating a lot more local and regional filmmakers and giving them an opportunity to show films.
We also are talking to nonprofits about the opportunity to maybe have a film that relates to them and let them use the festival as a fundraiser.
The Newark Film Festival is Sept. 6-13. The WilmFilm Festival is Sept. 21-23 at the Delaware Art Museum. Then we took a third festival, which started last year, which is the OUTflix, the gay-lesbian film festival and we moved that to Theatre N in Wilmington (it was held June 22-24).
The nice thing about OUTflix is not only is it aimed at a certain audience, but we have several films last year and this year that really are mainstream audience friendly. We have documentaries about Carol Channing, James Dean. We have a film about bullying.
DT: You’ve been known as Mr. Network since the 1970s. What’s up with that?
BS: It’s really funny. I think it’s just who I am in that, if you’re a plumber, and I know somebody who needs a plumber, I’d kill to put you two together.
For 40 years, I was helping people in the business world find jobs. I have started two local networking groups. Both have been in existence for 40 years or more.
I always used to go to high schools and colleges and talk to young people about career selection. And I always admired ballplayers because they took a sport or a game they were good at and they had the ability to make a living, whether it was baseball, tennis, football, golf. And then I realized that’s what I do. I’m good at putting people together. I’ve taken something that’s part of me, and as I’m 72 years old now and I’ve been in business in Wilmington since I was 21. So I know a lot of people.
And I’m finding out a lot of the people I know are retiring (he laughs). But at 70, I started a whole other business. But I also have learned a secret of business is surround yourself with good people. This year for the first time, every one of my events has a general manager. I’ll be the executive producer. The joke is, I’ll make the promises and I hope they keep them. And so in a sense they become partners in these events. I plan on doing them as long as I can walk and drive, but I’ve never thought about retiring.
I do indulge myself by trying to take a long vacation every year. Hopefully the middle of December through the middle of January, I try to go someplace warm. Usually Central America. I like to go to small parts of the world.
But networking is something you do every day. It’s part of who I am. I found myself—even when I served on boards for nonprofit organizations because I wanted to give back—it was amazing how many times that had a ripple effect on my business. And I didn’t do it for that reason. I did it because I liked the arts and I was on several boards. But I’d meet executives from companies who asked what do I do. Tell them what you do and all of the sudden they’re your friend and part of your group.
DT: And I would guess in Delaware, networking might even be a little easier because of our size.
BS: A lot easier. The whole idea is Delaware is a Small Wonder. I don’t know why we don’t still use that expression, because it is a wonderful place to do business. You can be a big fish in a little pond very quickly.
And the thing I’m blown away by is the way our elected officials respond positively. Whether it be Vance Funk in Newark. When I call him and said I’d like to do a film festival in Newark. He said, “Come on down. How can I help you?” And the people in Wilmington and obviously in the state of Delaware, because they were so helpful in helping me put together the Brandywine Festival. It was their park and they took a chance on me. And when I ran into the governor, he basically said, “Call me if you have any problems.” That’s nice.
The county, Paul Clark and his staff, have gone out of their way to be involved in a helpful way. Obviously there are some roadblocks. I’m learning as I go. One of the funniest things that happened at the Brandywine Festival the first year, I was at the park setting up and this artist came up to me and said, “You know, I’m really nervous because I’ve never done this before.” And I said, “Neither have I.” And she looked at me like, What? I asked her a lot of questions and you learn by trial and error.
DT: What have you learned?
BS: One of our mantras for Barry’s Events, especially at the Brandywine Festival and the ice cream festival, is that the vendors, the people who are exhibitors, whether they’re artists … they’re my customer. They are just as important to me as the people who walk through the door. Because if your treat your vendors properly… They know I can’t predict the weather. But if they’re treated properly, they become your partners. They’re in it with you. They’re not just somebody who fills up space. My job is to help them make a living. If I do the right amount of promotion and planning, it’ll just make their job easier.
I’ve been really pleased with local companies who have come out to sponsor us. The car dealers—in particular Matt Slap Subaru, who is there for me every time I have an event. WSFS Bank not only sponsors the arts festival, they provide some of the best volunteers I’ve ever had.
This year we’re dealing with Benjamin Franklin Plumbing and WDEL-WSTW radio. I’m not saying this because you work for Delaware Today, but every time I call Delaware Today, they say, “What can we do to make it work?” I’ve never seen it happen so quickly here in Delaware. Every media outlet is open to help. Because it’s win-win.
