By Paisley Taylor
Don Tucker, producer of the popular Huck Finn Jubilee, founded and has been running the internationally acclaimed bluegrass music event for 35 years. At its inception, when looking for a location for his festival, Tucker came upon Mojave Narrows. “The park is extremely unique, and the first thing that came to mind was that it looks like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn land.”
Thus the theme of the event was born. Tucker explains, “The facility is extremely important because it helps define the event. Luckily I was able to combine the mythical character by Mark Twain with Father’s Day weekend, old fashioned Americana style family fun, and Bluegrass music into the Jubilee.”
“The most amazing thing is that this family run event has been around 35 years in the Victorville community. That’s a long time for an event,” says Tucker, who also spearheaded the well-known festivals at Calico Ghost Town. “Especially if it’s bluegrass. Those don’t have a tendency to stay around very long.”
Tucker explains many similar festivals started in the 70’s, including notable ones like the Golden West Bluegrass Festival, but are now gone. Tucker feels it’s the business model that has kept it alive.
“From an events standpoint, it’s got to be a “Great American Family Event”, so a lot of the focus is to make it family friendly.”
To that end, they don’t serve liquor. “It means we don’t get the behavior that comes with it,” he says. They also have a host of family activities that hearken back to the days of Huck Finn. “Entertainment doesn’t have to be expensive,” says Tucker. “It can be creative.” Kids and adults alike can enjoy the Russell Bros. Circus, visit a handmade crafts village, participate in an egg tossing contest, frog jumping contest, greased pole climbing contest, river raft building, fence painting and more. “A lot of these activities are a throw- back to a nostalgic past – you dream about doing, but never participate in unless you go to a unique event.”
Tucker is family- conscious in his pricing also. “I came from a large family, and it was tough sometimes to get enough money together to go to an event.” He also thinks about the single parent with kids. “We have business sponsors with whom we partner to do Kids Free promotions.” This year’s promotions are detailed on their website. “We want to make sure families can afford to come. We follow the Disneyland pricing structure, where what you pay at the gate is all-inclusive. We don’t hit you for parking, or rides,” Tucker says. “You can pretty much enjoy nearly everything with the one admission price.”
The entertainment Tucker books is specific to family as well. “We made a decision to bring in acts that we remember, we grew up with, or our parents grew up with, and that we’d like to introduce to our kids.” Tucker is pleased that his festival attracts some big names, including Merle Haggard, Roger Miller, Earl Scruggs, Oak Ridge Boys, Ricky Skaggs, and of course, Roy Clark.
Tucker recalls, “Roger Miller actually called us. It was the most money we’d ever spent, but he was in town doing a voice over for Disney’s “Big River” and thought it would be fun to come and do. Everyone got to see Roger Miller for eight bucks.”
The Huck Finn Jubilee has a significant impact on the High Desert’s local economy. “The demographics change each day. Friday is more out-of-towners,” Tucker says. “People fly in from Ohio, Missouri, Arizona, Colorado, all over the place. Some of these people come every year, camp out, and meet with their friends they haven’t seen since last year. They host evening parties and play their instruments at night. It’s a big tradition.” As many as 1000 campsites can be filled during the festival, and many stay for almost a week. “A lot of people park the unit, then go sight-seeing or shopping.”
Saturday is more a 60/40 mix, heavy on out of area visitors. Sunday changes to 60% local, and is a big Father’s Day draw for High Desert locals.
Overall, the festival pulls in 14,000 visitor days, which is a count of each person, each day. The impact on the local economy includes increased hotel stays, purchases of gas, propane, ice, food, and shopping.
Tucker partners with five hotels in the area and negotiates reduced prices for the Huck Finn weekend. Plus the “host” hotel guests can get their kids in free to the festival. “Usually rates go up when there’s a special event,” says Tucker. “We promote our ‘host’ hotels to travel writers around the world.”
The biggest challenge for Tucker is unexpected. “Getting people through that front gate as fast as possible,” Tucker says. “Everything is in even numbers so making change is easier. If someone is waiting in line and not making good progress, they are turning around and going home. We spend the most money at the front gate, and train the staff so they can work quickly.