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Second life

Missoula’s Festival of the Dead refuses to die

This time, it was actually dead. When Julia LaTray, a self-described “shirker” when it comes to participating in community events, started making calls to past organizers to see when and where her dance troupe needed to be for this year’s Festival of the Dead, there was no answer. Nobody was in position to take the reins again. Nothing had been planned. The gringo-fied Missoula translation of the high Mexican holiday, a beloved local version of Dia de los Muertos founded by two artists in 1993, was dormant. That was just two months ago.

“I was told it wasn’t happening,” says LaTray. It was at least the second time in two years the festival was on life support, a still-vacant executive director position serving as the final nail in the event’s proverbial coffin. “The next thing I know I’m talking about it with Leah [Morrow] at Selvedge Studios, and she’s saying it has to happen. Trust me, the last thing I expected was that she would end up taking it on, and that I would be helping.”

In a sense, LaTray and Morrow are breathing new life into an event that annually features Missoula’s most raucous mix of creative whimsy and homage. With just two months to plan all of the logistics, a Festival of the Dead short on pre-parade workshops but brimming with day-of happenings is slated for downtown Missoula Friday, Nov. 2. Unlike years past, dance and drum performances will precede the main procession at the Circle Square, or XXXXs, on North Higgins Avenue and an informal fundraiser with more performances will take place at 515 restaurant and the Crystal Theatre following the parade.  

“This is a much bigger deal than I ever imagined,” says Morrow, who’s coordinating all the logistical planning while LaTray arranges the performers and artists. “When I agreed to do it I had no idea how many people were really involved and just how important it is to so many parts of the community.”

Most people assume The Festival of the Dead just happens, but in reality it requires a significant amount of advance planning and at least one volunteer willing to take a year-round leadership role. Founded by artists Bev Glueckert and Mike deMeng, the event has evolved and grown over the years, particularly under the recent leadership of Kay Grissom-Kiely. But after three years, Grissom-Kiely had to step down and she made a public plea in the spring of 2006 for someone else to keep the event running. Rachel Winick volunteered at the 11th hour and pulled off last year’s parade. But Winick was unable to continue in 2007. Enter Morrow, again at the last minute.

“I was given a pink box,” says Morrow. “That’s what you get when you agree to plan it, and it has all these notes from past organizers. They’re all really helpful in offering guidance, but it’s more advice than how-to stuff. That still falls into someone’s lap.”

Morrow says, at a minimum, $1,500 is required to secure the barricades and Porta-Potties, file the permits with the city, organize participants, corral a group of volunteers and do a barebones job of promotion. In the past, the budget has exceeded $6,000 and the parade’s been preceded by community-wide art classes, grief workshops and cultural lectures. But that would’ve been impossible to pull off this year on such short notice.

“It never occurred to me when I signed on that there wasn’t any money,” says Morrow. “The first thing we ended up doing was asking for donations from local businesses, and that was just to make sure we could get the basics taken care of. It’s the sort of thing where if you have more than two months, grants would be a great resource. Kay was really great at that. But you need the time and support and commitment to write them and plan on all of that.”

This year’s scheduling changes were instituted to help the event become more self-sustaining and secure in the future. Most notably, the free after party at 515 includes an art auction with all proceeds going toward next year’s parade. Although Morrow and LaTray are hesitant to commit to 2008, they are at least hoping this year’s event will lay a solid foundation for a bigger event next year.

“This is a thing unto itself,” says Morrow. “I realized early on that the parade would’ve happened with or without me or anyone else taking care of the logistics. I’m not sure how, exactly, but the people would have gathered and there would have been something, with or without barricades and permits and Porta-Potties. Too many people love and support this to let it not happen.”

Getting to a Dead Man’s Party

Knowing how the Festival of the Dead usually works, it may be best to simply follow the crowd. But in case you get lost along the route, here’s a step-by-step account of this year’s lineup of activities, all taking place in downtown Missoula on Friday, Nov. 2.

5 PM: Performances by Unity Drum and Dance, The Northside Gringo All-Stars, and fire dancing and juggling at the XXXXs on North Higgins Avenue.

5:30 PM: Find your spot in the parade by lining up at the XXXXs. No pre-registration is required.

6 PM: Parade from the XXXXs down North Higgins Avenue to Caras Park.

6:30 – 10 PM: After party at 515 featuring salsa lessons from Heather Adams and the Downtown Dance Collective, belly dancing from Red Tent Dance, music from Tater Pig and DJ El Jefe, and a fundraising art auction.

Last rites: Festival of the Dead overlaps this year with First Friday. Organizers are asking commuters to please plan ahead and be prepared for blockades along Higgins Avenue. Alternate transportation or parking away from Higgins Avenue is recommended.


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