Annual Arts, Beats & Eats has something for everyone

Maureen Tisdale
Special to The Detroit News

Art, music, food — those are the givens.

But what you can’t tell from the name of Ford Arts, Beats & Eats presented by FirstMerit Bank is how much more it includes, from fashion to fitness, from charities to children.

Andrea Aretakis, sales and marketing manager for first-time participant Morton’s the Steakhouse of Troy, says the event is unique in its diversity.

“You can try a lot of things you maybe haven’t had a chance to try before,” she says, and “it’s all in one spot.”

Arts, Beats & Eats also is remarkably inclusive, showcasing artists who are deaf and hard of hearing, opening early just for children with autism and their families, and offering more than 1,000 veterans special provisions.

Now in its fifth year in Royal Oak, the behemoth event — nearly 400,000 visitors attended last year, organizers say — showcases more than 135 booths’ worth of artists, some 200 local bands and entertainers on nine stages, and more than 50 Metro Detroit restaurants. Fitness options abound for those who want to raise the heart rate, while healthy food gets a special color-coding system to denote options at participating vendors.

Meanwhile, hair shows put local salons in the spotlight, and multiple Arts, Beats & Eats initiatives raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for charities.

Read on for a closer look at some highlights.

A hair-raising experience

This year, AB&E’s big new splash is highly stylistic. Hair City showcases downtown Royal Oak salons with 16 hair shows (complete with music and stylist commentary similar to a fashion show) twice per day each on the Ford Stage and Bud Light Rock Stage.

Miss the shows? Check out the street corner mannequin model exhibits.

The follicle arts, of course, are just one of the festival’s creative offerings.

Getting artsy

Woodcarving artist Alec LaCasse, who technically hails from Leonard (“but you can say Addison to make it sound prettier”), began carving when he was 12. Eight years later, it’s his passion.

“It’s the only thing I would be sane doing for the amount of time I’m doing it,” says LaCasse, who has been selling at art shows and teaching everyone from home-school groups to aficionados at wood-carving show seminars full-time for a year.

This will be LaCasse’s first year at AB&E. His work (check it out in the gallery at is mostly portraiture; “I have a few things other than that, but my main passion is the human face.”

If woodcarving isn’t your art of choice, options abound, from painting and photography to digital art, graphics and print making to mixed media and sculpture. Included is the third annual Deaf Arts Festival, spotlighting the work of artists who are deaf and hard of hearing.

And the beats go on …

For those who prefer their art performing, the FirstMerit Bank International Stage and the DIA Acoustic/Cultural Stage feature international cultural programming from chamber music to flamenco dancing to Indian dance and music, Japanese drums, historical Jewish music and Mexican folk dance.

Six other stages will keep the beat at the event, with the Michigan State Lottery Stage featuring the best known acts, including Jena Irene Asciutto. You may remember her from last year’s AB&E, or you may have heard the name through a little phenomenon called “American Idol,” where the Farmington Hills teen billed simply as Jena Irene topped out at runner-up earlier this year.

Asciutto, calling in from California, where she’s between shows 35 and 36 of her 40-stop post-“Idol” tour, remembers coming to AB&E since she was 13 or so.

“Now I’m really excited — I played last year on the Ford stage and had a mid-day spot, just me and my piano.”

“I think she made $150” at last year’s AB&E says organizer Jon Witz, laughing. “Now it’s numbers multiplied, add a zero — she’ll probably forever hold the highest increase” for a performer between years.

“We are excited for her; she deserves every dollar,” Witz says.

In addition to performing, Asciutto says she’s looking forward to checking out other fun at the festival — she recalled really good ice cream and loving the rock group the Social Bandits last year (look for them again this year).

Enjoying AB&E runs in her family; Asciutto says her dad wears a ring every day he bought there last year.

Also appearing on the Michigan Lottery National Stage are Jeff Gutt, 2013 runner-up on “The X Factor,” and Motown’s own the Spinners, as well as the Village People and more classic rockers, dance-pop legends, country music artists and current Detroit fan favorites.

Soaring Eagle Casino & Resort Americana Stage, Asciutto’s old stomping grounds Ford Stage, MetroPCS R&B/Jazz Stage and Bud Light Rock Stage round out the Detroit music scene, featuring local talent including Thornetta Davis. The Rockstar Energy Performance Pit features high-flying circus performers, high-energy dance and other healthy fun, a local singing competition and electronic music, while the Oakland County Kids Stage features Radio Disney, the Detroit School of Rock and Pop Music, juggling, puppet shows, magic and more.

