Spaceship 'Crashes' Roswell Anniversary Festival
Futuristic Soap Box Derby helps entertain largest throng of visitors
By Leslie Linthicum
Journal Staff Writer
ROSWELL -- An alien spaceship crashed and burned on Main Street here Saturday, scattering a crowd and giving hundreds of visitors a taste of what they like to believe happened here 50 years ago.
Not to worry. The mothership this time was from the friendly Planet Santa Fe and was piloted by humanoid Jay Miller, a syndicated political columnist. Miller's souped-up gyrating spaceship, designed to fly, burn and crash on command, was the winning entry in the "Crash and Burn Extravaganza," an old-fashioned Soap Box Derby with a futuristic twist that stopped traffic and packed Roswell's main drag.
The derby, along with a race peopled by runners in alien garb and loads of UFOlogists and souvenir vendors, drew record crowds to what organizers anticipated would be the biggest day of the six-day festival marking the 50th anniversary of the internationally famous Roswell Incident.
Nothing actually happened in Roswell 50 years ago. The flying saucer -- or experimental weather balloon, if you believe the government's story -- crashed in the desert miles outside of town and the wreckage was carted to the Roswell Army Air Field on the town's hinterlands.
But that hasn't stopped Roswell's city fathers from basing an anniversary party smack in its belly and putting New Mexico's fourth largest city on the intergalactic map.
Festival organizers and the New Mexico Department of Tourism estimated that between 35,000 and 50,000 visitors would come, and some media reports swelled the number to 100,000. By this hot and sunny Saturday, organizers said, it appeared they would exceed their 35,000 figure but fall short of doubling the town's population of 48,000.
"If we've met that," Roswell Mayor Thomas Jennings said Saturday, "we're doing good. There's not many festivals that draw 30,000 people, especially in a small town."
Bracing for crowds, the town put together an elaborate contingency plan for crowds, accidents, injuries -- even snakebites. It had the New Mexico National Guard on call. With temperatures hovering at or below 100 degrees, even the heat cooperated. No major emergencies were reported.
It turned out to be the kind of mellow event that you might expect from a party of people who believe in friendly visitors from other galaxies.
One vendor was closed down for selling fake Oakley sunglasses; two women complained their children couldn't see the soap box derby because of all the professional photographers pushing for position; and there was a fender-bender accident on the north end of town.
Oh, and a man from California complained to the mayor. "He said there were too many police officers here," Jennings said.
The police presence was by design, Jennings said. Roswell is a small town, and no one knew what to expect from thousands of out-of-towners. It turned out to be a "Mayberry" kind of thing.
"It's been a very friendly deal," said Jennings, who dressed up for the costume contest, wore an alien-festooned denim shirt around town and lost his cool only once, when he engaged in an argument with a man carrying a sign that said: "The Government Is Not Lying." Jennings, a believer, demanded proof.
"Hey," he says, "we don't take ourselves too serious here."
Tourists wandering Main Street and snapping up almond-eyed, big-headed souvenirs had few complaints.
"I expected it to be elbow to elbow," said Joy Forshee of Albuquerque. "And it's not."
Record crowds filed into the International UFO Museum & Research Center, with 6,719 signing the registry on Friday and as many expected Saturday. The festival's trade expo, a collection of alien-oriented vendors, was drawing nearly 1,000 people an hour.
Some vendors were happily counting their money, while others were cutting prices on Saturday and hoping to break even.
Roswell veterinarians Kevin Blach and Bruce Gammill were selling flying saucer magnets three for $5 and still had thousands unsold. They had figured on a crowd of 40,000 and counted on one in 10 buying a magnet, so they ordered 4,000. They had sold only about one-fourth.
"This is our first and last" vending adventure, Gammill said.
"Too many vendors, not enough people," was Andy Williams' assessment. Williams, from Santa Barbara, Calif., had dropped the price of his big-eyed T-shirts from $15 to $6.
"I don't want to cart them back to California," he said.
But out on Main Street, Roswell housewife Crystal Chaves was selling out of everything -- even $2 rocks painted silver.
"These rocks are from here and people are buying them," said Chaves. "It's cracking me up."
When the festival was being hatched, organizer Stan Crosby said Roswell had to take advantage of the big anniversary because "it only comes once."
Now, he's not ready to quit.
"Next year is the 51st anniversary. We're going to tie it to Area 51," a top secret military air base in Nevada, Crosby says. "And we think the year 2000 will be a big one."