If the Summer Solstice Parade allowed words on its ensembles (it doesn’t) and if its honchos indulged in cheap corporate gimmickry (they don’t), this year’s premier float would bear the legend “Under New Management.” The parade, which began as artistic free spirit Michael Gonzales’s thrift-store-clothing-festooned birthday party, evolved into an annual event and is now in its 42nd year and headed by a new duo — (pictured above, from left) Robin Elander and Robby Robbins. The parade’s formative era featured nearly as many directors as years in business as it groped for identity and a permanent home behind the scenes while it conga-kicked merrily up State Street as 100,000 spectators blithely watched.
During the last 16 years, however, the celebration actually found relative stability under the year-round care of executive director Claudia Bratton, who recently retired. Present since the first parade, Bratton quested after financial solvency (or something like it), finding a home and pushing the parades’ floats and troupes toward a more fun-for-the-whole-family celebration style. She sacrificed a bit of the wildness, but she got what she sought.
This year’s change of guard was nothing like a coup. “I think Claudia is as important to this parade as Michael Gonzales was,” said Robbins, the brand-new development and communications director for the parade. “She stabilized us, which is amazing.” Elander, the new executive director, agrees: “She hasn’t been around much, though she attends events, but I know I can contact her anytime for help.” There are boardmembers and friends of the parade to help, and Elander and Robbins feel they inherited a well-oiled crazy machine.
From the beginning of her tenure, though, Elander has used her own voice. She wanted to promote attendance at the workshops, and her wish seems to be coming to fruition. Everybody on the corner of Ortega and Garden streets, the former recycling center where Solstice now rents from the Community Arts Workshop — perhaps Bratton’s best legacy — is clearly busier than ever, and many longtime observers say the troupes seem further along with their floats than in the past vis-à-vis the June 25 deadline. “People tell me that’s true,” said Elander, who ran the ArtWalk organization in Ventura and the Santa Barbara Open Streets Festival before she was hired by Solstice. “I think people are keen on the Legends theme.” She laughed off the notion that her tenure caused instant rejuvenation, and the theme has inspired some ingenuities, although there is an ensemble of American legends, such as Babe the Blue Ox and Paul Bunyan; a dazzling pirate ship; and a flaming zeppelin. On the other hand, the parade has an elegiac side, supporting two tributes to Prince — with the young artist in residence John Sinclair scouring town feverishly for people who want to hold umbrellas and move to “Purple Rain.” Elander thinks the excitement is good no matter what inspired it. “I’m just excited that people are excited,” she said.
Robbins and Elander both believe the parade needed infusions of youth. “Not just in the artists’ program,” said Robbins, “but encouragement for a younger group at the workshop.” In an extremely sly recruitment effort, the parade has stepped up its kids-and-parents zone at the after-party parade in Alameda Park, which has been run by Lark Batteau, Children’s Festival coordinator for the last four years, featuring crafts and performances. This year, however, the youth brigades are planning their own parade, put together on Saturday after the big march and presented Sunday, beginning at the park’s main stage and ending in the kids’ area. Older children are needed, too, and Solstice made some headway on Wednesday, June 15, hosting a group called LoaTree at the workshop, an environmentally encouraging organization that puts on hipster mixer events called Green Drinks. Elander, friends with LoaTree’s Eric Cardenas, brought scads of thirty-somethings to see the almost-finished floats while sipping locally brewed beverages and dancing to the ubiquitous Darla Bea’s deejay party machine. “There are people here who didn’t even know the parade was in its 42nd year and are looking at the place for the first time,” said Elander.
Philosophically speaking, the party also underscores Elander and Robbins’s shift toward an even more eco-friendly event, an idea always dear to Solsticers’ hearts. Besides a renewed relationship with Art from Scrap, Elander will replace parade-day water bottles with water stations, encouraging people to bring refillable containers. In that spirit, Robbins decided not to open the parade with the annual balloon arch. “I just can’t see all that plastic being the first thing that people see,” he said. The food gardens will feature area vendors and more real food, said Elander. But maybe the best news hailing from the parade is the end of the clunky ticket system used for buying food and grog after the parade. People will be able to plunk down coin of the realm and buy their elote, bánh mì, and baba ghanoush — or whatever delectable tidbits are available — and then devour them on the grass. “[In the past], we had people leaving the park to eat, and that’s just not right,” said Robbins.
The sense of mild party censorship might never fade, though Robbins and Elander don’t really want to bring up the wooly past, when proponents of crazy creative freedom butted heads with Solstice nabobs preferring fun without offense. Few really want to see sadomasochistic floats reprised or, for that matter, ogle naked middle-agers. But nobody knows what will happen until it’s over, and craziness is kind of the point.
Neither Robbins nor Elander was present at the beginning; in fact, both are newcomers compared to Bratton. Robbins moved here in 2006 and was in his first parade one year later, representing this paper. Elander hasn’t been in one yet. But nobody questions their passion. Elander stands for a certain simplicity of vision. “I just love parades. I’m a sucker for them; they make me cry,” she said. “It’s the biggest outpouring possible from a community. There’s no better way to say, ‘Look at me!’”
For Robbins, it’s personal, too. “One day I was talking to some people about the parade, and I kept calling myself a participant, when Riccardo Morrison, the artistic director, asked why I don’t call myself an artist. I laughed, but he said, ‘You just spent all these hours making a giant hat, and then you walked down a street and entertained 100,000 people. What more do you have to do to be an artist?’”