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The Birth of Old Spanish Days


Historical Grand Pageants Give Rise to Fiesta

by Michael Redmon

Eighty-two years ago a group of Santa Barbara businessmen gathered at the S.B. School of the Arts at 936 Santa Barbara Street. The purpose: to organize a city-wide festival to celebrate the opening of the new Lobero Theatre, scheduled for August 4, 1924. The group aimed to “appeal to the carnival spirit lurking in everyone and at the same time perpetuate Santa Barbara’s picturesque early-days atmosphere.” The organizers had grand plans to make the festival an annual affair that “will in time rival the celebrated New Orleans Mardi Gras or the Pasadena Carnival of Roses.” So was born Santa Barbara’s Old Spanish Days Fiesta.

Why did this committee embrace from the beginning the idea of a celebration with an “early-days atmosphere,” a decision that met with virtually unanimous community approval? The committee was following a tradition, decades-long, of civic celebrations that had played upon historical themes. The Santa Barbara Mission Centennial in 1886, the series of floral festivals of the 1890s, and the welcoming celebration for the U.S. Navy’s Great White Fleet in 1908 had all incorporated historical themes. The highlight of the latter was a parade along Cabrillo Boulevard with equestrians decked out in costumes of early California. The grand prize float was a replica of Mission Santa Barbara made of 200,000 white roses. An even more immediate inspiration for the 1924 Fiesta committee, however, was the formation of the La Primavera Association in September 1919.

The first informal meeting was held at the Chamber of Commerce and the general purpose was clear from the beginning: “To perpetuate the early romance of Santa Barbara and historical events … in early life in California.” Out of this initial meeting a nonprofit organization was formed to put on a pageant that “would attract thousands of visitors from all parts of the country” and “would become an annual event.” Funds would be raised through contributions and the sale of $5 association memberships.

The La Primavera Association formally incorporated in October and plans moved forward for a grand pageant depicting events from Santa Barbara’s past. Selected to write the play was Wallace Rice from Chicago. Harvard-educated and a member of the Illinois bar, Rice had eschewed the practice of law for a writing career. He worked for a number of newspapers and magazines and then wrote his first play in 1905. He increasingly concentrated on his dramatic works, gravitating toward pieces with historical themes. In 1917 his Pageant of the Flag had been performed in Chicago, followed by The Illinois Centennial Pageant a year later. He seemed the perfect choice to write Santa Barbara’s historical pageant, Primavera: The Masque of Santa Barbara.

The committee tabbed Arthur Farwell to write the music. Though he was trained as an engineer, Farwell had turned toward a musical career. A music director and composer, he was interested in promoting community music at the grassroots level, organizing concerts, plays, and recitals across the country. In 1920 he became one of the primary organizers of the Santa Barbara School of the Arts. Samuel Hume, a drama professor at UC Berkeley and director of the Greek Theater, agreed to direct the play. The art director was Kem Weber, who went on to forge an international reputation as an architect and designer.

Romance was the watchword in Rice’s play, which incorporated drama, dance, and music. The action opened with dancers depicting the 12 months performing to a chorus of more than 200 voices. The play then moved through the periods of Santa Barbara history: Chumash settlement; the arrival of the Spanish and the Franciscan padres; the rule of Mexico; the arrival of the Americans. Overlaying this historical backdrop was the story of love between a Californio maiden and an American, a tale of love lost then regained in the midst of a clash of cultures. The play closed with the Stars and Stripes being raised over the town as performers and audience joined in a rousing rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner.”

The grand pageant was staged outdoors during two April evenings in a small natural amphitheater near the southwest corner of East Canon Perdido and Garden streets. More than 300 locals participated as actors, dancers, musicians, singers, and bit players with countless others working behind the scenes; it was truly a community effort. Primavera was so well-received it was determined to stage yet another grand pageant in July.

This second “stupendous spectacle play” was to be painted upon an even larger historical canvas. The Quest, by California playwright Sidney Coe Howard, presented tableaus from the history of Western civilization, beginning with ancient Greece and advancing through the Renaissance to close with a look into the future of mankind. Hume would once again take up the directorial reins and Weber again acted as art director. The Quest was also staged outdoors, this time at the foot of Leadbetter Hill, near the intersection of Castillo Street and Cabrillo Boulevard. The Plaza del Mar band shell was constructed for the staging of this play.

The Quest, performed July 15-17, received enthusiastic reviews, but attendance was disappointing. One reviewer commented that “the play deserved fewer empty seats.” A harbinger of Fiestas to come was the dramatic use of Leadbetter Hill, which became an integral part of the staging; players appeared at the crest of the hill and would then move in stately procession down to the stage below. This technique would later become a feature of the Fiesta plays staged at the County Bowl.

As exciting as the pageants had been they did not prove to be paying propositions. Primavera, though well-attended, posted a $10,000 deficit and the association announced late in 1920 that there would be no pageant for 1921. Instead there was a one-week showing of a Primavera film, accompanied by live music, at the California Theater.

Nonetheless, when the Fiesta committee met in 1924, a template of sorts for a grand civic celebration was laid out before it. The echoes of history and romance that resonated in Primavera and The Quest would sound again in the ambience and events of Old Spanish Days Fiesta: in the costumes, the music, the dances, El Desfile de Histórico, El Mercado, Fiesta Pequeña, Las Noches de Ronda. Romance and history— the seeds had been sown.

Fiestivities

Fri., July 28

Artist Reception and Awards Ceremony — “El Arte de los Niños de Fiesta”: Children’s artistic renditions of local history and their experiences of Fiesta.1 N. Calle César Chávez, Ste. 1 (Children’s Fiesta Art), 6-8pm. Free.

