In the leadoff Winnipeg Fringe Festival, medieval garbed members of Sak Theatre would rove the edges of Old Market Square shouting, "Hey, something interesting is happening here!"
The shrewd Florida troupe were masters at quickly corralling a crowd for its outdoor audience participation show The Menace from Venice and curious Winnipeg passersby proved very willing to gather in the square to see something interesting happening there.
Those local thrill-seekers were then tempted to lay down a few bucks to see Three Dead Trolls in a Baggie, Something Strange and Would Jew Marry Me? in makeshift nearby venues and before the nine-day theatre party was over in July 1988 Winnipeg had set its first fringe record -- the best first-year ticket sales of 14,000.
It's hard to believe that was 25 years ago and today the festival will kick off its anniversary edition.
There is an inclination on these occasions to look back and remember perhaps the commanding figure of Anna Barry in the early years, or the vision of Izzy the Clown topless except for clear plastic bags filled with water and goldfish covering her breasts or the classical music high jinks of Rainer Hersh. You could be awed that the indoor fringe audience over the last two dozen years totals near 1.3 million people.
"Never for a second did I think that Winnipeg would achieve the attendance numbers that it has," says Michael Nathanson, an actor in the first year and today the artistic director of the Winnipeg Jewish Theatre. "Back then Edmonton was this monolith and we could never be that big. Lo and behold, it's become the festival that could."
Today, however, is all about looking ahead to the 172 shows -- a new high -- being staged in 31 venues until July 29. It's about getting your 94-page fringe program and plotting out whether over the next 12 days to see monologist TJ Dawe before Martin Dockery or catch Hot Thespian Action before the sketch comedy troupe begins selling out.
Normally executive producer Chuck McEwen insists that the shows take the spotlight but for this commemoration he is willing to share. It's the reason he decided not to attach a theme to the 2012 Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival
"This year the event should take a bow," says McEwen, overseeing his fifth fringe. "We just wanted people to get their fringe on. It was a call to action."
Last year ticket sales were 87,845 and McEwen thinks a six figure attendance in 2012 would be a timely present that would make everyone happy
"I'm going to say it out loud this year, my goal is to hit the 100,000 ticket mark," he says.
That's a pretty healthy hike, one that's never been accomplished before. Only once has there been a year-over-year increase of 10,000 and that was in fringe number 2 when indoor attendance jumped from 14,000 to 26,000.
"If every patron from last year sees one more show, we'll hit 120,000," McEwen says. "We have about 35,000 individuals coming to the fringe, that's far above the 12,500 we need to reach 100,000. We're hoping that with the 25th anniversary excitement and extra shows we'll be able to achieve that goal."
Edmonton is still the box office king in North America with 104,000 in ticket sales, a number that is well within reach by Winnipeg.
The first time fringe officials talked 100,000 in attendance was in 1999 when 44,709 in tickets were sold and over 55,000 watched outdoor performers. Indoor box office growth had slowed in the '90s (ticket sales crept up only about 4,000 over six years). Then in 2000 ticket sales jumped 8,000 and another nearly 9,000 in 2001 when the empty Eaton's building hosted three venues and gave the festival unprecedented exposure. For the first time fringers lined up all day on Portage Avenue, evidence that the festival had made inroads into the heart of the city.
Suddenly the sight of busy streets in the downtown until late into the night had many wishing it could be like that all year long.
"That's an ideal scenario," says Mayor Sam Katz. "I would be a little less greedy and wish it was like that six months of the year. It's a beautiful goal."
The festival has been good for the city. The economic impact is almost $5 million. It's also been a source of civic pride as fringers the world over talk up Winnipeg positively as this lively, arts-oriented oasis on the Prairies.
"There's no doubt in the last couple of years everybody is talking about the fringe," says Katz. "It's become a major event. It's also great to have one of the best in the country."