Fiesta’s Wild Rides
Memories of Old Spanish Days Gone By
Imagine longhorns roaming State Street. Highway 101 traffic rerouted so the Fiesta parade could cross the freeway, back before the stoplights were taken out and the underpass built. Movie star Leo Carrillo spurring his horse into bars. Andy Witmer riding his mule, cracking his whip all the way up State Street. Giant Sam Smisher and his mules pulling the old blacksmith float, not realizing that it was on fire. A vintage Wells Fargo stagecoach almost tipping over on Cabrillo Boulevard, with the City Council inside and Mayor Sheila Lodge and Judge Joe Lodge on top. Only smart, quick work by outrider Lance Brown and his horse prevented a disaster. According to John Rowe, who helped run Fiesta parades for years, “He saved some lives that day.”
I heard these and other stories when I met with three longtime buddies who’ve been involved with the parade for decades: Rowe, Jim Westwick, and Wayne Powers, the parade’s equestrian honcho for 20 years, including the 2006 edition. Another day I talked to J.J. Hollister, great-grandson of the powerful patriarch W.W. Hollister.
Fiesta had its share of colorful characters, like the legendary Skip Shalhoob, known for showing up all over town on parade day on horseback, dressed like an Indian and bare-chested, Westwick said. “A hell of a horseman. Everybody in town knew him.”
But, Powers pointed out, “We don’t really have characters like Shalhoob anymore.” The rest agreed. Back in the 1940s, ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, parade day was a time to let it all hang out, and drinking on the street was permitted.
Leo Carrillo, who worked on a Goleta labor gang to pay his way through college and went on to movie and TV fame, loved riding his horse into State Street bars along the route. “He was every Californian’s cousin,” Powers said. Powers also told me that a former Santa Barbara lawman told him that Carrillo “got too friendly with some guy’s wife and her husband punched him out.” He also recalled “a couple of guys that rode into Pascual’s restaurant on Victoria Street.” One year owner Pascual Gamboa did the same thing.
The most astounding thing I ever saw in a parade was the sight of a herd of longhorns rumbling up State Street, the tips of their horns just feet from kiddies on the sidewalk. How did that happen and who allowed it? I asked my friends.
“The year I was El Presidente, 1982, Clarence Minetti asked if he could bring up a whole bunch of longhorns he owned, about 15 of the things,” Westwick recalled. “He brought them in a huge trailer.”
“We had trouble getting them out,” Rowe said, and a dirt ramp had to be built.
It was decided that the fierce-looking longhorns would be first in the parade. When the beasts came lumbering up the street, the crowd “pushed back quick,” Westwick said.
“They looked like menaces,” Powers said, “but they were extremely docile,” being cows not raging bulls. They caused a sensation along the route, but at the end, instead of being taken back to the truck near the waterfront, the outriders surprisingly herded them all the way up State Street to Earl Warren Showgrounds, where the rodeo was going on, Westwick said.
The threesome had a laugh about what drinkers emerging from Harry’s Plaza Café thought when greeted by the sight. “Not to mention the mess they left behind on the street,” cracked Westwick.
The longhorns made a couple of other appearances in the parade but finally “the police nixed” a return of the herd, Westwick said. “They got all kinds of complaints from people that [the longhorns] were endangering the parade.” (Was there insurance coverage, just in case? Fiesta handed over money for the policy, but whether paperwork was ever done seems to be in question.)
Fire & Tip Drills Then there was massive Sam Smisher, who drove the old blacksmith float, now retired due to a bad case of rickety underpinnings. Sam was about the size of three men, always had a huge cigar clamped in his jaws, and had a tiny wife who relayed messages to him because Sam was nearly deaf, the Fiesta vets told me. “He must have had 100 mules, the best in the world, all perfectly matched,” Rowe said. “He had a heart of gold.” Six to eight mules were needed to pull the heavy float and not a lot of drivers were up to it, the men said.
One year as the float pulled into the parade line, it caught fire. “We were yelling at him, ‘You’re on fire,’ but he couldn’t hear,” Powers said. Finally he was stopped and the fire put out. A Goleta teen, apparently the winner of some contest, had been aboard. The 14-year-old refused to get back on, saying: “We haven’t gone 10 feet, the float is on fire, and you expect me to ride 2½ miles?” Powers recalled. “And she walked off.” (For many years, Goleta Jim Smith was the blacksmith on the float.)
