By David Luhrssen
MILWAUKEE — The number of people gathered at this year’s Milwaukee Armenian Fest on July 16 had already grown large at the advertised opening time. By 11 a.m., festivalgoers were already lined up from inside the church hall and out the door, waiting deep into the parking lot. By mid-afternoon it was clear that attendance for this year’s festival was record-breaking.
The annual summer gathering at St. John the Baptist Armenian Church, Greenfield, began decades ago as a picnic for Southeast Wisconsin’s Armenian community. In the 1990s, parish leaders rebranded the picnic as Milwaukee Armenian Fest, an event for everyone in Milwaukee — an opportunity to showcase Armenian food, culture and faith in a city that had already known successful Greek, Irish, German and Italian festivals.
Attendance and attention have grown steadily over the years with many returning customers, some wanting to reconnect with their Armenian roots and always new faces as Milwaukee Armenian Fest found new marketing tools through social media as well as legacy media. Food was always and remains central to the festival, with an affordable menu of traditional Armenian foods. But in the ’90s the role of the festival as a one-day embassy of all things Armenian became important.
This year, the culture booth did brisk business in books, CDs, clothing, Armenian wine and preserves. An arts and crafts table kept children engaged as adults viewed a display of ancient Armenian coins. Many church tours were conducted, giving visitors insights into Armenian history and the Armenian Church. For the first time, Milwaukee Armenian Fest held a silent auction featuring goods and services donated by Armenian-owned businesses. Despite the last-minute cancellation by a Chicago dance company, the large outdoor audience was entertained by the traditional Armenian music of the Hye Vibes, a Chicago band, and STEPAN, a one-man band from Racine.