As festivals flourish, vendors enjoy the ride

Under a small tent at the Yiasou Greek Festival, children line up at $5 a head to have their faces painted or hair sprayed with bright colors.

It takes only a few moments: Spiderman's face on a 3-year-old's cheek. Washable green paint in the hair of a 10-year-old.

It makes them happy. And it makes Donnie DePasquale, the artist, a tidy sum.

Like many of the vendors at the Greek festival, and others around the Southeast, DePasquale makes his living on the festival circuit. The circuit kicked into high gear this month, with dozens scheduled around the region.

Together they form a national industry and network that ranges from small churchyard affairs to city-sponsored street fairs and parades. It's big money, and the network supports tens of thousands of workers and small businessmen from roughly February to November.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics counted 247,000 amusement park workers and attendants in 2006. There's not a sub-category for small arts services.

For DePasquale, it's a full-time living. The 48-year-old lives with his wife and four children in a Lake Norman-area home. He left other careers behind that did not pay as well.

The Yiasou Greek Festival, which has been held for 31 years by the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral, is his most profitable. It teems with children excited about his product, he said.

Like other successful vendors, he learned through vexing trial and error that some festivals pay better than others. And at some, there's too much competition or not enough interest from the younger crowd.

He learned bigger money was to be made from a quick painting on the face and not from a painstaking portrait that might take days or weeks. He used to paint those portraits, and also worked as a land surveyor drafting documents before computer graphics took over the detail work.

“I make in one day what I would have made in two weeks as a land surveyor,” he said Friday morning as the line in front of his tent grew.

Across from the tent, children and preteens lined up for the pint-sized amusement park rides.

The company, Will & Kris Amusements, specializes in rides for young teenagers and preteens, said Erskine Kirksey, whose sons own the 15-year-old Spartanburg-based business. They entered the market at a time when there were few vendors, said Kris Kirksey, the 31-year-old co-owner.

Now the brothers control the Greek festival market around the region. They concentrate on the smaller rides because parents are built-in chaperones and can't resist buying for their children, said Erskine Kirksey.

“It's the service and safety. And it's the integrity, because you handle so much money at these festivals,” he said as he sold tickets for the rides. “The word has spread.”

The festival is the major annual fundraiser for the Greek Orthodox church.

John Malatras, the 75-year-old co-chairman of the festival, said vendors including DePasquale pay a percentage of their take and that the church collects a $2 entrance fee from all visitors.

He wouldn't reveal the fundraising goal but said the church expects to sell about 60,000 entrance tickets over the four-day festival, which has grown over its three-decade history.

And the Greek food – lamb dinners and Greek pastries, among other offerings – is the main attraction. The manual labor and food preparation are largely donated by the church members, he said.

The church gives some of the profits to charity, but it also has a master expansion plan, he said. “Our goal is to let people know about our heritage.”