Downtown's Jest Fest! to bring a month of merry

Todd Key will perform his juggling act and also appear as TreeMan in the inaugural Jest Fest! on Saturday at Bo Diddley Community Plaza. (Courtesy photo)

Published: Thursday, April 4, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, April 3, 2013 at 3:38 p.m.

Beginning Saturday downtown Gainesville will look a bit like a carnival.


Jest Fest!

What: First event in April entertainment series features juggler Todd Key, TreeMan, the Cirikli Stilt Birds and a preview of the Hippodrome Theatre's upcoming production of “Robin Hood.”
When: 6-8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Bo Diddley Community Plaza, 111 E. University Ave.
Cost: Free

Upcoming Jest Fest! performances:
April 13: Ken Silkie's interactive show, silent clown Arsene Dupin, and Barbara and Ina's human statue exhibition
April 20: Marc Dobson's one-man band and Magical Mystical Michael's “cool magic” show
April 27: The Flying Wallendas

Every Saturday throughout April, jugglers, human statues and swordfighters will bring laughter and fun to Bo Diddley Community Plaza during Jest Fest! a free event featuring national and international performance artists, sponsored by the City of Gainesville Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs Department.

The series is funded in part by a Tourist Development Tax Grant from the Alachua County Board of County Commissioners, in conjunction with the Alachua County Tourist Development Council, says event coordinator David Ballard.

Ballard, who has a background as an entertainer and master puppeteer, was looking for a signature spring event to bring to Gainesville. Since April begins with April Fool's Day, he thought Jest Fest! would be just what the city needed.

“We thought it would be fun to encourage a light-hearted celebration of laughter for the entire month of April,” he says.

A special event on Friday, Masquerade Merriment, will kickoff the month of performances with a party from 9 p.m. to midnight at Cellar 12, 12 SE Second Ave. The Merriment party will feature music by Jazz Bandits, a costume contest with prizes, hors d’oeuvres and a cash bar, and will raise funds for its three co-sponsors: the Pride Community Center of North Central Florida, the Alachua County Branch of the NAACP and the Alachua County Coalition for the Homeless and Hungry. (For tickets or more information, call 327-3400 or see

On Saturday, Jest Fest! itself begins with TreeMan, a walking, lifelike tree character played by Todd Key, along with the Cirikli Stilt Birds, colorful wooden puppets known for interacting with audiences at Walt Disney World's EPCOT theme park. Through performance, the birds will tell the story of an old shepherd who must find a mate for his bird.

Following the Cirikli Stilt Birds will be a short, preview performance of the Hippodrome Theatre's upcoming production of “Robin Hood,” which in turn will be followed by a return of appearance from Key — this time in a juggling act that has won over crowds in such sporting events as the 1996 Olympics, two basketball All-Star games and three Super Bowls.

In addition to the scheduled performances at 6 p.m., other entertainment will begin in the audience one hour before, “so from the moment you get in, you'll be drawn in,” Ballard says.

The final weekend in April will feature a performance medley by the world-renowned family circus act the Flying Wallendas, famous for their aerial acrobatics and human pyramids.

The Flying Wallendas, based in Sarasota, made news on June 15, 2012, when family member Nik Wallenda became the first person to walk across Niagara Falls on a tightrope.

Local artists also will be showcased on the Bo Diddley plaza stage. The Fort Clarke Middle School Fresh Trash Advanced Percussion group will appear April 20, and giant puppets from Santa Fe College Theatre and the Thomas Center Theatre for Young audiences will be featured April 27.

Along with performers on stage, Ballard says the plaza will feature several vendors, including a caricature artist and balloon maker.

Ballard says the department is lucky to have received funding for Jest Fest! and he hopes it will become an annual event.

“To see a show like this in a theater would be a substantial ticket price,” he says. “We hope that as the festival grows, other organizations, businesses and individuals will join in and also plan comedy-themed events in April,” he says.

For the complete Jest Fest! schedule and volunteering opportunities, see or contact Ballard at 393-8746.

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