UTICA — It was a happy day Friday when Utica kicked off its Fourth of July celebration with an evening full of free entertainment, free admission and free parking.
Attracting the youngsters of all ages, and even a few adults, were the jumbo slide, a trampoline and obstacle course.
The celebration is organized and sponsored by Licking Masonic Lodge 290, FAM.
“This has been a really good turnout,” said John Rodeniser, co-coordinator. “This year is really different; last year it was looking like it would rain, so the crowd was a lot smaller, but the weather is nice and a lot of people showed up.
“We start planning about the end of January and start talking about getting things set up. It always worries me, but when the event gets here, everything falls into place,” he added.
What makes this event come together, he said, are the local sponsors from throughout the community who help make the entertainment free.
“And all of our food stands are local,” said Rodeniser.
The Utica Idol competition was the pinnacle of Friday night’s festivities, as 24 contestants from all ages performed their favorite song before the audience. For the past five years, the Utica Merchant Association has sponsored the event, with a first-place winner for each age group — adult, youth and teen — and an overall Utica Idol winner from one of the top three. The overall winner takes home a $100 cash prize and the title.
“We started this as family entertainment for the festival,” said Pam Hager, coordinator for Utica Idol. “We always have a nice crowd in the audience. This festival is great. The rides are free for the kids. It’s just fun.
Two-year-old Hayden Waters was the youngest contestant to perform. His father, Heath Waters, stood beside his son as he sang and played his guitar to the song “Baptism” by Randy Travis.
Hayden’s older sister, Haylee, sang and played her pink guitar to the same song. It was the Waters family’s first time at the event, and the first time both siblings sang outside of church.
“They’ve done this before in church; anytime they can sing with their guitars, they are up for it. I was surprised they did it [today],” said their mother, Jodi Waters. “We prep them all week.”
“I’m proud of them. I was surprised, but they stuck with it,” said Heath.
“I came down last year,” said Jason Beaver, a Mount Vernon resident and contestant. “This will probably be a yearly thing. ... This is just my passion; I love watching other people perform and I like to perform myself.”
Beaver’s daughter and wife were in the crowd, providing support as he performed “Always & Forever” by Randy Travis.
“I think I did all right. I just enjoy doing this, and the crowd enjoyed it,” said Carl Rittenhouse, a contestant from Newark.
Utica Idol is the first performance contest Rittenhouse has been a part of, but after Friday’s event, he said he believes it won’t be his last. Rittenhouse did a rendition of “What a Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong for his performance. He said he has been singing all of his life.
At the end of the first round, 10 finalists were chosen from among the contestants for the final round on Saturday. In the adult group were Shannon Woodward, Kurt Chaney, Jason Beaver and Carl Rittenhouse; in the youth group, Ashlei Carr, Emma Woodward, Trisha McConnell; and in the teen group, Joanne Lower, Kaylene Poole and Leann Berg.
The night ended with performance by the Dave Lenhart Band, while dancers took to the grass floor for square dancing. The festivities continued on Saturday, and culminated in a fireworks display.