Wichita Riverfest attendees celebrate at revamped block party

Jackie Pitochelli was thinking ahead when it came to Wednesday’s Hiland Dairy Ice Cream Social at the Riverfest block party: She brought her own chocolate syrup from home.

“It’s more fun if you’re prepared,” Pitochelli said.

Pitochelli, a Wichita resident, carried a metal lunch box marked with the Bazooka bubblegum logo. Inside was a travel-sized bottle of sunscreen, a half-dozen wet wipes in a plastic bag and a ketchup bottle filled with chocolate syrup and sealed with a piece of masking tape.

“We used to come to the festival every year,” Pitochelli said, “but then we slacked off because it seemed like they stopped doing a lot of the things they used to do.”

Pitochelli and her husband, Tony, were two in a crowd of hundreds who gathered during Riverfest on Wednesday night for the festival’s annual block party. The celebration has been held at different locations and on different nights since its inauguration in 1982.

It wasn’t unusual for crowds of more than 80,000 to descend on Douglas Avenue for the block party during the 1980s and ’90s. In the early 2000s, festival organizers made various attempts to clamp down on rowdy crowds when some local business owners complained. They tried scheduling the block party earlier in the week, earlier in the day, and then canceled the event altogether in 2002. When the event returned the following year, it was in a new location: closer to the river and farther from the Old Town bar district. The Kennedy Plaza/Century II area has been home to the block party – and its more subdued vibe – ever since.

“We came back this year because, on the schedule, it looked like the festival was getting better,” Jackie Pitochelli said. She and her husband ate their ice cream in the shade of two Hiland Dairy trucks parked across the street from the Century II stage.

Festivalgoers murmured about the size of the ice cream portions as they waited in line: Each bowl held at least two softball-sized mounds of vanilla ice cream.

“We just aim to please,” said Wagonmaster Michael Ackerman as he shoved his server into the 3-gallon tub.

“We had flavors one year,” said Ken Steffens, a Wagonmaster and lifelong Wichitan. “It got too chaotic. So now it’s vanilla or vanilla.”

The ice cream lines grew shorter as the sun went down. Folding chairs surrounded the stage for the performance of 10-year-old Carson Mac of Wichita. The crowd cheered as Carson, with his bowl haircut and reflective sunglasses, belted out the lyrics to James Taylor’s “Steamroller Blues.”

“I’m a demolition derby,” Carson sang with a slight twang, “a hefty hunk of steaming junk.”

He was only slightly taller than his guitar was long, and his arms were skinnier than the neck of his guitar, but judging by their cheers, Carson Mac still managed to impress the crowd.

Related stories from Wichita Eagle