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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