Friday, 31 July 2015 10:18

Cheeseburger in Caseville, an annual Jimmy Buffett festival, draws 300,000 attendees

Written by  Allan I. Ross
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Cheeseburger in Caseville Cheeseburger in Caseville

Cheeseburger in Caseville 2015
Downtown Caseville
Aug. 14-Aug. 23
Parade of Tropical Fools: 5:30 p.m., Aug. 19

On the surface, the cities of Caseville, in winter-logged Michigan, and Key West, in sun-soaked Florida, don’t have much in common.

Look a little closer and similarities start to emerge. They’re both beach communities. They’re both situated at the tips of peninsular states. They both rely strongly on the tourism industry. And for the last 17 years, they’ve both claimed the world’s most prodigious beach bum as their patron saint.

That’s right: Jimmy Buffett, the founder of Parrothead Nation himself, has an unofficial home in the Great Lake State — for a week and half a year, at least. Welcome to Cheeseburger in Caseville, an award-winning annual festival that’s one of the things that hundreds of thousands of self-declared “Fruitcakes” and “Barefoot Children” love best about Michigan.

Caseville is a bedroom community located at the tip of the Thumb with a year-round population of about 800. In the summertime, that number balloons to about 15,000, counting seasonal campers and lake house owners. Then every August something special happens.

For 10 days, starting on the second Friday of the month, over a quarter of a million revelers — bedecked as pirates, parrots and anthropomorphic sea creatures — flock to Caseville’s beaches, boats and bars. They sing ballads, they drink margaritas and they make no attempts to amend their carnivorous habits.

Steve Louwers, president of the Caseville Area Chamber of Commerce and one of the event’s co-organizers, has gone on record saying the city goes through about 30,000 cheeseburgers a day during the festival. That’s 300,000 burgers total or about 75,000 lbs. of red meat. (No word on how the state’s cardiologists do in the weeks following Cheeseburger.)

The festival is, of course, named after Buffett’s 1978 hit song “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” also the first song off his greatest hits album. Never mind that Uncle Jimmy is best known for his drunk anthem “Margaritaville,” the ultimate ode to spending the summer getting blackout drunk on the titular “frozen concoction.” Caseville’s decision to go with Buffett’s other song with a consumable in the title is probably the most responsible thing they could have done under the circumstances.

The festival got its start in 1999 when one of Caseville’s year-round residents pitched the idea of a Jimmy Buffett-themed party to attract tourists for an end-of-summer final hurrah. The fun-in-the-sun Parrothead ethos appealed to the Chamber and a tradition was born.

About 5,000 people from around Huron County attended the inaugural event, then a simple weekend-long affair. It soon expanded to four days, then a week, and then – seven years ago – to 10 days of concerts, fireworks, sandcastle-making contests, cheeseburger-eating competitions and laser light shows on the beach. Caseville even got a new nickname: Key North.

The centerpiece of the festival is the Parade of Tropical Fools, held on the Wednesday that falls in the middle of the proceedings. Last year, an estimated crowd of 55,000 lined Main Street to collect candy thrown from the floats, listen to version upon version of “Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes,” and, of course, consume mass quantities of the eponymous “sensuous treat.”

Diehard “Nautical Wheelers” start setting up their chairs at 6 a.m. for the parade, which doesn’t start for another 12 hours. The floats range from bedazzled tractors to a three-story-tall construction crane decorated to look like a pink flamingo. The parade lasts for about two hours, during which tens of thousands of assorted beads, candy and random other tchotchkes are tossed to the assembled kids and dignity-be-damned grown-ups.

Buffett, the unwitting founder of the feast, has yet to land the Hemisphere Dancer — his vintage Grumman Albatross seaplane — in the blue waters of Lake Huron but it hasn’t been for a lack of trying on the part of organizers. There’s even been a documentary made about their efforts: The 2012 independent film Chasing Jimmy chronicles Thumb resident Bob Brown’s mission to invite Buffett to take his rightful crown as Commander of the Fools. (Brown didn’t get to meet him, but he also didn’t get slapped with a stalking charge so it seems to have been a wash.)

So what does the future hold for Cheeseburger in Caseville? Given its ever-growing popularity, it wouldn’t be surprising to see it top half a million attendees within the decade. At some point you could expect to see it on a reality show about outlandish American festivals. It’s also conceivable to see it continue to expand until it encompasses the entire month of August, especially because there are no other holidays to compete with that month. And given his never-ending touring schedule, it’s not entirely unreasonable to think that Buffett just might pop in for a cheeseburger in Caseville.

And if he does, remember: He likes his with lettuce and tomato, Heinz 57 and French-fried potato, big kosher pickle and cold draft beer.

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