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Saturday August 30th 2014

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Evenings in Olde Seville Square: The Comeback Kid of Pensacola Festivals
by Jessica Forbes

Returning this May after bidding what was believed to be a final farewell in 2012, Evenings in Olde Seville Square is back from the brink of extinction—again.

Having gone through various incarnations over nearly 50 years, the free event’s success has been a consistent challenge for organizers, but is also what has repeatedly saved it.

Evenings In Olde Seville Square was, from 1966 until 2012, a project of the Pensacola Heritage Foundation (PHF).

The weekly concerts evolved from a festival that gained popularity in the late 1960s, called “An Evening in Olde Seville Square.” The single day event was held each August from 1966 through 1971, and became so large and widely attended that it expanded to two days in 1972.

Originally themed “A Gay ‘90s Gala,” AEIOSS was styled in the fashions of the 1890s. Moustache judging contests, Victorian dress contests, and barbershop quartet performances were part of programming that included live music, vendors, games, and food.

Festival food selections reflected local historical favorites, including smoked mullet, “gaspache” (a bread-based gaspacho), gumbo, and snapper soup—all dishes popular in Pensacola at the turn of the 20th century.

The festival was a part of PHF’s efforts to restore and bring the public into the historic neighborhoods of downtown Pensacola. Housing and businesses migrated away from historic city centers beginning in the 1940s, and local groups like PHF were on the front lines of a growing historic preservation movement to save increasingly neglected buildings and neighborhoods.

PHF was established in 1964, two years before the National Historic Preservation Act was passed, which created the National Register of Historic Places and other federal historic preservation programs.

The group focused on restoring Seville Square, the Dorr House—which served as PHF headquarters in the 1960s—and the Barkley House, both fronting the square.

PHF’s efforts to draw people downtown were a success, and Seville Square and its new gazebo became a popular spot for public events.

A concert series began in April 1972 in Seville Square, but it was not associated with the AEIOSS festival. The concerts took place every Sunday afternoon through the summer, organized by the Seville Square Settlers and the Pensacola Federation of Musicians, which would later become the format for the Evenings in Olde Seville Square series.

AEIOSS had grown exponentially by the early 1970s, and in 1971 the crowd was estimated to be 100,000. The free festival had grown too large, however, and costs and labor requirements became too much for PHF to support.

The largest AEIOSS in the event’s history was also the last for almost 10 years.

In May 1981, in observance of the bicentennial of Bernardo de Galvez’s Siege of Pensacola, AEIOSS returned to mark the end of those festivities.

The following year, AEIOSS adapted into a Fourth of July celebration, and continued as such through 1986.

The July Fourth event became immensely popular just as the AEIOSS festival had a decade earlier, but grew so quickly that the PHF Board felt the event “had lost its charm and original intent.”

PHF then developed AEIOSS into a summer concert series held on Thursdays throughout the summer, beginning in 1988. Free to the public, in the ensuing 24 years, Evenings in Olde Seville Square became a signature event for Pensacola, and a tradition for many residents.

By the mid-2000s, the management and costs of the festival became too onerous, and PHF announced it would no longer be able to sponsor the festival after the 2012 season.

For the first time in half a century, PHF will not manage the festival, but the tradition it created and kept alive will continue.

“Events Pensacola,” a non-profit organization, stepped in to keep the series going on what is its longest continual streak yet.