There’s nothing else like it – By Joan Whitlow
This year, on Saturday May 12th which is Mother’s Day weekend, the lights will go up for the 29th time at the McDonald’s Gospelfest. The greatest assemblage of gospel headliners in the world will take the stage at the Prudential Center Arena, in Newark. And the man behind it all is the man who stands before New Hope on Sunday mornings, directing the choir and the Ministry of Sacred Music, our own, A. Curtis Farrow.
Farrow rattled off the list of stars who will appear at this year’s Gospelfest: Shirley Caesar, Vickie Winans, Donnie McClurkin; Mary Mary, and Fred Hammond–and the New Hope’s Mass Choir. There will be a special comedy set performed by Steve Harvey. “People of faith need to laugh,” Bro. Farrow said.” Sometimes we forget that part of our mission in the world is to show our joy.”
The McDonald’s Gospelfest theme this year is “Honor Thy Mother,” which will send a poignant message because New Hope’s own Dr. Emily “Cissy” Houston will perform and be present for a special tribute to her daughter, Whitney Houston, who died in February. Whitney Houston is of the most celebrated pop stars ever, but her roots were in New Hope gospel and the soundtrack from her movie, “The Preachers’ Wife,” is the top selling gospel album of all time.
Bro. Farrow pointed out that one ticket buys entry into what is really two events. The stars come out at 7PM but at 4PM more than 70 gospel groups and soloists, praise dancers and gospel rappers — some from as far away as Barbados and North Carolina will take the stage for the annual McDonald’s Gospelfest talent competition. At one time, an average of 3,000 people auditioned for the competition each year.
The program has grown under Bro. Farrow’s hand and this year, he said more than 40,000 groups and soloists auditioned, via tape or in person. Each year this competition shows young people, “They can sing God’s music and be on the same stage as the greatest musical acts in the country,” Bro. Farrow said.
“It’s a total praise party. There is no other place in the country where you can go and see so many gospel headliners, this many of them together in one show. That’s why it’s the largest show of its kind in the world. I direct and produce the show; the main thing is to praise God. ”
Bro. Farrow is the CEO of Irving Street Rep, an adver-tising, event planning, and public relations company that is McDonald’s agency of record for the African American consumer market. He won Emmy awards for producing McDonald’s Gospelfest in 2000 and 2001, and earned five Emmy nominations in other years.
He and his Irving Street staff book the acts, and order their appearance with consideration for the best mix of style, tempo and energy. That job also means moving more than 3,500 soloists and groups on and off stage with precision. “That’s what we do, we’re professional people movers,” Bro. Farrow said.
“I have the greatest staff in the world,” he added. They start the day with prayer, and stop to pray for anyone who requests it. And for Bro. Farrow and those working hard behind the scenes, Gospelfest is not just a concert, he said, “It is a ministry.”
Things you might not know about A. Curtis Farrow
The initial “A” in his name stands for “Andrew.” Back home, in Niles, Michigan, everyone called him Curtis. He says he knows a lot of “Andy’s” and thinks the name fits them well. But it’s not for him. In college, a professor told him that “A. Curtis” would make a good stage name, and get him more attention, and he took that advice. He has been involved in music, “all his life.” Bro. Farrow was directing the choir in his home church when he was just seven years old.
He comes from a creative, artistic family and cultivated a wide range of interests and talents including acting and singing. A teacher once told him he did many things well but needed to “focus” on one thing if he was going to be successful. “My grandmother said, ‘No you don’t!’ God blessed you with all those gifts, use them all.” That was the advice he followed.
His grandmother was a great influence in his life: “They didn’t call it that but she was an event planner, the one who organized programs at church and around town. He learned from being at her elbow and looking over her shoulder. In addition to McDonald’s Gospelfest, Irving Street Rep, produces national tours of Broadway plays, such as Ain’t Misbehavin’, Smokey Joe’s Café, Sophisticated Ladies, Five Guys Named Moe, Your Arms Too Short to Box With God, as well as events for McDonalds and other corporations.
Bro. Farrow came to the New York and started auditioning for Broadway plays. He needed a job to supplement his acting career and became a messenger on Wall Street. He rapidly moved up the ladder to be an Assistant Mutual Fund Manager at the Bank of New York and then Manager of Mutual Funds at Smith Barney…
“I was good at it,” but, “I hated it,” he said. About 25 years ago he walked away and opened his own firm, and hasn’t worked for anyone but himself since then. Photos courtesy of Irving Street Rep