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From Pride to Freedom
July 1, 2011
by John Long

Click For Full Size John Koop, known to many in the Kansas City area by his alter ego, the entertainer “Flo,” has taken on a new venture since closing Flo’s Cabaret, his bar and restaurant, last year. He is directing the new Kansas City Freedom Festival at Penn Valley Park, which will be July 29-31.

Koop had been involved with the various Kansas City Gay Pride organizations as an officer, organizer, entertainer for 19 years, including nine years as an officer or organizer. Those years, Koop said, gave him a unique background in festival management that he’ll bring to his new position.

“If I had not worked with Pride, I could have never done this,” Koop said. “I know every permit person, I know every permit that I need, I know how to book national acts, I know all the rules. And I’ve been on those grounds. I can tell you where I’m going to put stuff. I know how to do all those things.”

Some may remember a summer festival years ago called Spirit Fest, also held at Penn Valley Park. Koop says he’s filling a similar niche.

The Freedom Festival’s website describes it as “a private, non-profit, non-political foundation. Our mission is to celebrate, teach, honor, and strengthen our great city. We seek to provide quality events which instill a deeper sense of pride for Kansas City in the hearts of those involved.”

“It all started,” Koop said, “from when we sold the bar. The mortgage is still due. The car payment is still due. So I thought, what am I going to do for a living now? And I said, what do I miss the most? And that is putting on the festival, i.e. the Pride festival. And I certainly can’t do that, because Rick Bumgardner is the president now. So I was sitting there thinking, you know what? I’ve been to the RiverFest, and I’ve been to the IrishFest, and I’ve been to this fest, and now I go to two or three every weekend, actually. … They’re so boring. They don’t bring in national acts. They don’t have that pizzazz.”

Then, he said, he remembered Spirit Fest. “And I said, I’m going to bring it back … under a new name and new management. All of Kansas City, you say the name Spirit Festival and they immediately know what it is.”

There is no connection between Freedom Festival and the former Spirit Fest, and Freedom Festival is its own 501(c) 3 organization. Koop and his partner, Tony Svaty, have been working on Freedom Festival for nearly a year.

Koop said that one of the downfalls of the Spirit Fest was that it was on different weekends over the years instead of being consistent. He explained why they chose the last weekend of July for Freedom Festival.

“The city already had the RiverFest,” he said. “I said, ‘Well, you certainly can’t go up against the RiverFest, and you don’t want to step on toes. And it just didn’t make sense to have it somewhere in the middle because something was going on. But there was nothing going on the last weekend in July, and I said, ‘This is brilliant. Maybe if we even work together -- the RiverFest and Freedom Festival -- we can market it saying the whole month is the Fourth of July. … So you start your month out with RiverFest and you end it with Freedom Festival.”

Koop acknowledged that the weather on the last weekend in July might be “hotter than hell,” but he still thinks it will be a great weekend, timed before the state fairs in August and September. Koop has said that selling sponsorships in the first year of a festival has been a challenge, but they’ve landed many large sponsors. “This year was just about getting the festival up and running. Next year it’s going to be about adding one or two more things and continuously grow. The RiverFest, I think, is what, five or six years that it’s been going on. Because Tony was looking at the website, and it’s like ‘Well, how come they have so many sponsors and we don’t?’ and I said, ‘Honey, give me six years and I’ll have pages and pages of them. But for the first year, we have a lot, and we have huge ones.’”

Koop said that the grounds of Liberty Memorial Museum will be open during the festival.

“So if you go into the festival, you can actually go into the museum, so it’s all one big great thing. We fence off the whole grounds. This year they gave us the southeast lawn, where Pride used to be, for parking. We can park 3,000 cars up there, so … handicapped and VIP parking will be up there. And then Penn Drive, we’ve got that blocked off, too, and that’s another 300 parking spaces.” Koop said that the VIP area and Penn Drive will charge for parking, but there will also be free parking in the Hallmark parking grounds that Freedom Festival has rented.

The festival will have two stages — one will be a community stage for children’s acts or groups that are not large enough to be on the main stage.

“It’s very kid-friendly, and pets are allowed,” Koop said. “We have a full carnival, and not just a little one, not just inflatables. We’re talking a full state-fair kind of carnival. They’re coming from Louisiana. We’re talking Ferris wheels, and spinning things, and more.”

Other activities for children will include a free Game Kart Mobile Video Game Theater created by Time Warner Cable. The festival describes this as “a state-of-the-art mobile video game theater where 16 players can simultaneously play the latest video games in a full immersion environment.”

Koop said there will also be a large Octoberfest tent for adults, “with just rows and rows of tables and beer steins with Freedom Festival signs.”

He said the festival has 15 food vendors, and exhibitor booths are still being sold daily.

“There are 20-some bands,” he said. The headliners will be Dionne Warwick, Kellie Pickler and Crystal Waters. Koop said that the national acts are paid, but the local bands are performing for free because of the exposure they’ll get from the crowds. “We’re really expecting 100,000 people for the whole weekend, easily,” he said.

Although there is really no overlap with the Pride festival that Koop was formerly involved with, one element is shared: Organizations in the LGBT community will be helping. For example, the Barbies baseball team will work in the beverage tent and get reimbursed by tips, and one of the women’s softball teams will be paid for handling trash. Non-LGBT organizations in Kansas City and Lawrence will also be helping out for their own charities, Koop said.

“It’s a community event, but I still am part of the gay community, and if I can help out in any way, I’m certainly going to do that,” Koop said.

And last, but by no means least, was this question: Will Flo make an appearance at the Freedom Festival? “No. No Flo,” Koop laughed.

Tickets: $10 per day or $25 for a weekend pass. Tickets will be discounted by $5 if festival-goers contribute five non-perishable food items, which will go to support Harvesters. Children 12 and under are free.

Festival hours:
Friday, July 29: 4-11p.m.
Saturday, July 30: 10 a.m-11 p.m.
Sunday, July 31: 10 a.m.-11p.m.
Info: www.kcfreedomfest.com
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