If you think Fondren is colorful now, just wait until the third annual Zippity Doo Dah Weekend rolls into town March 21-23. Arts, Eats and Beats, a color-bombed 5K, and the Sweet Potato Queen-led Zippity Doo Dah Parade are just a few highlights of this wild weekend that encourages even the oldest of adults to cut loose and act like the “chirren” this one-of-a-kind event supports.
The three-day weekend is presented by the Fondren Renaissance Foundation, which aims to promote preservation and revitalization throughout the Fondren neighborhood, and is chock full of family-friendly events. All proceeds benefit Friends of Children’s Hospital, the fundraising arm of the state’s only children’s hospital, Blair E. Batson Hospital for Children.
In two years, the weekend’s events have raised more than $110,000 for Friends’ current project, the future Children’s Heart Center. Friends has pledged $2 million toward the creation of the center at the University of Mississippi Medical Center.
Until just a few years ago, Mississippi children with congenital heart defects have had to seek treatment outside the state. To combat this, UMMC recruited several highly skilled congenital heart surgeons and other pediatric specialists, resulting in quick and dramatic growth in the Children’s Hospital’s cardiovascular programs. The children’s heart team now averages more than 400 operations a year.
“Events like the Zippity Doo Dah Weekend are not only important fundraisers for Friends of Children’s Hospital, but such community events also give us the opportunity to share our mission of supporting Mississippi’s only hospital designed specifically to treat sick and injured children,” said Sara Ray, chairman of the Friends board. “This hospital benefits children from throughout our state, and it’s vital we provide them world-class healthcare.”
“As a fundraising organization that is run by volunteers, partnerships such as the one we enjoy with the Zippity Doo Dah Weekend are vital to Friends so we can continue to contribute funds to Batson Children’s Hospital,” said Leigh Reeves, president of Friends of Children’s Hospital.
Last year’s Zippity Doo Dah Weekend drew more than 20,000 people to Fondren, and they came from nearly all 50 states and several foreign countries, said Jim Wilkirson, executive director of the Fondren Renaissance Foundation, giving awesome exposure to the Children’s Hospital and bringing hundreds of thousands of dollars into the Jackson area.
“Zippity Doo Dah Weekend is a very large undertaking but one of the most rewarding things I have ever been a part of,” Wilkirson said. “When you think of who this benefits, we have all either had a child treated at Blair Batson or known someone close to us who has had a child treated there. So, the end product of raising funds for Blair Batson is great, and the awareness of their mission is even greater.
“It’s strange for one non-profit to raise funds for another non-profit, but Fondren Renaissance sees this as one of our important missions, and that is to raise awareness of Fondren and our community. This weekend is a win-win for Batson Children’s Hospital and all of Fondren.”
Practically all of the events are aimed at fun and frivolity. Festivities start Thursday, March 21, with Arts, Eats, and Beats, Fondren’s now-13-year-old outdoor music festival that serves as an unofficial kickoff to spring. Thousands flock to the Fondren area to shop in the eclectic shops, dine in first-class restaurants, and dance at the multiple music stages set up throughout the district.
“In the end, it’s all about partnerships and working together,” Wilkirson said.
The evening, Fondren will welcome the Budweiser Clydesdales back to Jackson. The legendary team will stay in Fondren throughout the weekend and will participate in a “Clydesdale Restaurant Hop,” a tour of Fondren’s restaurants, as well as the Zippity Doo Dah Parade.
“They are truly something to behold,” Wilkirson said. “These are the most majestic creatures. We are very fortunate to have them return again for this year’s parade and wish to thank Southern Beverage for this incredible opportunity.”
The weekend is a huge draw for out-of-town guests, as it brings thousands of Sweet Potato Queen chapters and fans to Jackson. The Hilton Jackson on County Line Road serves as the hub of all things queenly, and buses run the queens to the festivities in Fondren. This year though, Jill Conner Browne, the original Sweet Potato Queen, is hoping to see more locals in the hotel and on the buses with her and the “foreigners.”
“The locals are missing out on so much,” Browne said. “It is a crime for people living in Jackson to not know about it! Get a room at the Hilton and pretend you don’t live here. Get a weekend pass at the Hilton to be with all of these people coming from all over the world to be here.”
Friday, March 22, brings a few new events, as well as some old favorites. The Big Hat Luncheon will be held at Sal & Mookie’s and will feature a Battle of the Cake Decorators competition, where local cake decorators will compete to make the best cake in the shape of a hat.
Another new event is a Fashion Runway Show. This high-energy show will be held at The Cedars, on Old Canton Road, and will feature the season’s hottest trends from Jackson’s local merchants.
“The Bouffants” — a crowd favorite — will return to perform on the Main Stage on Duling Avenue.
Events on Saturday, March 23, start with a character breakfast at Walker’s Drive-In. Mascots including Captain Catfish, Smokey Bear and others will dine with children and sign autographs. Then, the color bombs will start flying as the Color Me Rad 5K Run and Walk gets underway (see sidebar). The Sal & Mookie’s Children’s Carnival and the Batson Children’s Hospital Jump Zone will continue throughout the day.
The whole schedule leads up to the Sweet Potato Queens’ Zippity Doo Dah Parade and the Million Queen March at dusk. The electric parade will include the Budweiser Clydesdales, antique cars carrying mascots from the character breakfast, the Murrah High School Marching Band and Jackson State University’s Sonic Boom Marching Band. Of course, Browne will lead lit-up mini floats, carrying queens from SPQ chapters all over the world.
“The floats are made from golf carts, so the creativity level is at its greatest,” Wilkirson said. “It’s not a flatbed with a bunch of people throwing doubloons; it’s a walker dressed in a quirky outfit emitting their own personality. Plus, it’s at night, so lights play a big part in the parade.”
Serving as parade grand marshal is “Aunt Faye” from Midland, Texas. Aunt Faye began parading with the Sweet Potato Queens when she was 88 years old; this year marks her 100th birthday, and she’s more vibrant than ever. She even inspired the parade’s theme: “There is Still a Lotta Zippity in Yo’ Doo Dah!”
“This is my 31st year as THE Sweet Potato Queen, and I can honestly tell you it is more fun every single year that I do it,” Browne said. “I am extremely excited about all our new events — and how much money I believe we will raise for Batson Children’s Hospital this year.”
Browne said they had very specific goals when she and the Fondren Renaissance Foundation set out to create Fondren’s Zippity Doo Dah Weekend: to raise as much money for Batson Children’s Hospital as possible and in the most creative ways; to create a totally accessible and inclusive slate of family-friendly events; to showcase the locally-owned businesses in Fondren and to shine a light on the neighborhood of Fondren, the city of Jackson and the State of Mississippi.
“We are thrilled with our success so far,” she said. “It’s been a huge win for all concerned in every way imaginable. What’s not to love?”
All Fondren’s Zippity Doo Dah Weekend events are open to the public, although some require a ticket. For more information, visit fondren.org or zddparade.com.