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Saturday, August 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 75.0° F  Fog/Mist
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Gay old time: Fruit Fest blends tunes, dancing and fundraising
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Willy Street is a new epicenter of Pride revelry.
Willy Street is a new epicenter of Pride revelry.

It all begins with the Fruit Loop.

The run-walk kicks off June 16's Fruit Fest, a celebration of LGBT culture that pairs athleticism with philanthropy and lots of live music. Unlike most 5K dashes, this one features giant bananas and freakishly overgrown grapes.

It's whimsical, absurd and true to the spirit of Willy Street, where Fruit Fest takes place. During the summer, the festival is an entertaining way to celebrate Madison's LGBT community.

These massive fruits signal a shift in Madison's approach to LGBT Pride season. Back in 2010, Plan B nightclub owners Corey Gresen and Rico Sabatini weren't feeling very proud of local Pride events. Though The Advocate had just named Madison one of the nation's most gay-friendly cities, folks seemed a bit lackluster when it came to celebrating sexual orientation. Gresen and Sabatini also wondered why Willy Street wasn't an epicenter of Pride parties, since it's one of the most festive and inclusive areas of the city. They decided to plant a party on the corner of Williamson and South Paterson streets.

At first the pair planned a double-decker party, one where DJs would play the club's roof and dancers would take over the parking lot. Before long, the party became an all-day event. Now Fruit Fest is a colorful addition to the neighborhood's patchwork of summertime revelry.

This year, the fest has grown "bigger and prettier," as Gresen puts it.

Prettier doesn't just mean more glitter and drag queens, Sabatini notes. It also means the fest has increased its focus on community giving. Fruit Fest 2012 pairs an evening of music and dancing with a morning and afternoon full of fundraisers. After tasting the Fruit Loop, which raises money for scholarships benefiting young activists and allies, fest-goers can compete for cash prizes at Summer Camp Bingo, a benefit for AIDS Network.

The fest's musical lineup includes a bumper crop of national acts, which start taking the stage at 5 p.m. Highlights include Girl in a Coma, an all-gal rock band signed to Joan Jett's Blackheart Records label; and Thea Austin of Eurodance project Snap!, whose early-1990s megahits "The Power" and "Rhythm Is a Dancer" sow envy in the heart of RuPaul herself. Other performers include Pittsburgh-based pop duo AJ Lucy, folk-singing feminists Nervous But Excited and groundbreaking gay rapper Cazwell. Once the sun has set, Cazwell will don his DJ hat and lead an after party at Plan B.

In addition to singing along with the evening's entertainment, aspiring performers can grab the mike during the fest's Star Fruit karaoke contest. Star Fruit finals begin at 3 p.m.

As it was last year, the festival is free and open to all. Unlike last year, there will be bottled water for thirsty attendees, especially sprinting bananas.

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