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Backstage, WE Fest feeds the workers, caters to the stars

Have you ever wondered where the musicians, production workers and stage crews who work back stage at WE Fest go when they want to unwind?

Most of the artists have their own tour buses and dressing rooms, of course, but when they just want to hang out back stage for a while and shoot the breeze with their fellow performers, they often stop by the Prancing Pony Café.

Even many of the Detroit Lakes area's lifelong residents might be forgiven for asking, "where is that?" The Prancing Pony, after all, only exists for three days a year, and its sole patrons are WE Fest's performers and their road crews, festival promotions and production staff, and others with backstage access.

The "proprietor" of the Prancing Pony is Nancy Nugent, who has run the festival's artist hospitality center since 1986. Nugent, who had been coming to WE Fest with her "significant other" -- festival co-founder Terry McCloskey -- since its inception, was asked one day by the festival's head of promotions, Chyrll Sparks, if she was interested in working in artist hospitality.

At that time, Nugent says, "I didn't know anything about catering -- Chyrll's taught me a lot."

That first year, Nugent was given a card table, a refrigerator, some bread and meat, and was told to "just make some sandwiches."

When the festival's sponsors would bring in food, Nugent and the others working in hospitality would simply prepare and serve it. The following year, Nugent's crew was given permission to purchase some coolers, and the year after that, "I got my first stainless steel sink," she recalled.

Over the years, the hospitality center grew into an outdoor café, where autographed photos of WE Fest artists past and present adorn the walls, and a television with a live feed from the main stage plays continuously.

"Last year, they built a beautiful dish room and kitchen area for us," Nugent says. The restaurant area even has a roof overhead to protect its guests from the elements.

And then, of course, there are the beautiful flowers that decorate the front entrance and walls of the café -- flowers that were grown by Nugent herself, and brought from her cabin near the festival grounds.

"I start growing them in the spring," she says. "They're on display for three days, and that's it."

But serving meals and drinks at the Prancing Pony is only part of Nugent's duties at WE Fest. "Artist hospitality" means it's basically her job to cater to the whims of WE Fest's performers, no matter how exotic they may be.

If the artist wants to go golfing, shopping, fishing or horseback riding, Nugent hooks them up with guides to help take them where they want to go -- as unobtrusively as possible. For instance, several of WE Fest's most famous performers and guests have gone golfing at one of the local courses without ever attracting the attention of the local media, she says.

Protecting the privacy of the artists is also part of her job, Nugent explains. For instance, while she is more than happy to discuss the more unusual requests she has received through the years, she won't identify the artists who made those requests.

As Nugent relates some of her experiences over the past two decades, it becomes quite apparent why the artists rely on her discretion.

"We used to do a lot of shopping for them (the artists)," she says. "I remember one of the artists once requested a case of white socks."

These days, most of the headline artists have their own "runners" to run those types of errands for them, Nugent adds. But every artist has a "rider" in their performance contract that includes a list of foods, beverages and other items that must be made ready for their arrival at the festival.

Some of the more memorable requests Nugent has received include an all-black dressing room decorated only with white candles, and a supply of Tootsie Roll Pops -- in chocolate flavor only.

Near-disaster was only narrowly averted one year, when the staff ran out of Solo drinking cups shortly before the last band was scheduled to take the stage.

The group's road manager informed her that he was having a bad day, and that if she did not find some Solo cups for them, his bad day would become hers, because the band would not perform that night.

"We were calling around Fargo, Fergus Falls, everywhere," she said. "We even started driving around the campgrounds (in golf carts) asking the campers if they had any (cups)."

Thankfully, one of the campers did, indeed, have a supply of Solo cups on hand, and agreed to contribute them to the cause.

Accomplishing the impossible is all in a day's work for Nugent's staff, some of whom have been with her "since the beginning," she says.

One of those hospitality staff members, David Wollan, has been with her so long that two of his children are now working with him.

Wollan says one of the reasons why so many staff members come back year after year is because of WE Fest's unique atmosphere.

"The name WE Fest kind of says it all," he says. "It's a 'festing' attitude, a real positive attitude -- the camaraderie here is just different than anywhere else. The people are so warm and friendly -- that's the key."

The atmosphere in the WE Fest campgrounds is "like a giant barbecue," he adds. "People go from one campfire to another, to another, and each of them have special things that they make and serve to anyone who drops in."

Nugent says that in addition to her long-term staff, she has added "six or seven new ponies" -- i.e., young women (21 and up, of course) -- to work at the café this year.

"I'm grateful that they gave me this opportunity, groomed me for doing this (kind of work)," Nugent says. "They really gave me a chance to grow."

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454