HonFest hangs up the beehive: Hampden festival won’t return in 2024, organizers say

HonFest, the quirky annual festival filled with beehive hairdos, feather boas and cat’s-eye glasses, will come to an end after a 30-year run.

In an email, the festival’s logistics coordinator Wendy Sites said HonFest organizers have decided to retire.

“It was an amazing festival which brought joy to so many people for many years, and we couldn’t be more proud of what the festival brought to the city of Baltimore and the Hampden neighborhood,” Sites wrote.

What began as a pageant showcasing Baltimore’s “Best Hon” — the term of endearment used by and for Baltimore’s working class women of the 1950s and 1960s — grew over the years into a festival that shut down several blocks of Hampden’s main shopping and dining corridor, The Avenue, each year in early June, drawing dozens of vendors and thousands of visitors.

But controversy marred the event last summer after organizers turned down an application from Planned Parenthood for a festival booth, citing a policy that prohibited “political, religious and hot topic issues.”

Following backlash from local businesses, residents and vendors, the festival reversed course, apologized and invited the reproductive health care organization to attend. The event went on as scheduled, with some vendors posting signs and selling wares in support of Planned Parenthood. But some in the community questioned whether HonFest would survive the blowback.

“I don’t know what the future is of this festival,” Councilwoman Odette Ramos, whose district includes Hampden, said last June. “I’m pretty sure there’s going to be a lot of discussions about how anything like this moves forward, but we’re just trying to get through the weekend.”

Sites said Thursday that the Planned Parenthood debacle did not play into the decision to end HonFest. She said she and her sister, HonFest founder Denise Whiting, needed to focus on family matters and could no longer take on the hefty time commitment of organizing the festival.

“It is a lot of work, and our mother is 85, and she requires more care,” Sites said. “We just felt it was time for something else.”

“It’s time for a changing of the guard,” said Whiting, who added that she considered ending HonFest after 25 years but changed her mind after seeing the crowds of people in attendance. “I have done this my whole life. This will be the first time in all these years that I’m not planning a festival.”

The longtime owner of Cafe Hon started her Best Hon contest in front of the Hampden restaurant in 1994. The first pageant, devised by Whiting as a way to promote Cafe Hon, drew five or six contestants, including Sites, as well as 200 or 300 spectators, she told the Sun in 2014. Former state Del. Maggie McIntosh was one of the judges.

After several years of picking a Best Hon, Whiting decided to broaden the event’s footprint. She enlisted the help of Sites and Randi Rom, a publicist who helped to produce HonFest in its early years.

“There weren’t that many big festivals back then,” said Rom, who used her connections to secure support from local media organizations and beer giant Budweiser, which hosted a “Budweiser Beehive” lounge. “It grew really fast.”

As Hampden evolved, so did the festival, adding live entertainment on several stages and running for two days rather than one.

“I think that HonFest initially shone a light on the neighborhood and may have helped the neighborhood grow in popularity,” Rom said. “It was true Baltimore quirkiness.”

Cafe Hon closed in 2022, but HonFest went on that year, as well as in 2023. Whiting called herself a “facilitator” for the festival, which she said grew organically as people caught on to the fun.

“I just walk the path that’s put before me,” she said. “Probably the most important thing about the festival is that in some way it just gave people permission to step outside their norm and dress up, and be that crazy, fun, vivacious, vibrant, ferocious person that they’ve always wanted to be.”

“I think it was a really beautiful, positive experience for just a lot of people that really needed that in their life.”