After a three-year hiatus, Grand Old Day — St. Paul's beloved 50-year-old hootenanny along storied Grand Avenue — returned with a hesitant start Sunday as crowds lining the street politely clapped for the fire trucks and politicians moseying past.
U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar padded past in sneakers, waving. Mayor Melvin Carter jogged behind her. Kids gobbled up candy from the street — to the chagrin of parents. Then, City Council Member Rebecca Noecker passed supporters at the corner of Grand and Saratoga, calling out a fitting prophecy.
"The politicians are almost gone," Noecker, who represents the city's Second Ward, declared. "The fun stuff is coming."
She was right. Soon enough, the marching bands, bagpipes and even zombies from a local haunted house roared up, the crowds growing, the sun baking and the unofficial kickoff to summer in Minnesota's capital in full swing.
"Glad it's finally back," said Tiffany Ruscher, who watched the parade from the lawn in front of her apartment. "I used to constantly come over by bus to watch. But this is my first year actually living on Grand."
Asked if she were a lifetime St. Paulite, Ruscher responded, "Born and raised."
Grand Old Day returned to St. Paul with new energy and financial sponsorships, slightly downsized from past years. The pandemic and rising security costs had shuttered the festival since 2019. But St. Paulites — official and wannabe — reveled in the mood on the sun-drenched blacktop even if the crowds weren't as large as the day-drinking, music-listening party may have seen a decade or two ago.
"It's like a small, little State Fair," said Matt Edwards, who watched with his wife — their three children packed into a stroller. "This is our first one since before the kids were born."
The reconstitution of Grand Old Day came as the Grand Avenue Business Association tries to re-energize commerce and community on the avenue that runs from the august homes near the Cathedral Hill neighborhood atop the bluff through Macalester College and points west.
"It is a reboot," Rene Meyer-Grimberg, a neighborhood resident and volunteer, said from under a wide-brimmed hat, her face sprinkled with glitter as she helped coordinate the arts vendors. "The whole thing grew chaotic and crazy because [the founders] didn't know what they had gotten themselves into when it exploded."
Longtime festivalgoers noted differences from the previous incarnation.
"This is a lot smaller than when it was at its peak," Tim Lynch said as he paused in the shade under oil painter Mary Lynch's tent. "But for a first year, it's pretty good."
They smiled as old friends popped in to say hello.
Despite modest expectations, Grand Old Day co-chair Chris Jensen said he thought this year might set an attendance record, topping the 225,000 people who flooded Grand Avenue during the last festival in 2019.
"It's good to get our community back together to celebrate each other on St. Paul's main street and just get together again," said Jensen, who also serves as Grand Avenue Business Association president. "It's been too long."
Some staples returned. Local bands — from DJ Shannon Blowtorch to the Jayhawks — took to the stages. Patrons grabbed wristbands to drink at Billy's on Grand. And house parties spilled from porches onto the sidewalk.
"It's already hot," Leanna Thomas said around 11 a.m., a St. Paul Vulcans' V smudged on her cheek. "I think everybody is just happy to be outside and gathering again."
For some, Sunday's festival marked a first. Shawn Xiang perched his son atop his shoulders and watched with his wife, Jane, as a band marched past.
"Our first time ever," he said. "It's new and refreshing."
As boy in a gorilla costume rolled by on skates, Xiang's son looked on excitedly.
At a nearby street corner, St. Paul police officer Ron Himes monitored the parade route.
"From what I've seen, everybody's in good spirits," he said. "It's been a long three years."
By noon, some festgoers found shade outside the Red Balloon Bookshop as Paul Talisman played piano. A list of rocker Jerry Lee Lewis' songs stood on a shelf.
"Jerry Lee actually didn't write any of these," Talisman said from behind his sunglasses. Then mimicking "The Killer's" Louisiana croon, he called out, "Hey there, you good-looking thing you," as he tore into "Chantilly Lace."
From the outdoor upright, Talisman's boogie-woogie carried down the street, and few would've known the party had ever gone away.