A brief glimpse, from our humble beginnings to the festival now.
The Edmonton International Street Performers Festival (EISPF) prides itself in delivering remarkable experiences to our community without barriers to accessibility. StreetFest populates Churchill Square each July with roving performers, daring acrobats, and plenty more while patrons roam and take in performances, totally free of charge. Afterwards, performers “pass the hat” in the age-old tradition of busking. Payment for their shows is entirely at the discretion of the audience.
The popularity and legacy of the festival comes from humble beginnings, starting as a loose concept in the minds of co-founders Sheldon Wilner and Dick Finkel. In 1981, the City of Edmonton launched a new project called “Summerfest”, which operated under the Parks and Recreation Department. Summerfest was the grandfather of most of the major present-day festivals in the city; the project was meant to function as an umbrella for cultural celebrations, and the events that were developed during Summerfest would later amalgamate into festivals of their own.
Sheldon Wilner was placed in charge of this project from 1981-1985. He wanted to create a new stream of programming through Summerfest — something parallel to, but not quite, the usual projects of music, theatre, and visual arts that would be mounted.
In 1984, Dick Finkel moved to Edmonton. He already had a reputation for being an active programmer of cultural celebrations across Canada. Wilner called on Finkel to help him co-produce his Summerfest project. They had an idea of what a “street performers festival” could look like, and they got to work filling the downtown streets with eccentric entertainers.
In 1985, the Street Performers Festival was the first of its kind in Canada. The creative team consisted of a handful of friends, volunteers, and board members – nothing like the hundreds of volunteers we see each summer now.
In 1986, Wilner left StreetFest to Finkel, who stayed in his role as the festival’s producer. Eager to expand the cast, he scouted for entertainers across street performance hot spots in the US (such as Boston, San Francisco, and New York). At each destination, he extended the invitation to perform in Edmonton, and the roster grew.
The first cast featured 20 performers. This July, we’re excited to be bringing you 47 acts.
A big turning point for the festival was the summer of 1987, when StreetFest was relocated. No longer confined to a conjunction of downtown streets, the festival landed in Sir Winston Churchill Square – and with the exception of a few summers in 2004, 2018, and 2019 (due to construction), remains there to this day.
The change of location put the festival on Edmontonians’ radars. Media coverage skyrocketed, and thousands of festival goers walked through the Square to witness an ever-growing line-up of talent. More and more top artists from within the country and across the world joined the festival. Not only did the festival delight audiences with these established street performers, but new and local talent was nurtured in this electric environment of busking and comradery. Many performers who started at the festival went on to further success.
In 1988, the performers of that year’s festival had the idea of putting on a group show. Finkel suggested that this show consisted of new material or collaboration with artists they hadn’t worked with before. This marked the inception of “Late Night Madness”, a totally unique string of performances that goes up annually with that year’s cast of entertainers.
Dick Finkel continued to grow the festival until the year 1999, when he handed over the torch – and title of Festival Producer – to Shelley Switzer. Shelley was already an integral part of StreetFest; for the ten years prior to her inheriting this role, she was a volunteer. From that point on, she guided the development of the festival towards the one we see today; Troupe du Jour, Be Your Own Busker (renamed Busker Academy), and Comedy Cares were all features implemented by Shelley during her leadership.
In addition to the Edmonton Festival, the EISPF takes pride in bringing street performance to other communities across the province. Over the years, EISPF has partnered with Grande Prairie, Red Deer, North Battleford, Spruce Grove and more to bring international caliber artists to street performance festivals in those locations. Starting in 2000, EISPF continues to partner with the community of Grande Prairie as programming partners for the Grande Prairie International Street Performers Festival.
After 22 years of hard work in this position, Shelley Switzer said her farewells to the festival. The internal organization of the EISPF was restructured, replacing the role of Festival Producer with the role of Executive Director.
At the time, Marian Brant was the StreetFest Operations and Production Manager– and had been for two years. For many years prior, Marian Stage Managed Late Night Madness, and from 2003 – 2005, Women in Comedy. In 2022, she took the helm, officially stepping into the role of the EISPFA Executive Director.
Which brings us to now, 2023. We hope to see you soon!
StreetFest Fun Facts
10 facts for 10 days – across our 39 years of memories, laughter, and wild fun.
- StreetFest was the first festival of its kind in North America.
- Over the course of the ten days the festival runs, StreetFest sees upwards of 200,000 visitors.
- During our 39 years, the StreetFest Volunteer Family has welcomed thousands of people. Many of these volunteers come back year-after-year to volunteer with the festival. We could not do it without you!
- On that note… our current longest-standing volunteer is Elizabeth McEwan. She has been with us for over 30 years! There are many others who have grown alongside us and we thank all of them from the absolute bottoms of our hearts.
- We have hosted performers from all over the world, including: Canada, USA, Japan, New Zealand, China, Spain, Portugal, Italy, India, Mexico, Thailand, Philippines, Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden, Israel, Ireland, Croatia, Samoa, UK, South Korea, France, Ukraine, Australia, and Germany — with many more to come.
- In 1974, wire-walker Philippe Petit grew to fame for walking on a wire between the twin towers of the World Trade Center. In August of 1984, he walked over Churchill Square – right here in Edmonton.
- The artist who has appeared the most at StreetFest is Cindy Lou, one of our amazing Face Painters. She has been a part of the cast for 29 years now!
- Our longest-standing vendor is Mike Rogiani and his family and team at the ICE CREAM DEPOT. They have been at every festival, which is quite the feat itself!
- Proving that laughter has the power to heal, StreetFest has proudly made over 225 Comedy Cares visits in Edmonton, Grande Prairie, Fort McMurray, Red Deer, Okotoks, Banff, Canmore, Strathmore, Sooke, and White Rock. A warm ‘thank you’ to the artists who bring our special brand of laughter to the people who deserve it most, and to the individuals and businesses that make sure these visits can happen.
- StreetFest has used an infinity* of hula hoops over the course of 39 years.
*Infinity could not actually be fact-checked, but it’s a lot. Like, a lot a lot.
Past and Present Campaigns
Check out StreetFest’s campaigns over the years!
Starting with SummerFest in 1981 — how many of these years have YOU been to?