Definitely not amusing was the year in the 1980s when a Wells Fargo mule-powered stagecoach with the Santa Barbara City Council inside and Mayor Sheila Lodge and her husband, Judge Joe Lodge on top, nearly toppled over near the parade start on Cabrillo, the men recalled. The stagecoach had just pulled out and was near the former España restaurant on Cabrillo, near State, with expert horseman Lance Brown — member of Los Rancheros Visitadores riding group and former manager of Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch — in front. “Then something spooked the mules.” Westwick said. “They just bolted toward the beach and that stagecoach went over — it was just teetering. I thought it was going over.” It was a moment, someone said, “frozen in time.” Then, Westwick said, “Lance Brown ran his horse right into the leader [mule]. Not many horses would do that.” It worked. The mules stopped and the stage righted itself.
The Hitch This year there’ll be 600 to 650 horses in the parade, about 75 of the 100 or so entries. The high tide of horseflesh occurred in 1992, during J.J. Hollister’s regime, with about 800 horses. It’s a lot to put together in the right order, a nightmare at times, dealing with horses, teams, floats, wagons, outriders, bands, and dancers. But El Desfile Histórico, as the big parade is known, always seemed to waiting crowds like a coolly, carefully organized event, working without as hitch. This year I’ll be part of it, riding horseback with my wife Sue as honorary grand marshal, after 45 years of covering the event.
It seems hard to believe but back in the days when the governor often rode in the parade, the long, slow procession crossed the old freeway at the grade, back in the days of the stop lights. Traffic was rerouted. In those days the parade was held on Thursdays, not Fridays.
But in the late 1960s, according to the Fiesta men I met, the CHP finally blew the whistle. The parade then used the Castillo Street underpass to get to lower State from the waterfront staging area.
There were characters galore over the years. How about Jules Lindner, loping along in a loincloth, ribs showing, portraying an Indian? Maria Margelli, the Italian pushcart vendor, tossing vegetables at the crowd.
One blazing hot day in the 1960s, News-Press photographer Ray Borges and I covered the parade on roller skates, easily scooting around to grab shots and notes. I’m not sure why we did this, because I hadn’t skated since my Chicago childhood.
Amazingly, 95-year-old Hattie Feazelle, who’s been in every Fiesta parade, plans to be riding again this week. “We offered her a carriage but she insisted on riding,” one official said. “A great lady, a huge heart.”
A 1935 MGM feature, La Fiesta de Santa Barbara, included Leo Carrillo as well as a very young Judy Garland and her sisters singing “La Cucaracha.”
Classic carriages and vintage wagons from the 1800s are some of the main crowd-pleasers. J.J. Hollister drove his 1898 Mountain Spring Wagon, once owned by the Stowe Ranch and pulled by a pair of Percheron Morgans, for 12 years. Before that, Garrett Van Horn of the Stowe Ranch drove it in parades. The wagon is now in the Carriage Museum at Pershing Park. These days Hollister stands on the sidelines watching the parade with his grandchildren.
I’ve always called Old Spanish Days one big block party, but Hollister said former mayor and Judge Jack Rickard termed it “a civic party.” Hollister takes it further. “It’s not just a civic party. Fiesta represents the reasons why Santa Barbara looks the way it does today.” Early in the last century, civic activist Pearl Chase pushed through a requirement that architecture follow the Spanish-Mediterranean-style architecture, he said. “She wasn’t going to have anything to do with a colonial style from the East Coast.”
News-Press publisher T.M. Storke resisted, Hollister told me. “I can’t afford to put a Spanish-style roof on my building” in De la Guerra Plaza, Storke said to Chase. “But Pearl never let anyone off the hook,” Hollister said, and today there’s a red-tile roof on the newspaper’s building.
After the massive 1925 earthquake the main part of town was largely rebuilt according to her vision and that of others equally farsighted. “The Spanish style of architecture is healthy, with low roofs, a feeling of openness, clean white walls, a healthy environment,” Hollister said. “It’s all part of the spirit of Old Spanish Days.”
Some have said that Pearl Chase and those who followed her created a fantasy town, one that had no historical basis. “It may have been false and cooked up, but it’s real now,” Hollister said.