The free festival, which is funded through a combination of grant money and city funding, featured new and familiar circus and performance artists as well as roaming entertainers and vendors.
Mark Obarka, who, along with his wife, Debbie, and their collection of performing parrots make up the Squawk! The Amazing Bird Show, displayed Rusty, a red hybrid macaw, atop his arm as he addressed the crowd on Sunday at Jest FEST!
“There are two different methods you can use to put a bird like him out," he said. "The first method turned out to be surprisingly easy,” as he brandished a toy mallet to laughs from the crowd.
After the crowds' laughs subsided, Obarka began his hypnotism routine by inverting Rusty and cradling the parrot in the palm of his hand before waving his other hand over the bird in a mystical manner.
“Sleep!,” he roared, as Rusty went limp and tilted his head far backward as if playing dead.
The city of Gainesville held its sixth annual Jest FEST! Signature event on Sunday at The Thomas Center. The free festival, which is funded through a combination of grant money and city funding, features multiple circus and performance artists as well as roaming entertainers and vendors. In addition to stage acts, the festival also features roving acts such as stilt walkers, clowns, magicians and musicians.
Jest FEST! began in 2013 as a month-long series of events held each Saturday throughout April, but was moved to The Thomas Center when renovations were taking place in Bo Diddley Plaza.
Reorganized as one large single-day event, Jest FEST! was so successful that year that it has been organized every since at The Thomas Center.
David Ballard, event director, said that he particularly enjoys putting on Jest FEST! because extended families often attend the event together.
"I think it gives these families an opportunity to see live theater and laugh together as a family, along with the rest of their community,” he said. “And I think that's really what it's all about."
In addition to family and community, Ballard said that the event creates special memories.
"I always think of entertainers as magical memory makers,” Ballard said. “And I do believe when those in the arts as entertainers do just that — create magical memories."
While Ballard said he was excited for this year's event, he said he also was concerned about rain and wind, which were forecast for Sunday.
He said a rain plan was in place in which a performing space was set up in The Thomas Center’s cellar so that with moving some showtimes around all of the acts would be able to perform.
"We're going to be rain or shine,” he said. “We'll lose some things that we can’t bring in, but we'll have a full complement of entertainment."
Returning this year were headliners The Flying Wallendas, who are known for their high-wire and circus acts. Also returning was silent clown Avner the Eccentric, mime and magician Arsine Dupine from Paris, and Johnny Peers and his Muttville Comix dog show, which has been traveling with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus over the past year.
New additions included Squawk! The Amazing Bird Show, and Show Tune Shenanigans, a local group composed of John Lowe, the musical director at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in downtown Gainesville, and local actor and musician Will Winter, who performed in a show full of showtunes and hijinks.
The Thomas Center cellar had its seats filled as the Squawk! The Amazing Bird Show began. The Obarkas have been putting on their parrot-pun-filled show across the country for the past 20 years, and for a time, they performed regularly in Las Vegas. The show has also been featured on “America’s Got Talent” and “The Late Show with David Letterman.”
The show featured eight well-trained parrots who engaged in various activities such as walking backward on a barrel, painting, shooting a cannon loaded with confetti and even basic arithmetic in which a parrot rang a bell the proper amount of times to answer addition and subtraction problems.
Debbie Obarka said the time it takes to train the parrots varies from parrot to parrot.
“I can teach something to Roxanne (the act’s first and perhaps most talented performer) that might take another bird a month or longer,” she said.
The couple said they were glad to be invited to perform at Jest FEST!, but lamented the fact that they they couldn't catch many of their fellow acts.
“Unfortunately, we don't get to check anything out because we’re stuck here with these guys,” Mark Obarka said. “It’s a problem anytime we go anywhere.”
While the Obarkas were entertaining the indoor crowd, it began to rain outside, forcing event-goers to begin pouring into The Thomas Center.
As has become tradition, the event also featured local organizations, which were on hand to inform the community about their services. New this year were animal rescue organizations, but they were forced to cancel due to weather concerns.
"That was going to be fun,” Ballard said. “But you know what? We'll just bring them back next year, and it'll be great.”