Friday, June 20, 2008

Let the sun shine in

One day a year, Santa Barbara returns to the Age of Aquarius, shining, shimmying and celebrating everything under the sun—and then some. Now in its 34th year, the Summer Solstice Celebration welcomes the onset of summer by unleashing Santa Barbara spirit in a colorful swirl, dancing to a pulsating beat. With equal parts of sly street theatre, summer silliness and inspired creativity, it’s State Street less staid, more irreverent than on any other day. It’s my favorite day in town.

While every year features a wondrous array of whimsy, fantasy and magic, certain memorable moments have included entries as diverse as hammerhead sharks with real hammers; friars whipping Native Americans; picture-taking tourists just off the bus; dancing refrigerators; an enormous gossamer jellyfish floating above the city; and in darker times, a horde of scary black flies and an alarmingly disturbing dominatrix float that had parents distracting their children as it passed by, the crowd hushed in astonishment.
Over the years, I have applied face-and-body make-up, stuck on sequins, glued glitter, carefully crafted a dozen monkey tails, sewn shorts and vests to match, and ferried excited children to the remarkable community workshop where fanciful ideas become reality. The behind-the-scenes process inspires almost as much as the actual performance put on by a thousand participants, for a crowd larger by one hundred times.
Incredibly, Solstice, as it’s usually known, has managed to stay true to its roots, established in 1974 by artist and street performer Michael Gonzales to celebrate his May Day birthday. The celebration has avoided serious commercialism ever since—save the requisite sales of products including T-shirts, posters, hats and tote bags that help offset expenses.
As is often the case in Santa Barbara, however, there’s a little history behind what’s obvious. The story of this year’s official graphic is one. Not just another brightly colored impression selected from new submissions, this image depicts a moment in time at the 1981 Solstice, that formerly ended at the Courthouse, captured in a painting by Gonzales entitled Summer Solstice Celebration. Gonzales sold the painting in 1988, and it ended up in Australia until recently, when its second owner, Kevin Tierney, generously arranged to donate the painting back to the city it celebrates, and it now hangs in the Central Library, where it can be viewed by the public daily.
A lot has changed in Santa Barbara since those Bohemian days—where artists and musicians, including Gonzales and his friends lived for a pittance and worked in the old Park Theater, now the Fithian Building; where breathtaking author Claire Rabe operated the funky nightclub known as Baudelaire’s; and the legendary publisher Noel Young taught a legion of wannabes how to make books, wine, and love.
It’s doubtful any of those free spirits—all passed on now—who lived well, easy and creatively, would recognize the post-Redevelopment State Street that hosts Solstice these days, with corporate storefronts, red brick sidewalks and Paseo Nuevo built right across the street from the Fithian—the last cheap office space in town. Nor would they comprehend what’s become of Chapala Street, with its chi-chi condos crammed as high and wide as possible.
On Saturday, the bigger-than-Santa Barbara crowd will oooh and ahhhh at all the right moments that depict this year’s theme, “Solar Flair.” They will laugh at the antics of costumed, usually inhibited lawyers, office workers and accountants gone anonymously wild for awhile. They will be bemused by the whimsically painted bellies of a few pregnant women, and get down to the pulsating beat of a few hundred drums.
All too soon, the show will move on to Alameda Park, followed close behind by spectators-turned-spontaneous participants. The street sweepers will converge and the spirit of solstice will settle into State Street on the longest, most gloriously joyful day of the year—one with a special history all its own. Peace. Love. Santa Barbara.

Cheri Rae’s column appears every Thursday in the Daily Sound. E-mail her at

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