The Westmoreland Arts & Heritage Festival offers everything from Mysterians to Creepshows to comics

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From the return of the Westmoreland Symphony Orchestra to the debut of the Trundle Manor Traveling Creepshow and the launch of the first Festival-Con, the 38th Westmoreland Arts & Heritage Festival upholds tradition while scouting new discoveries for its projected 150,000 visitors.

You can participate in a Native American drumming circle, arm wrestle one of the women of Westmoreland Roller Derby, or chat about the likelihood of extraterrestrials with UFO and Bigfoot hunter and author Stan Gordon. And that's just for starters.

The free festival opens today at Twin Lakes Park, east of Greensburg, and continues from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily through Sunday with 175 crafters, about four dozen food booths, and a full performance schedule on four stages.

Adam Shaffer, interim executive director, said the festival is sending the message that it's returning to its roots, which includes an emphasis on regional arts and heritage.

"We're starting each day on the Island [main] Stage with ethnic programming. Opening day is the WACONGO Dance Company, African music and dance; the second day is Cuidodo, tango; Saturday is the Augsburg German Band; and Sunday, the bagpipes of the New Haven Hose Company Pipe Band. Question Mark & the Mysterians, from Michigan, is playing Saturday. They may be the first Latino band in the U.S. to hit No. 1 on the national pop charts with '96 Tears' in 1966. They're one of the oldies groups that still has all of its original members."

Shane Speal, a New Alexandria native and "The King of the Cigar Box Guitar," will debut at the festival with performances today, Friday and Saturday. He'll also sell the guitars, which he handcrafts, daily (see feature on Mr. Speal in Friday's East edition). His father is the owner of Speal's Tavern, New Alexandria, a blues club that draws from neighboring counties and states, and is home of the Cigar Box Guitar Museum.

The Westmoreland Symphony, which played annually between the late 1970s and 2002, has been among the performers most frequently requested by the public in recent years, Mr. Shaffer said. Its return program is a red, white and blue tribute to Independence Day, comprising "The Star Spangled Banner"; "Roman Carnival Overture" by Berlioz; "The King and I," Rodgers/Bennett; "A Disney Adventure"; Mozart, from Symphony No. 38 IV. Presto; "Sing Along, America!"; "Nimrod" from Elgar's "Enigma Variations"; "Armed Forces Salute"; Williams' "Star Wars Medley"; Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture"; and Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever."

Scheduling a 49-piece professional orchestra was a budget consideration, Mr. Shaffer said, and led to the modification of other programs. One tactic that will save money and should have the added benefit of building community was to schedule an act several times during the festival.

The festival has added a New Stage (just built and not yet named) near the bus entrance. It will feature programming previously held on the Laurel Stage, such as the popular Old Time Fiddlers' Contest. The Laurel is now the larger and shadier site of the Children's Stage.

Two seminal festival performers, Porky Chedwick and Joseph Grkman Sr., are being honored with the first Lifetime Achievement in Arts & Heritage Awards.

Mr. Chedwick is the only local DJ to be recognized in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He is credited as the first white DJ in a major Eastern city to play racially diverse music, including old R&B and gospel records. He will meet and greet at the festival Eagle Nest area from 11 a.m to 3 p.m. Friday through Sunday.

Mr. Grkman founded the Joe Grkman Band in 1967, which has produced six albums of Cleveland-style Slovenian music and traditional folk songs. He was inducted into the Polka Hall of Fame Trustees Honor Roll, American-Slovenian Polka Foundation, Cleveland, in 1995. He and Joe Grkman Jr. will instruct on "The Art of Polka" at 1:30 p.m. today at the New Stage. His group, Grkmania, will play from 1:30 to 3 p.m. Saturday at the Cabaret Stage.

Another admired festival fixture, Earl Shriver of Birds of Prey, began bringing his falcons, owls and others to the festival in the 1980s. Last year he turned 81 and retired, and a plaque will pay tribute to him. But bird lovers shouldn't despair. New this year is John Lege of North Apollo, aka "That Guy With the Birds," who will share time with some of the many abused or neglected parrots he's rescued.

Food is big among attendees, and the festival is always looking for local vendors, preferably those who are tied to a restaurant, Mr. Shaffer said. Gosia's Pierogies will fill a popular Eastern European slot left by a retiring vendor. The chef-owner of Jeannette restaurant Chef Robinson will sell his ribs, barbecue, collard greens, corn bread and other soul food for the first time.

Mr. Shaffer is particularly pleased with the festival's first venture into exhibiting cartoon and comic art, which he notes is "growing in popularity." He predicts the show, in the Center Gallery near the boat house, will be successful. Works exhibited range from political cartoons to an original "Beetle Bailey" Sunday strip loaned by creator Mort Walker. "We want to show people the richness of the genre." Several artists will be present on two to four of the festival days.

Among original works donated for auction (5 p.m. Sunday) are a "Pearls Before Swine" daily strip by Stephan Pastis; a "Nancy" Sunday strip by Brad Gilchrist; and two editorial cartoons by Mike Peters, creator of "Mother Goose and Grimm." The auction will also include fine arts and crafts ranging from oil paintings to chainsaw carvings.

In the festival's larger gallery building, the 35th Westmoreland Art Nationals features 28 artists from Westmoreland County, and from 13 states in addition to Pennsylvania, exhibiting in a variety of media.

A more quirky art experience is being offered by Swissvale-based Trundle Manor, self-described as "The most unusual tourist trap in the world meets the most bizarre private collection on public display," including taxidermy, jarred specimens, medical implements and odd weaponry. The "Traveling Creepshow," set up between the park's Lower and Upper Lakes, is "based on the idea that people need more inspiration and should have more questions than they have now," its website explains. Trundle invites visitors to discover "the mystery lying in wait behind the eyes of each and every person with the guff to enter into our unerringly tiny circus tent."

Limited parking is available near the park. Shuttle buses and wheelchair accessible vans will operate from the University of Pittsburgh, Greensburg, and Saint Vincent College, Latrobe; $2 round trip.

artarchitecture - music - neigh_east

Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: or 412-263-1925. First Published July 5, 2012 4:00 AM


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