More family fun

The family fun isn’t limited to performances, however. Children can get hands-on inside the DMC Children’s Hospital of Michigan Kids Zone, where options include the Petting Farm, where children can touch and feed an assortment of animals; an Arts & Crafts area; and the Kiddle Carnival, where inflatables can help them jump and giggle their way toward a high-activity day — and a great night’s sleep.

Guilt-free good times

It’s not just kids who’ll have a chance to indulge in pulse-raising, fitness-friendly activities at AB&E. The health and fitness initiatives include two additions this year:

■Free fitness classes led by professional training instructors from Life Time Fitness — the Healthy Way of Life Company on the Rockstar Energy Performance Pit and FirstMerit stages; chairs will be cleared to pack participants in the audience space.

■NBA Nation’s interactive basketball event, with contests (including an 18-and-older amateur Slam Dunk Showdown with cash prizes), clinics that focus on teaching hoops skills and opportunities to meet NBA and WNBA players and other personnel.

Returning healthy favorites include Saturday morning’s Priority Health Arts in Motion 5K/10K Walk/Run Presented by Life Time Fitness. The Rockstar Energy Performance Pit’s dance offerings include Brazilian Capoeira demos and Zumba group sessions, or if you want to cough up $7 (in advance) or $10 (at the door), you can take part in Priority Health’s Zumbathon on the Michigan State Lottery Stage 11 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Saturday; organizers say more than 1,000 people participated in the huge Zumba class-style event last year. Go to to register.

Festival eating

If you’d rather put your health where your mouth is, keep an eye out for Priority Health’s Healthy Option logo at food venders. This new program provides color-coded food designations including Low-Carb, Low-Fat, Gluten Free, Sugar Free and Vegan on participating vendors’ menu boards and the festival’s free app (see box).

Of course, there’s no law that says you can’t have a little high-end steakhouse food, Italian street fare, Southwestern, Middle Eastern, barbecue, Asian, seafood and more in between your low-fat, gluten- and sugar-free vegan bites. One option is festival newcomer Morton’s the Steakhouse’s $8 Cajun rib-eye kabob.

“It’s not necessarily hot, but has a lot of terrific spices to it; it won’t burn your mouth, but will be very flavorful,” says Morton’s Aretakis.

Aretakis, who attended the festival in years past, says she thinks the music and artists are getting better over the years.

Plus, “It’s going to be charity-driven, and we always like that.”

The heart of the festival: charities and inclusion

Last year, Arts, Beats & Eats raised nearly $385,000 for local charities in multiple efforts, and the festival is hoping to break $400,000 in 2014. Charities provide volunteers for the gates of Arts, Beats & Eats, then receive a portion of the proceeds; they also are encouraged to raise funds through the online fundraiser, and the FirstMerit Community Challenge provides $20,000 in incentives to encourage donations, with the top prize being a $10,000 grant.

One of the top contenders for the big prize is the Autism Alliance of Michigan. Autism Alliance also is working with fest organizer Witz, whose 13-year-old son Tucker is on the autism spectrum, on the third annual Family Days for Children with Autism, which allows families with children on the spectrum to go to the festival Saturday or Monday an hour before it opens for general admission to enjoy the event without dealing with the sight-and-sound overload that can be challenging for the autism community.

“It gives parents peace of mind,” says Colleen Allen, president & CEO of the Autism Alliance of Michigan. “They don’t have to worry about really big crowds with people who are at great risk for wandering. Having it accessible at a time that’s different has worked really well.”

Family Days, which includes bonuses like free parking, admission and lunch and special guest speaker Carson Alexander sharing her story of living with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), must be registered for in advance (see

The Family Days response was so strong the first year that it grew to two days last year. Although the spacing is limited, “Jon (Witz)’s thing is never turn them away; we’ll figure it out,” Allen says.

Like Aretakis and Asciutto, Allen attended the fair before she was involved, and praises it for being family-friendly and accessible.

“I think the thing I love the most about it is it’s a community event that’s reasonably priced and gives you a lot in a little bit,” she says. “I have a son myself who loves art, so for us we get a lot in sort of a one-stop-shop experience.”

Maureen Tisdale is a Detroit-area freelance writer and editor.

Ford Arts, Beats & Eats presented by FirstMerit Bank

11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Sunday; 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Monday

Downtown Royal Oak

$3 daily before 3 p.m., $5 daily after 3 p.m.

(248) 541-7550 or on Twitter @artsbeatseats