From its inception, Santa Barbara’s Old Spanish Days Fiesta has generated a wealth of imagery. From the bright posters that herald the event to the abundance of amateur and professional photographs that document it, every season brings fresh efforts to record the costumes, customs, and cascarones of our city’s annual midsummer celebration.
Goleta Council member and former Presidente of Old Spanish Days Roger Aceves remembers attending the 1958 Desfile de los Niños as a nattily attired 3-year-old. Aceves’s Fiesta getup earned him not only a photo op with the News-Press photographer but also a magnanimous gesture from Prima Signor of Mom’s Italian Village. Upon seeing little Roger all dressed up for the parade, she went beyond the traditional free ice cream, boosting him onto a bar stool and telling her staff to “give him anything he wants.”
This is just one of the Fiesta memories that have been collected by the Santa Barbara Historical Museum’s Fiesta Project, a multiyear exhibition and program designed to draw viewers into the organization’s mission of collecting and documenting everything and anything to do with Santa Barbara history. The Fiesta project mixes video, painting, and photography with some spectacular costumes and accessories to provide a comprehensive account of nearly a century of these celebrations.
In a corner under the video screen on which Aceves and others recount their Fiesta memories, there’s a table with cards and pens for visitors to write down and share their own experiences. There’s clearly something about the exhibit that spurs people to offer specific details in what they write. For example, Valerie Brewster Caldwell remembers “finally being a flower girl!” but she also writes about “scrambling for candy & pennies” and “the HORSE PARADE.” From when she was employed by the Chamber of Commerce, Joanne Buchanan remembers organizing and building a float for the parade and writes that “It was the greatest pleasure and satisfaction having the float completed and seeing the volunteers riding on it in the parade.” Adela Luna and her family are proud of the time that her sister danced on the steps of the mission for opening night, and so are the many other Spirits and friends of dancers who have contributed to the display.
This year, the Fiesta Project coincides with another exhibition that brings a greater depth of understanding to how the Old Spanish Days celebration took such a strong hold on the hearts and memories of Santa Barbara families. Great Photographers in Santa Barbara History: The Gledhill Library Collection, 1860-1960 provides a perfect complement to the show in that it displays the kind of grandly conceived and professionally executed images that made the Fiesta fantasy so popular.
W. Edwin and Carolyn Gledhill were professional photographers who operated a studio here and who took a strong interest in collecting and preserving the work of the other highly skilled people working in this medium in the city. Working forward from the marvelous Alexander Harmer painting of “Moonlight” doings during a traditional Fiesta of the 1890s, one finds photographers lining up to recreate the fantasies of colonial Spanish culture propagated by the novel Ramona and such early films as 1920s The Mark of Zorro with Douglas Fairbanks. Thanks to the cooperation of thousands of like-minded residents, many of them with equestrian experience, artists such as Karl Obert could take pictures of the Ranchos Visitadores crossing a stream in Santa Ynez that were straight out of a Hollywood western. H. Edgerton and Florence McAllister performed for many years the duties of the official portraitist to the Old Spanish Days, and the Gledhill exhibit displays multiple examples of their elegant work in large-format black and white, none more expressive and joyful than the charming portrait of Sam J. Stanwood, who was El Presidente for 20 years, from 1927 to 1947. Central casting could do no better than life itself in creating this colorful character.
James Walter Collinge excelled at capturing the theatricality of early Fiesta celebrations, from the thrill of seeing sisters on impeccably brushed and braided Palominos to the pageantry of the Old Spanish Days ceremonies that once took place at the Santa Barbara Bowl. Perhaps most charmingly of all, Collinge caught the playful spirit of romance that animated the earliest Old Spanish Days celebrations in a series of scenes he created with the help of costumed revelers in the passages of El Paseo. These images of carefree people playacting in what amounted to a Spanish set may not have had much to do with the reality of Santa Barbara’s history, but they are valuable today as reminders of how the cinematic dream of Southern California took a specific, metaphorical turn in our city thanks to the splendid architecture that still distinguishes our downtown.