By Michael P. Walsh
Special to the Voice
The Savin Rock Festival brought back the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of “the Rock” for a weekend, giving thousands of festivalgoers a glimpse into the amusement park’s glorious past and why it was Connecticut’s most popular shoreline destination for decades.
The two-day festival, held in West Haven’s historic Old Grove Park, showcased the time-honored recipe — musical groups, rides, games, mouthwatering foods — that made the 20th-century Savin Rock Park so special and so storied as “the playground of New England.”
Along with a “bigger and better” midway of rides and games supplied by Marenna Amusements, a row of eight food and six dessert trucks served up burgers, hot dogs, cheesesteaks, fried dough, gyros, lobster rolls, tacos and meatball bombs, as well as cannoli, ice cream, cupcakes and kettle corn.
The festival opened Friday with welcoming remarks by Mayor Nancy R. Rossi and followed with a beautiful rendition of the national anthem by Adeline Mellilo, a 2022 graduate of West Haven High School.
Rossi thanked city departments, employees and volunteers for making the festival happen, including festival coordinator Kristen Teshoney, Public Works Commissioner Tom J. McCarthy, Human Resources Commissioner Beth A. Sabo and entertainment coordinator Tom Conroy.
“I am proud to kick off the 2022 Savin Rock Festival and honor the history of ‘the Rock,’” Rossi told the festive crowd. “Stop by and enjoy all the different foods — you won’t be disappointed — and don’t miss the craft fair.”
Rossi also thanked the festival’s title sponsor, the University of New Haven, along with sponsors New England Brewing Co., Industrial Recycling, Sabatino Tartufi, Frankson Fence Co. and Baybrook Remodelers Inc.
Radio personality Brian Smith, back for a fifth time as the “ringmaster” of ceremonies, then heralded the evening’s musical lineup, saying, “Welcome to Day One of Savin Rock Festival 2022!”
The Navels, performing the best of Fleetwood Mac and Stevie Nicks and other ’70s and ’80s rock classics, warmed up concertgoers for headliner Parkway Diner, which played favorites by Elton John and Billy Joel, including John’s “Bennie and the Jets” and Joel’s “The Downeaster ‘Alexa.’”
The bands entertained and interacted with the all-ages crowd, turning the concrete pad in front of the portable stage into a giant dance floor.
Before the Parkway Diner concert, Rossi, state Rep. Treneé McGee (D-116), and City Council members Bridgette J. Hoskie (D-1), Sarah J. Ackbarali (D-3), Robbin Watt Hamilton (D-5), and Robert Bruneau (D-9), presented citations onstage to lifeguards Issac Gorske, 20, and Lauren Blake, 16, of the Department of Parks and Recreation for their “prompt response and extraordinary heroism in action” during two rescues on Oak Street Beach recently. The lifeguards were accompanied by their supervisor, Margaret Ruggiero, Park-Rec’s pool and waterfront coordinator.
Gorske rescued a drowning 11-year-old boy who jumped off the pier of Oak B Beach at 1:05 p.m. June 29, and Blake rescued a drowning 8-year-old girl who was struggling with the current on Oak A Beach at 2:50 p.m. July 7. Lifeguard Madison Hobart, 18, also received a mayoral citation for the June 29 rescue but could not attend the presentation.
On Saturday, the 152-year-old Grove, fanned by a cool summer breeze, provided a stunning setting beneath the sun-drenched oak trees for activities and concerts, including Tre Paul, the Day Two opener.
The trio, anchored by retired city police Detective Sgt. Paul Raucci on vocals, played a 90-minute set of rock, oldies and singalongs, including Kool & the Gang’s “Ladies’ Night,” Tom Jones’ “It’s Not Unusual” and Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline.”
Before the concert, Smith greeted the crowd of happy faces and introduced Elizabeth Shea, an incoming senior at West Haven High, who sang a stellar rendition of the national anthem.
Echoes of Sinatra followed and performed a timeless tribute to the one and only Frank Sinatra. The five-piece band, fronted by Sinatra tribute artist Steve Kaz, traced the life and career of Ol’ Blue Eyes through music and storytelling.
For 90 minutes, Kaz entertained the crowd with fascinating stories of Sinatra, playful banter with the orchestra and spot-on swing renditions of the Sinatra hits you know by heart, including “Come Fly With Me,” “Witchcraft” and “Fly Me to the Moon.”
The show featured Kaz crooning big-band standards from Sinatra’s tenure with bandleaders Harry James and Tommy Dorsey and selections from the Great American Songbook.
Other Sinatra cuts included “Luck Be a Lady,” “Summer Wind” and “My Way,” culminating with the anthem “New York, New York.”
The bands were complemented by Smith, a former co-host of WPLR’s “Smith and Barber the Morning Show,” who segued the performers with hysterical bursts of comic relief.
The night’s headliner, The British Legends of Rock Show, delved into the pantheon of British rock royalty and played the crown jewels of the British music catalog of the ’60s and ’70s, including Led Zeppelin’s “Good Times Bad Times,” The Who’s “I Can’t Explain,” the Spencer Davis Group’s “Gimme Some Lovin’” and Elton John’s “The Bitch Is Back.”
During the afternoon, the festival’s first Touch-a-Truck event gave children and those young at heart an up-close look at emergency response vehicles, including the West Haven Fire Department’s new aerial platform truck, and big trucks, such as a front loader from the Department of Public Works.
Firefighters of the West Haven Fire Department, led by Fire Marshal Roger Sicotte, demonstrated the department’s 35-foot smoke trailer and showed children what to do in the event of a fire.
West Haven firefighters also demonstrated the Jaws of Life tool by prying open parts of a vehicle to free those trapped inside.
A short distance away, firefighters of the West Shore Fire Department demonstrated the department’s amphibious rescue boat.
At the craft fair, longtime vendor Diane Della Camera of Savin Rock Printing was joined by first-time vendors Susan Caprio and Janette Quiles to sell their wares.
Della Camera sold Savin Rock T-shirts, sweatshirts, hats, tote bags and fuzzy dice. Caprio, the owner of Berry Berry Nice, displayed her frozen beverages treats, and Quiles, who owns Wallwork Creations, showed her custom-designed, weather-proof wooden signs.
West Haven Rotary Club President Carrie Malangone, Secretary Denise Weber and Rotarian Dawn Callahan sold WestHavenOpoly, the West Haven centennial version of the board game Monopoly. The $30 game is available at https://westhaven.rotary7980gives.org/whgame/Campaign/Details. Sales benefit the Rotary Club Foundation.
At the festival’s hospitality tent, Sabo sold coins, lapel pins and signed copies of the book “City of West Haven: Village to Town” from last year’s West Haven Centennial Celebration, as well as signed prints of the Savin Rock flying horse Silver Fox and DVDs of the Savin Rock documentary, “See Ya at the Rock!”
West Haven’s flagship festival, established by the Chamber of Commerce, debuted on July 24, 1982, to bring organizations, clubs, businesses and families together for a summer festival that celebrates life in one of America’s oldest coastal communities.
From the dawn of the Savin Rock House hotel in 1838, the Rock had long been a resort hub until it was officially incorporated as an amusement park by the Savin Rock Park Co. on Memorial Day 1925, when it opened to 300,000 visitors and 66,000 automobiles in one spectacular day.
For the next 40 years, the famous seaside park captured the hearts and imaginations of “Rock rats” young and old. “The Coney Island of Connecticut” shuttered on Sept. 21, 1966, to pave the way for the Savin Rock Urban Renewal Project.