Madison’s Freakfest Served Its Purpose

The city recently announced that the Freakfest Halloween celebration on State Street has been canceled for a third year in a row. The last two cancellations were due to COVID, but this one could spell the end of the event. 

As the mayor who started Freakfest you might think I’d have some personal investment in it and object to its apparent demise. Not really. These things run their course. In its day Freakfest was cool. But as things age they become less fashionable. I’m 63. Trust me. I get it. 

But I do think that the event is a template that can be used when needed in the future — and something like it will be needed in the future for sure. 

Because history repeats itself, let me offer some. When I took office in 2003, the annual celebration on State Street was more or less spontaneous, disorganized and increasingly dangerous. Tens of thousands of people were showing up to show off their costumes. While it was mostly good fun, the evenings would end with some bad behavior. In fact, the year before I became mayor, the event had ended with a group of revelers starting bonfires in the street and pelting police with bottles and other objects. 

In 2003 we stepped up the police presence and I came downtown to walk the street. I could feel some tension in the crowd — there was some pushing and shoving — but then a cold rain began and I went home, feeling confident that we’d be okay. But my phone rang at 2 a.m. with then Police Chief Richard Williams telling me that his cops had just deployed pepper spray to disperse an unruly crowd. I got out of bed and drove downtown to walk the street again. Windows had been broken. It looked worse than it was, but it wasn’t great. 

So, in 2004 and 2005 we tried different strategies. We brought in big lights, we worked with student groups to sponsor costume contests, we offered free food and we basically did anything we could think of to try to turn the event from a bacchanal to more wholesome activities. 

And none of it worked. Each year the same thing would happen. A group of revelers would mass on the 500 block at around bar closing time (which was delayed an hour thanks to the end of daylight saving time on that night) and start to jump and chant in a circle. Fearing a riot like the 2002 and 2003 events, police would move in to disperse the crowd. It was an ugly scene eagerly covered by the television news. It made for great pictures, which the local stations would play for weeks leading up to the next year’s event. It was like an advertisement. Halloween in Madison. Come for the costumes. Stay for the riot!

By 2006 I was as fed up with the whole damn thing as were most of my constituents. The incremental changes we had tried weren’t doing the trick. We needed to do something radical. Closing down a public street and charging to get in was certainly radical. 

That first year was a white knuckle ride. My staff worked with a group of volunteer ad professionals to brand the event “Freakfest.” The idea was to make this a music festival with costumes. We couldn’t get a music promoter to touch it, so Bridget Maniaci, who was a student intern in my office and later a Madison alder, booked the bands. The Parks Department stepped up to sell tickets out of a trailer. City Engineering designed ingenious soft barricades that would help us control access without injuring anyone if they were stormed. A private security company we hired bailed at the last minute, so we had to scramble to get city employees to fill in. My aides Joel Plant and Mario Mendoza oversaw the whole thing and were on the street all night reporting in to a command center we had set up at the Water Utility conference room a couple of miles away. 

As we got closer to the date all kinds of people and groups were making public statements and sending me emails to cover their asses. If things went south it would be very much the mayor’s idea. (When things went well some of those same people and groups were eager to take credit.) I don’t mean to suggest that Freakfest was all about me because a lot of people contributed. But in a political sense it, in fact, was all about me. Nobody else would take the blame if things went wrong and I would be up for reelection in only five months. 

And it came very close to going wrong. At the end of the evening, sure enough, a group gathered in the 500 block and began chanting. Police moved in on horses to try to both show strength and calm the crowd, as horses will do. Then somebody tossed a necklace (the crowd liked to throw necklaces as they would at Mardi Gras) at a mounted cop. The cop caught the necklace, twirled it about his head and tossed it back. The crowd erupted in laughter and applause. The tension was defused. We did a lot of things right with the wolves at the door ready to pounce on us if we failed, but it was that one mounted cop who may have turned the whole event. I wish I knew who he was because he deserves our thanks. 

And the rest is pretty much history. There was no more trouble at Halloween. A professional promotion group, Frank Productions, took over booking the bands and selling the tickets. Freakfest did well for about a decade. 

But now enthusiasm for the event has waned and so it appears the city will move on. That’s okay, but let’s not forget that history will surely repeat itself. Going back to the 1930s there has always been an almost hormonal urge (maybe it’s not “almost”) for a big student blowout in the fall and spring. Violence at these events is rare, but it seems to start small and become more intense over time. Unless they’re making young people differently these days, that will happen again and the city will have to respond. 

And Freakfest is there as a template to regain control when things get out of hand. It’s an event whose time has come and gone and will probably come again. 

