PITTSTON — After more than 30 years, the Pittston Tomato Festival has taken on a life of its own.
From its original location on Kennedy Boulevard to its current spot in the Upper Tomato Festival Lot on Main Street, the event draws tens of thousands of spectators, food testers and tomato fighters to the downtown.
This year marks the event’s 35th year, and Tomato Festival Committee Chairperson Lori Nocito appreciates how much it’s grown.
“The festival started with humble beginnings and, year after year, it continues to grow and get better,” she said. “We appreciate the national recognition we received throughout the years from such outlets as the Washington Post, the Library of Congress, Parade Magazine, and Travel Publications.”
Freshening up the festival every year can be a challenge, but the committee pulled another rabbit out of the hat by teaming up with the Second Friday Art Walk.
“We’re always looking to include art in everything that we do,” Nocito said. “From the tomato sculpture, to the wire sculptures to the tomato mural. We love public art and artists.”
Artists and vendors will be along Main Street from 5 to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday but will have the option to stay until 11 p.m.
The monthly art event skipped August in the past specifically because of the Tomato Festival, but elected this year to hold an event.
“One of the first things I brought to the table when I was aksed to take over the art walk was why weren’t we part of the festival,” said art walk coordinator Mary Kroptavich. “It draws a large crowd and artists ask why we weren’t part of it. This is the first year the committee has agreed upon letting the artists come.”
Kroptavich isn’t worried about fatigue among the artists participating in back-to-back events this month, and said most of them are on board. She even mentioned there will be different artists at the festival compared to the regular art walks.
As for whether or not the Art Walk will become a permanent fixture with the Tomato Festival, Kroptavich said this year will be a feeling-out process.
“If it goes over well, we’d like to see the festival take over the August art walk,” she said. So, instead of having a separate August art walk, it would just be the week of the Tomato Festival.”
Event draws big crowds
More than 50,000 people are expected in Pittston this week as the 35th Annual Pittston Tomato Festival gets underway Thursday. During the four days of tomato fun, the Quality Tomato Capital of the World offers something for everyone.
The festival runs from Thursday, Aug. 16 to Sunday, Aug. 19 and is considered one of the best and tastiest festivals in Northeast Pennsylvania.
The festival features a plethora of homemade American and ethnic food, live entertainment, a parade, a 5K run and fun walk, games, rides, beer — which will be served at the Pittston City Fire Department Headquarters — and, of course, home-grown tomatoes.
The festival officially opens at 5 p.m. Thursday with an opening ceremony set for 6 p.m. at the city’s bandstand, followed by live entertainment by Windfall, Fab 3 and Old Friends.
The festival continues Friday with performances by The Music Room, The Sperazza Band, and Sweet Pepper & The Long Hots.
Saturday, however, is when the big stuff happens.
The 5K Race and Fun Walk will begin at 10 a.m. and wind through the streets of downtown. Registration for the 20th annual Miles for Michael/Pittston Tomato Festival 5K Run is set for 8:30 a.m. at the Greater Pittston YMCA. The awards ceremony for the race will be at 11:30 a.m.
Following the race, at approximately 10:30 a.m., the parade will begin on South Main Street and swing around to Kennedy Boulevard. It will be televised live on Fox 56. The parade will start at the A-Plus Mini Mart, continue through South Main Street and down Kennedy Boulevard, ending at the Cooper’s co-op building.
This year’s grand marshal is Sam Valenti, a retired city employee with the Department of Public Works, whom Nocito said is one of the unsung heroes of the Tomato Festival.
“It’s the unsung heroes that deserve this recognition so we’re very proud to honor him this year,” she said of Valenti.
Saturday also features the Tomato Festival Queen Scholarship Pageant from 1 to 2 p.m. and live entertainment in the bandshell throughout the evening.
The biggest event of all, however, just might be the Tomato Fights in Cooper’s parking lot. Hundreds of willing, and unwilling, participants will line up on either side of the parking lot and bombard each other with tomatoes. That starts at 2 p.m. Saturday.
This year marks the 15th year for perhaps the attraction.
“It’s good, not so clean fun, for a good cause,” Nocito said of the Tomato Fights.
She also recalled the Tomato Fights’ beginnings when she was a frequent participants.
“I was in the first couple because I wouldn’t ask anyone to do what I won’t do myself,” Nocito said. “I always stand by that.”
The tradition of the Tomato Fights began in 1944 in Bunol, Spain. Every year, truckloads of tomatoes are dumped into the town square and everyone is fair game as they crush and throw tomatoes at each other. The Pittston Tomato Fights will be a bit more organized, albeit still chaotic, and truckloads of fun.
Phyllis Hopkins Electric Trio begins the entertainment at 2:30 p.m. Saturday. It will be followed by Fuzzy Park Band, The Poets, Billy Kelly Story Tellers, and Flaxy Morgan.
The Tomato Contest begins at 7 p.m. in the committee building. The largest, smallest, ugliest and most perfect tomatoes will be judged.
The Little Miss and Little Mister Tomato Contest will be held from 10:45 a.m. to noon Sunday. Entertainment will be another highlight of Sunday. Until the festival closes at 10 p.m., local musicians will be at the bandshell.
Danny Argo will begin the Sunday entertainment at 2 p.m. and will be followed by MIZ, 3 Imaginary Boys, Tony’s Wine Cellar Jam Band, and Dani-elle.
Sauce Wars is back and better than ever with last year’s champ, PAZZO 315 of Pittston Township, prepared to defend its title. Taste-testers can vote for the best sauce throughout the weekend at the Tomato Festival Committee stand.
A portion of the Sauce Wars proceeds will go towards the Greater Pittsotn Historical Society and the Greater Pittston Cultural Coalition.
Going into a milestone year, Nocito said it’s all about city organizers colaborating with one another to put on the best event possible.
“I think our theme this year for the anniversary is community collaboration and the fine example of that is working with the Art Walk, the (Pittston City) Arts Council because they’ll be volunteering for the Tomato Fights to help with registration,” she said. “We do invite non-profit organizations to help with the festival. We enjoy working together and giving back.
Reach Jimmy Fisher at 570-704-3972 or on Twitter @SD_JimmyFisher