The high level of the Mississippi River kept Fourth of July celebrants off the levee last Thursday, but officials said while attendance was down, it was still a respectable turnout.

“This year, our 14th annual, was a little different because of the water situation,” said Anatole Vincent, director of the West Baton Rouge Parks and Recreation Department and the primary organizer of the event. “We weren’t able to go on top of the levee.”

“It definitely had a big effect on the crowd,” he continued. “I think a lot of people steered clear of the event. We have a big part of our crowd who come for the entertainment, but I think we lost people who normally come just for the fireworks.”

“We still had a great crowd,” Vincent said. “I think when you consider the heat and all (the heat index last Thursday was reportedly 106), we still had a lot of people out there.”

“I was impressed with the turnout,” said Port Allen Mayor Richard Lee III. “It seemed to have been pretty well received. We had quite a few people turn out.”

The crowd last week was estimated to be about half of its normal attendance, somewhere around 2,500, compared to the 5,000 or so the celebration has usually attracted.

Despite the large crowd, it was a quiet day free of crime.

“I haven’t heard any complaints from the police chief that he experienced any problems,” Lee said. “I’m not aware of any arrests being made or citations issued.”

The concept for the Fourth of July celebration came from Parish President Riley “PeeWee” Berthelot, Vincent said, right after he began working with Parks and Recreation in June 2006.

“Organizing the Fourth of July was actually my first order of business when I started the job,” he said.

“Pee Wee called and said, ‘I think we’re missing out on a good opportunity with a Fourth of July festival because a lot of people come out for the fireworks out on the riverfront because it’s such a beautiful place,” Vincent said.

Berthelot told Vincent he wanted entertainment, foo and something for the kids to do. “He wanted it to have a family atmosphere.”

“I told him I think that’s a great idea and that next year, we’ll do something,” Vincent said. “PeeWee said, ‘No, I want something for this year.’”

Vincent recruited longtime friend and Port Allen native Walt Braud to help organize the inaugural event.

“We threw together the first one in less than a month and it worked out well,” he said. “We’ve been doing it every year since then.”

There have been constants in the event, like the Foret Tradition as the headlining band.

“They’ve been doing it for the last 13 of the 14 years we’ve been doing it,” Vincent said. “They play a good mix of music, something that everyone can enjoy.”

“They’re real crowd pleasers,” he said. “They get a lot of people out there dancing and they’re just a lot of fun to have out there.”

Live music started on the Fourth with the Sara Collins Band, “an up-and-coming star out of Baton Rouge” who just returned home from two years in Nashville, followed by Parish County Line, a country band so popular in the area they recently played the Bayou Country Superfest.

There was a new aspect to the event this year as well, a children’s “Fun Zone” that included space walks, magic shows and balloon artists.

“One thing we did differently this year is we had a youth stage at the foot of the levee,” Vincent said, with music from the local Rockin’ Mozart School of Music. “They had two youth bands that are part of the school perform.”

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