Lightfoot Days Festival

By Dennis Rizzo

By John Winchester as told to Dennis Rizzo

The gordon lightfoot Festival Founders
The Gordon Lightfoot Festival Founders

There has never been a singer, whose career I followed as closely as Gordon Lightfoot. I was fascinated from the first time listening to Dad’s ‘Sunday Concert’ LP (as an 8-year-old). For years after moving to Orillia I anticipated ‘bumping into’ my singer hero, while he was home visiting his mother Jessie, or sister Bev, or nephew Steve (Eyers), of ‘Even Steven’ fame. Never happened. Attended a few Lightfoot concerts at the Opera House, some Mariposa performances. Still ‘0-fer’. 

John Winchester with Gordon Lightfoot
John Winchester with Gordon Lightfoot

In 2002 Gord suffered a setback and it took some time for him to get back into the swing. Finally, more than a decade after his recovery, I got to cross ‘Meet Gordon Lightfoot’ off my bucket list. When my very good friend and neighbour, Reverend Karen Hilfman-Millson, announced in February 2013 that she would be conducting her fourth (and ultimately final) interview with Gordon at St. Paul’s I got to sit in.

Karen reached out this past summer and asked if I would help relaunch Lightfoot Days. It seemed like the best way to help ensure that his music and contributions to Orillia are not forgotten. The person most critical in getting this festival to happen is undoubtedly Karen. Her long-standing connection with the Lightfoot family over the past quarter century resulted in a deep friendship with Gord.

Karen Hilfman-Milson holding City Proclamation
Karen Hilfman-Milson holding City Proclamation

Lightfoot Days 2023 was a miracle of collaboration. Several venues and musicians and other performers gathered in a short space of time for such an ambitious undertaking. The list of players read like a who’s-who of Orillia artists. The world’s foremost Lightfoot tribute band, ‘Classic Lightfoot Live’, kicked off the festivities with a 7:30 performance at St. Paul’s Centre on Friday evening. There followed a weekend of Gord-mania.

Mayor Don McIsaac proclaimed Saturday as ‘Gordon Lightfoot Day’ in front of the Orillia Opera House at 11:00 am with musician Steve Porter performing a few numbers. This was followed by a walking tour of Lightfoot-inspired guitars assembled by Leslie Fournier and local artists.

Gordon Lightfoot Tribute Artists
Gordon Lightfoot Tribute Artists

Tribute artists were featured at ten local venues throughout the weekend and the OMAH displayed Lightfoot memorabilia on Saturday. Never-before-shared audio and video interviews of Gordon, conducted by Reverend Karen Hilfman-Millson, were played at St. Paul’s on Saturday. A Lightfoot-themed Worship Service took place Sunday at St. Paul’s, “…where my singing began”, in the words of Gordon, followed by an 85th-birthday cake-cutting ceremony at Mariposa Market.

I assume the rest of the committee (Daphne Mainprize, Brian Hare, Rick Brown, Steve Porter, Mary Hooykaas, and Joe Cornelisse), each with a special set of skills, are looking forward to next year’s festival. Now that the financial impact of this weekend’s activities (very busy restaurants, hotels, and other accommodations) is apparent, we anticipate more success approaching organizations to secure financial support for Lightfoot Days 2024. Collaborations are the key.

Thank you, once again, to all businesses involved, our sponsors (St. Paul’s United Church, In-Store Water Systems, Orillia First Aid, and Mariposa Market), all our outstanding performers, and to YOU, our fellow Gordon Lightfoot fans. Your interest and participation assures Gordon’s place in Orillia history for years to come.