Sat., July 29

El Fandango Dinner/Dance: Music by Grupo Feliz; Fiesta costumes encouraged. 6pm-midnight. Elks Lodge #613, 150 N. Kellogg Ave., $50.

Celebration and SCAPE Art Show: Hear fish stories from pro-angler Mike McCorkle, 1pm; meet Two Years Before the Mast author Richard Henry Dana Jr. (played by actor Jeffrey Paul Whitman), 2pm; learn to cook fish with Chef John, 3:30pm; get local author Brian Fagan’s book Fish on Friday, signed, 5pm. Kids’ activities all day: remotely operated vehicle, crafts, touch tank, and treasure hunt. Daily film series. Santa Barbara Maritime Museum; free museum admission Sat.; free art show Sat.-Sun., 10am-5pm; free guided museum tours: Sat., 11:30am-2pm. Museum open 10am-6pm both days.

Sun., July 30

Recepción del Presidente: El Presidente Roger Perry’s reception. Studio dancers, mariachis, buffet, performances by 2005 Spirit and Junior Spirit of Fiesta, and dancing. 5-9pm, Doubletree Resort Rotunda, $55 advance; $75 door. Tickets available at the Arlington ticket agency; 963-4408.

Mon., July 31

Charity Golf Tournament: Hosted by the Santa Barbara Sunrise Rotary Club at Glen Annie Golf Course, followed by dinner and a variety of events at Oak Park. $200 greens fee per golfer, which includes two dinner tickets ($40 value). Begins at noon. For entry and sponsorships, call Jim Slaught at 962-8989 or Dennis Johns at 699‑2040 x165.

Fiesta Dinner: A catered Fiesta dinner and drinks. Live and silent auctions, live music, and an early and intimate performance by the Spirit and Junior Spirit of Fiesta and other Spanish dance groups. Oak Park, 6pm, $20 adults, $12 children 12 and under. Call Dennis Johns at 699‑2040 x165.

Wed., Aug. 2

Courthouse Fiesta Tours: Free tours every half hour. 10am-3:30pm, 1100 Anacapa St.

El Mercado de la Guerra: Spanish and Mexican-American foods, crafts, souvenirs, and live entertainment. Starts at 6:30pm, entertainment sponsored by KTYD 99.9 and features the Police tribute band Fallout. De la Guerra Plaza (across from City Hall). 11am-11pm, free.

El Mercado del Norte: Spanish and Mexican foods and beverages, carnival rides and attractions, ice cold beer in the beer garden, and daily entertainment featuring traditional Spanish dance performances. At night, dance under the stars to a variety of Latin music. MacKenzie Park, corner of Las Positas and State. Daily, 11am-11pm, free.

Fiesta at La Cumbre Plaza: Flamenco dancing by the Linda Vega Dance Studio. 2-3pm, near Robinsons-May, free.

Casa Cantina: Mexican-style Cantina featuring beer and refreshments. For a fee, drop in, have a cold drink and relax for awhile. (Free admission for members of S.B.Trust for Historic Preservation). Proceeds benefit continuing restoration of the Casa — site of the first Fiesta — and El Presidio de Santa Barbara, birthplace of Santa Barbara. Held in the Courtyard of the Casa de la Guerra in De la Guerra Plaza, noon-10pm.

La Fiesta Pequeña: “The Little Fiesta” officially opens Old Spanish Days on the steps of Santa Barbara’s historic Old Mission. The event features music and a program of traditional and flamenco dances. Food available for purchase from local vendors. 8pm, free.

Thu., Aug. 3

Courthouse Fiesta Tours: Daily, every half hour from 10am-3:30pm, free.

El Mercado De la Guerra: Spanish and Mexican-American foods, crafts, souvenirs, and live entertainment. Starts at 6:30pm, entertainment sponsored by KTYD 99.9 and features the Police tribute band Fallout. De la Guerra Plaza (across from City Hall). 11am-11pm, free.

El Mercado del Norte: Spanish and Mexican foods and beverages, carnival rides and attractions, ice cold beer in the beer garden, and daily entertainment featuring traditional Spanish dance performances. At night, dance under the stars to a variety of Latin music. MacKenzie Park, corner of Las Positas and State. Daily, 11am-11pm, free.

Fiesta Stock Horse Show & Rodeo (Competencia de los Vaqueros): Tri-county stock horse show brings in riders from the tri-counties to compete in the Alisal Ranch Horse class, Fiesta Ranch Horse class, Buckaroo class, Old Timers team roping, and steer stopping. 7:30am, Earl Warren Showgrounds, free.

La Misa del Presidente: El Presidente’s Mass at the Old Mission followed by a garden reception. Fiesta attire encouraged. Open to the public. 10am, free. Call 682-4713.

Celebración de los Dignatarios: Gather at the hilltop of the Santa Barbara Zoological Gardens to greet the mayor, members of the City Council, and other dignitaries, while dancing to the music of Soul City Survivors. Appetizers and wines from local restaurants and wineries. 5-9pm, $75 per person in advance; $100 at the gate. Tickets available at the Arlington Ticket Agency, 963‑4408. Drink tickets can be purchased on site. Park at the Doubletree and catch the Dignatarios shuttle in the parking lot.

Fiesta at La Cumbre Plaza: Flamenco dancing by the Linda Vega Dance Studio. 5-7pm, near Robinsons-May, free.

Professional Bull Riders Tour: The toughest ride on dirt returns. 7:30pm, Earl Warren Showgrounds. Tickets at ticketmaster.com, or call 583‑8700; after July 31, call 967-6331.

Las Noches de Ronda: A variety show of music, singing, flamenco from Spain, and folklórico dances from many regions of Mexico. Bring blankets and chairs for lawn seating. Courthouse Sunken Gardens. 8pm, free.



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