Fiesta Memories: Fast Times at Fiestas Past

Wild Horse, Longhorn Cattle, Floats Afire, and More Rowdy Memories of Fiestas Gone By

<b>VIVA VAQUEROS:</b> More than 600 horses clop through Friday’s Fiesta Parade, which featured longhorns and a burning blacksmith’s float one time.
Paul Wellman

My mixed memories of yesteryear’s Fiestas include longhorn cattle rumbling up State Street, wild-looking horses, rowdy crowds at El Paseo, and a blacksmith float rolling along afire.

I never saw actor Leo Carrillo ride his horse into a downtown bar, but old-timers swear he did it more than once. One day, they say, Leo got in a fight with a man who took exception to Carrillo’s flirtation with the wife. Leo got punched out.

Barney Brantingham

Things have tamed down now, a virtual pony ride down the primrose path compared with the sometimes raucous Fiestas of past Old Spanish Days.

There was the day when Sam Smisher, a giant of a man, stogie clamped in his jaws, drove his prize mules pulling an old blacksmith float up to the starting line, not realizing that it was on fire. “We kept yelling, at him, ‘You’re on fire,’” recalled longtime Fiesta honcho Wayne Powers. But Sam was deaf and couldn’t hear. Finally they got Sam’s attention and the fire out. A Goleta teenager, aboard because of some honor, got off and refused to get back on.

One year Clarence Minetti was allowed to haul a dozen or so of his longhorns to town for the parade. Once here, the fearsome beasts refused to get out of the trailer. Men had to build a dirt ramp to get them out. “They looked like menaces,” recalled Powers. “But they were extremely docile.”

But I’ll tell you, when I spotted the herd lumbering through downtown, kids sitting on the curb just a few feet away, I did a double take. One firecracker, I figured, and there’d be a stampede. But the creatures behaved themselves all the way to Earl Warren Showgrounds for the rodeo.

Party people always made it a practice to jam El Paseo on parade day, music booming, a mariachi band on hand, margaritas flowing, and screaming girls dancing on the tables. Fiesta, with that big romantic moon hovering over Santa Barbara, is a time for short-lived romances that fade with Fiesta moon.

One year, 1964 I think, News-Press photographer Ray Borges and I covered the parade on roller skates. Not sure why, but I have a photo of us somewhere. Like the longhorns, it was a one-time thing. In fact, Fiesta was full of one-time things.

Tony Avis would bring his wild-looking backcountry packhorses over from La Conchita and rent them out for the parade. I rode one year and got astride as ragged-looking a specimen of horseflesh as I ever saw. But it was perfect, even with a greenhorn aboard. Sad to say, Tony was killed at just 53 years old in the 2005 La Conchita landslide. I think his herd survived.

One year I climbed on another horse, which refused to answer the reins. Kids came up to pet it, which frightened me more than the horse did. I promptly traded it in for a nice old granny.

Skip Shalhoob proudly rode his horse on parade day, bare-chested and dressed as an Indian.

Hard to believe, but years ago the CHP blocked off State Street to give the parade the right of way and rerouted freeway traffic through town. Finally the State Street underpass was finished, and that’s the way the parade goes now, horses slip-sliding down and back up.

I’ll never forget the year we dressed the kids up in their Fiesta finest for the Children’s Parade. For some reason we decided that one of the kids should hold our white cat, Big Frisky. What was I thinking? The parade kicked off with a bang and a drum thump that frightened poor Big Frisky and sent him scampering off.

With the kids sobbing, we searched all over downtown but couldn’t find Big Frisky. Ruined the day. Much later, near dusk, we made one last pass. There, on Chapala Street, someone spotted Big Frisky cowering near a building. What joy reigned on our household that night!

Today, Fiesta is largely devoid of the rough and ready characters of yesterday. One calming influence came when the city banned drinking on the street some years ago. Times have changed, and people have changed. The main attractions now are little girls in ruffled dresses and boys with painted-on mustaches, herded along to dance at De la Guerra Plaza by proud mamas.

Is Fiesta more fun these days? What do you think?


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