A sunny Sunday afternoon, three weeks before the big parade, and already Riccardo Morrison was rocking in the Solstice maelstrom. The fence around the new headquarters on Garden and Ortega needs a contractor. Plywood is piling up. Worst of all, there’s a giant unintentional obscenity issue in the middle of a half-built float.
“It’s good to start the day off with a phallic discussion,” said Morrison, a compact, muscular man sporting a faux-hawk above a radar-yellow T-shirt, yellower wraparound safety glasses, and jeans shorts. “You know they all started out as phalluses, squirting the water out,” he said, referring to the great fountains of the world, which this float is trying to represent. “Then people changed them into other things like artichokes-like the fountain down at [Chase] Palm Park,” he laughed.
Before long, he’s smoothed the feathers of a longtime Solstice float-builder and high school educator who has had run-ins with festival mores in years past. The builder claims he didn’t mean the fountain to look like a penis, yet believes the subversive side of the parade is succumbing to censorship. The higher-up maintains that inclusiveness implies safe viewing for children. But with a few deft technical suggestions, Morrison has done the toughest job artistic directors never anticipate: negotiating peace in a peace-and-love parade.
Morrison knew the job of artistic director-this year presiding over the amorphous parade theme Stars-was tough before he took it. Though not a Santa Barbarian, Morrison has a long Summer Solstice memory. “I don’t know how many years I’ve been in the parade, but I’d say at least back into the 1980s. I remember lining up on Cabrillo Boulevard.”
He didn’t rocket through the ranks, either. A dancer, troupe member (most notably a Mudhead circa 1999), and often solo performer, Morrison became a shop assistant in 2002, then technical director, and in 2004, after a sudden emotional blow-out, he was in. “It’s actually a perfect job for an independent arts contractor,” laughed Morrison, who splits his time between Europe and the U.S. “Most of the time I’m basically homeless, or living in my van.” Now, at least for three months, he’s employed and housed in paradise.
Born in Van Nuys in 1953, he wasn’t much of a student, and after graduating from Birmingham High School, Morrison worked in his parents’ furniture-moving business and moved into a “partying house” in the 1970s, the epoch of party. “I prefer to call it an entrance into the ecstatic world,” he smiled.
Morrison met a movement teacher named Steve Paxton at Santa Monica’s Dance Home, and learned something called contact improvisation, a melding of dance, reflex physical activity, and martial arts. “It’s dance that doesn’t even need music,” he explained. Though it may seem an odd qualification, dance puts him in a long line of former artistic directors like Rich McLaughlin (yoga), Tinnika Ossman (a famed belly dancer), and Steven Lovelace (a dancer and choreographer).
Old school, maybe, but not a Solstice traditionalist. “Nothing remains the same,” he said. “I realize a lot of the old guard have moved on or are less interested, and some are upset with the way things are going.” Like the split mentioned above between Solstice as subversive force or the parade as a community activity. “I know the parade used to be more radical, although sometimes I think it’s only more radical in some people’s memories,” he explained. “It’s definitely more family today. And if it came to a choice between minor rebellions and the survival of the parade itself, I vote for the parade.” That being said, he laughed remembering a series of wild S&M-themed entries in the mid 1990s. “Say what you want,” he laughed, “but everybody remembers that float.”
Other issues that prickle old-timers include sponsorship. But Morrison points out that parade bylaws prevent words on floats, so even though Red Bull will give money this year, their logo will not march up State Street. And indirect sponsorships help the parade in numerous ways, according to Morrison. This paper, for instance, sponsored an expressionistic rendering of the Mission with a big Angry Poodle and other surprises riding, designed by artist-in-residence Ann Cheverfils. Some are in-kind sponsorships, but money raised goes directly to the staff. The organization has come some way from an all-volunteer army. “I like giving artists money,” said Morrison.
He’s mostly happy to be here, though he bitches that age is catching up to his dancer’s body. “Most of all, I’m interested in bringing more young people into Solstice,” he said. “I want to bring in all kinds of people, actually. There is this perception that this is a white, hippie thing and there are a lot of us in it. But there are parades like this across all cultures; Carnivale is a lot like Solstice. Maybe you have a float like The Independent’s Mission. But a parade is all about context. You’ll see it with Tahitian dancers and Afro-Cuban music. What I like about it is the movement and the idea of taking art out of the hallowed places and putting it on the streets where it belongs. It’s a natural thing for me. And I can even use all my old talents as a furniture mover too.”
Santa Barbara’s 23rd annual Summer Solstice Parade, with the theme of Stars this year, hits State Street at high noon on Saturday, June 23, going from Cota Street to Micheltorena Street before ending in an all-afternoon festival at Alameda Park. For more info, see solsticeparade.com and to volunteer, email firstname.lastname@example.org.