A version of this piece originally appeared in Isthmus.

Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

6 thoughts on “Madison’s Freakfest Served Its Purpose

  1. Hi Dave! I am not sure my comment made it through WordPress, so, here it is again: Happy fall, by the way. The best time in Wisconsin. I wish my brothers and I were deer-hunting together up on Fish Creek Ridge in Monroe County.

    Dave: Halloween existed in uncontrolled and uncontrollable form on State Street long before your 2002+ narrative begins and “Freakfest” emerges to bore but tame the masses. The late 1970s would be accurate. I remember the first, when it was too spontaneous for television! I remember when the first cell phones started showing up and ruining the show. This (below) I wrote in 1996, which will give you a subjective look at its evolution, or de-evolution. The celebrants started fires, grabbed a gun from a cop, beat one person unconscious. Your administration was not the first to try to “organize” the event. Life did exist here before the 2000s. But you are right, by then it was a bust as a celebration. I believe I attended and wrote about at least 25 or more of those annual unplanned events. Some years I wrote an advance, the event and the aftermath. All are available in the archives. In 1986 there were 75,000 people there. George

    So, this in 1996:

    The survival guide to Halloween on State Street in the 1980s, which I included in columns in advance of Halloween starting in 1985. This was from 1996, when things had quieted considerably, but the advice was still good: Thursday, October 31, 1996 George Hesselberg HALLOWEEN GORE IS GONE, NOT FORGOTTEN Tonight is Halloween.(1996) Ten years ago, 75,000 people — the curious and the curiosities — went to State Street for Halloween. There will be no such gathering tonight, but as proof to the youth of today that their parents or older brothers and sisters are telling the truth when they say they once appeared in public wearing a sparkly gown, army boots and a water-balloon bosom, here is the list of warnings that appeared in this column for several of Halloween’s gory years on State Street: “The confines of State Street late on Halloween are neither friendly nor safe. The crowd stands belly to bosom, south side to north side, from Lake Street to Gorham Street. There are few pedestrian outlets from the street. Maybe three of 10 people wear costumes. Maybe one of 10 is staggering drunk, three are slobbering drunk, four are drunk enough not to care who they insult or what they say or feel, and the other two are either foreign students looking for Madison culture or high school students who lost their fake IDs. “Don’t wear, drink or eat from, carry or even come near anything breakable, because it will break. With this in mind, and considering the drunken condition of a majority of the people on the street and the relative instability of some of the items people wear as part of their costumes, remember to wear something on your feet. “Don’t bring your regular wallet or purse. It will be stolen or lost. “When anything goes, as everything does on State Street on Halloween, it is helpful to keep your sense of humor. “Especially after midnight, when, according to tradition, it will probably rain again this year.” That was from 1985. And it did rain that year, as usual. It also rained last year. And it will probably rain this year. In those days, this was an important factor in the judging of the annual Halloween “Running of the Dunderheads,” which occurs at midnight. Any drunks left on the street at that time usually dash or dance or dawdle, even dangle, down the street. As was written then, “soddenly, Halloween is over.”

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    1. Why are you intent on bringing Dave down to size? He was just giving his perspective. He never claimed that nothing existed in Madison before his administration. Your in-depth history just proves what he was saying, which is that history is bound to repeat itself.

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      1. Thanks, Kiara, but I don’t think that George was cutting me down to size. I like to count him as a friend. There is a lot of history here that’s worth considering. One thing that George’s response did was jar my own memories of being a student. I remember a Halloween in 1981 when there was such a crowd on Lake and State that I literally was taken off my feet and had to move with the flow. It was kind of scary. But, despite the huge crowds, there was little trouble. Then the event petered out due to several years of bad weather, only to come back around 2000 with an edgier spirit. I speculate that that had to do with different drugs. In my day it was beer and weak weed. Things got more exotic and more potent later.

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      2. Chill. No size reduction intended. Dave is a friend of mine. His column was mostly right on. If Dave wasn’t in some cave in Butternut or a lighthouse wherever, we would have a beer and quibble over the details. Dave, of course, was The Man, and I was just Some Guy, standing in the doorway to the old Goodwill basement store, wearing eye shadow and sparkly blush and a red curly wig and lumberman’s jacket with big pockets containing three Budweisers and a handwritten list of phone numbers of every telephone on State Street, about to be grabbed by two fraternity members who need a “homeless man” to fill their Halloween scavenger hunt list before it rains to usher in the Running of the Dunderheads. So yeah, what do I know.

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  2. I love to see someone confront an obvious problem head-on even when there is political risk and the outcome is not guaranteed.

    Way to go Mayor Dave.

    Way to go Director Chris.

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