The first Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids LaughFest began with a world record-breaking chicken toss, and ended with a smile. Over 55,000 people from 25 states and Canada attended the 10-day festival of laughter in Grand Rapids. The buzz began last fall when the now familiar yellow smiles were placed in locations all over Grand Rapids with no explanation. A couple of months later, the announcement was made that the first Grand Rapids LaughFest was coming in March, to raise money and to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Gilda’s Club, a free cancer and grief support community for people and families affected by cancer. It is one of 52 clubs throughout the United States named in honor of the late Saturday Night Live comedienne, Gilda Radner, who died of ovarian cancer in 1989.
Besides shattering the previous chicken tossing record of 265 with their 925, the festival shattered their own expectations for the first-time festival. “We wanted it to be a Midwest success,” says Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids CEO and President, Leann Arkema, “we had hoped people from about six states would participate and that the word would then start to travel to Year Two…the word is already traveling.”
Pure Michigan chatted with with President Arkema about LaughFest, along with two notable performers, Colin Mochrie and Brad Sherwood.
The festival was broken down into several categories such as Teens and up, ages 13+, Grown-ups Only, and Family Friendly Fun, including many free opportunities to join in the fun. It had over 60 sold-out shows including performances by big name comedians like Betty White, Bill Cosby, Margaret Cho, and Kevin Hart, as well as local and regional comedians.
The comedy wasn’t limited to stand-up, including a mini-golf course designed by artists featuring 19 extreme and inventive holes, All Day with the Arts at the Grand Rapids Art Museum, and comedy movies at several locations around town, to name just a few. This was an event that spanned many areas throughout Grand Rapids, and was a true community effort, utilizing over 1,300 volunteers.
The festival ended as it began, with a signature yellow and black smile, and over 300 participants braving the wind and the rain to make it happen.