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Even Rob Ford’s critics attend his annual Ford Fest

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

If you're dreading the post-TIFF party withdrawal that inevitably blows in with the cooler temperatures every September, fret not. There's still one party of the season that promises to be as entertaining as its host: Ford Fest.

The mayor's perennial community barbecue is an event not to be missed. In June, Ford Fest 2013: Part 1 came to Scarborough – the first time it was hosted anywhere other than the Ford family home in Etobicoke. On Sept. 20, the sequel shindig descends on Centennial Park. Here's what to expect from those who know best: veteran guests who, for various reasons, attend year after year.

The stars

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The Mayor himself may be the biggest draw, but in past years the fest has attracted everyone from conservative heavyweights to actual heavyweights – including Canadian boxing great George Chuvalo and former boxing star Spider Jones.

A recurring face in recent years has been Ontario Progressive Conservative leader Tim Hudak, who has known the family since he worked alongside the Mayor's late father, Doug Ford Sr., when they were both MPPs under Mike Harris. But Mr. Hudak will be in London for a PC party policy convention over the weekend and is not planning to attend, his press secretary told The Globe.

Provincial Tories are divided over the Fords. Some want nothing to do with them – fearing that the unpredictable drama at city hall could tarnish their brand . Mr. Hudak has himself faced rumblings of discontent over his leadership, but Mr. Ford has closed ranks behind Mr. Hudak in recent days, pointedly telling reporters the party should "give him a chance" and saying a leadership review is not necessary.

You're almost guaranteed to spot the mayor's closest allies on council, such as his newly appointed deputy mayor, Norm Kelly and his former deputy mayor, PC MPP Doug Holyday.

Mr. Kelly attended Ford Fest in the backyard locale once before, as well as the Scarborough fete, and said he'll definitely be stopping by for the September rendition. He said the volume of attendees has ballooned between the two venues.

"It was just a steady stream of people. It was like attending a revival meeting," the deputy mayor said of the Scarborough event, adding that despite the long lines, attendees of Ford Fest were on their best behaviour.

You'll also see plenty of Ford Nation: citizen supporters of the mayor's agenda from all backgrounds eager to pose for a photo with their leader.

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"The best part about Ford Fest is that it's not political," said Sal Piccininni, a Toronto Catholic District School Board Trustee and long-time friend of the

mayor. "It's one of those times of year where you can decompress and socialize with everyone no matter what your political stripe is. You get everyone from CEOs of corporations to councillors and MPPs to just people off the street who want to meet the mayor."

There's always a handful of guests who aren't hardcore Ford supporters, said Jonathan Goldsbie, a staff writer at NOW magazine and frequent fest-goer (he's attended every year since 2010).

"Over the years it grew, and the number of people attending ironically out of morbid curiosity definitely swelled," he said. Now that the party has moved out of the Mayor's mother's backyard, he added, some of that novelty has subsided.

The location

For years, Ford Fest was held where any community barbecue would be: the host's backyard. Diane Ford, the matriarch of the Ford clan, offered up her expansive Etobicoke backyard for the event until this year.

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Jerry Agar, a conservative talk-radio personality on Newstalk 1010, where the Ford brothers also host a radio show, has been to two Ford Fests – the first one at Diane Ford's home. "It's an incredible place to have a party at, but there was a tremendous amount of people," so it was very cramped, he said.

The location allowed guests to peek through the Ford family window, literally, and stroll the collection of statues in the garden.

"It was fun to discover the chimpanzee [statue] with fully sculpted genitalia," Mr. Goldsbie recalled of his first Ford Fest experience.

Steve Kupferman, associate editor at the Toronto current affairs blog Torontoist, has attended since 2011 and also spoke wistfully about the former venue.

"It was a backyard party, so it had a weirdly kind of private, after-party feel," he said of the 2011 and 2012 events he attended. "It was almost as though you were hanging out with 500 of Rob Ford's best friends after school."

"It was a great time," Mr. Agar said of his first fest. "But I'm not sure if non-Ford supporters had a great time."

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Councillor Gary Crawford, who has attended and performed at the event for years, said the event really started to grow when Mr. Ford went from city councillor to mayor.

"They did enjoy having it in the backyard, but it had just overgrown the site," Mr. Crawford said. "With Rob being the mayor, his community is very much the city of Toronto as opposed to when he was just a local councillor."

Though the locale helped preserve the community feel of the party, the event simply grew too large for a private yard to handle, according to the mayor's brother, Councillor Doug Ford.

"I'll be very frank: It's the overwhelming support. It keeps growing and the event keeps growing," Mr. Ford said. The Scarborough event drew a crowd of 5,000 supporters and Mr. Ford predicts the fall fete will attract triple that number.

The entertainment

Entertainment over the years has been fairly consistent – a DJ and a live band – with a few standout performances.

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"All of Doug Ford's daughters – maybe not all of them, at least a couple – were in the backyard and they were doing pyramids and a little cheerleading routine for the crowd," Mr. Kupferman recalled of the 2011 event.

In Scarborough this summer, a highlight for Mr. Goldsbie was an anthem local singer Jenny James wrote about the mayor. Ms. James performed the song three times throughout the evening, including one performance where city councillors in attendance sang along. The song, titled The World Will Remember, included the lyrics "Toronto's defender, economic mender/ Blatant attacks won't make him collapse/ Cause Mayor Ford will bounce right back."

"I don't know if [Norm Kelly] actually sang or just danced," Mr. Goldsbie said, adding Councillors Crawford, Frances Nunziata and Vincent Crisanti were also swaying along.

"It was a terrible but catchy song and no one was entirely sure how serious or funny it was meant to be."

The Scarborough event also introduced a children's midway, which will reappear in Etobicoke, Councillor Ford said.

This time around there is a chance Ms. James will have an encore performance of The World Will Remember, but more likely will be the return of Councillor Crawford's cover band, which has headlined the event since 2010.

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"Doug asked if we can play so I'll probably have my band," Mr. Crawford said. "We'll probably play a set or two."

The swag

Just like any self-respecting TIFF party, Ford Fest comes with its fair share of swag. Previous attendees have scooped up Ford fridge magnets and Ford Nation T-shirts. For the price of their name and contact information upon entry – the Fords explain this is for security purposes – each guest receives free hamburgers, free soft drinks and a ticket good for one beverage in the beer tent.

In Scarborough, the lineup for the food tent rivalled the queue to meet the mayor, but Councillor Ford said they're working to make things run more smoothly in Centennial Park.

"We're going to be fully geared up with more grills and more people barbecuing there," he said.

"We'll have a lot of fun and rally the troops going into the election year. It's going to be a fun event for everyone."

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