DT: I see you have a Facebook page and you’re dialed in with your smartphone. But when you started networking in the ’70s, there was none of that.
BS: It was all face-to-face, word of mouth, shaking hands. Going out… I still go out to a few networking events at night. But I do depend on social networking a lot. One of the best ways it helped the Brandywine Festival grow is the Facebook pages. The eblasts, Twitter. There are some social network mavens over the years who have been very helpful to me. Ken Grant, obviously. But the people who work with me—I’m learning words like dropbox and eblast and blogging. Social networking is key. We try to make our Web sites user-friendly.
DT: It was neat to see that the ice cream festival was resurrected.
BS: At the beginning of this year we began to negotiate with New Castle County the idea of bringing back the ice cream festival. I talked to a few county people. We talked to Ciro Poppitti, who is now the register of wills, and I talked to a friend of my son’s who was a police officer, because I was interested in getting some numbers and history of what happened.
We finally met with the county, which told us that the last three years, 2004, 2005 and 2006, they did have records of the festival. And when Chris Coons got in office and saw how much money was being spent, which over those three years was probably close to $1 million, the county decided it had gotten too expensive and out of hand.
We decided that if we were going to bring it back, we were going to bring it back to its original roots. Our records indicated it started in the late 1970s as an old-fashioned picnic. And so that’s our mantra: It’s an old-fashioned ice cream festival at Rockwood. And we want to make it Delaware’s largest family picnic. So we decided to feature local dairies, not just one, but several dairies and ice cream retailers. We wanted to feature local restaurants so people like the Columbus Inn, Kid Shelleen’s, Moro, Eppy’s Bar-B-Que, Bella Vista Trattoria, Tutto Fresco – our goal was to bring in local restaurants and food vendors. We also added a wine bar and craft brew pub, which makes it kind of a fun thing.
When we saw the expanse of the land, we have acres and acres of ground, we thought wouldn’t this be a great place for local businesses to do a vending opportunity. It’s the middle of July, so I started calling local businesses and offering them a tent in what we call Main Street Rockwood. Benjamin Franklin Plumbing is going to be a sponsor. All the media, everybody’s been very supportive. Clear Channel billboards. We have almost 100 vendors, artists, antiques dealers, jewelers, retailers, clothing stores—a nice variety. And then we’ll have a big top—a place for emerging artists, nonprofits are always looking for new audiences.
We’re going to have two stages of music. One featuring just Delaware young musicians and the other will feature what I call local picnic music—banjos, country… And that’s all being produced by Gable Music Ventures. I’m delegating to experts. Our mantra has become: “It’s a place to eat, play, shop.”
DT: Sounds like you can make a day of it there.
BS: Two days. Our goal is to get people there at 11 o’clock in the morning and keep them there all day. BYOB—bring your own blanket. I want it to be a fun day and I want to keep the prices reasonable. All of my events are between $5 and $7. And we try to control the costs of the food, vending and ice cream. We want a family of four to come and spend a day and feel like they got a day’s worth of things. At both the Brandywine and the ice cream festival, we ask all food vendors to submit a list of their foods and their prices. We try to make sure that no one competes with anybody. There’s one guy selling hamburgers…
DT: I never realized how much went into planning something like this.
BS: Well, it’s running a wedding, a bar mitzvah and an event all at once. And then we have to worry about the security, the traffic and parking. Both events, we have to have off-premises parking. So it’s nice to have people like the Capano Corp. donate their space at what used to be the old Wanamaker’s building. And the Acierno Corp. donating the space at Merchant’s Square.
We have full cooperation of the City of Wilmington and their police department. I couldn’t do it without them. They know more about the event than I do. Same thing with New Castle County and their police. Both the county and the city are very cooperative, but it costs them nothing. We buy services.
DT: What’s next for you?
BS: Right now Barry’s Events runs five events. We may consider one other event during the holiday seasons. I’m still working on an idea.
We’ve been approached by other groups to run events for them, but I don’t want to be an event planner for other things. I’ll help them, but I really want to own and operate—or at least have control. It’s hard for me to work for somebody else because I never have. Even in my own business, one of the happiest days of my life was when I sold a company and one of the worst days was the next day when I went back to work for them and hated working for somebody else. So I’ve always been on my own since I started my first company in 1966.