Sunday, July 27, 2008

Fiesta parade is history in the making


On April 25, 1908, the U.S. Navy’s Great White Fleet — a floating mob of 16 battleships — simultaneously dropped anchor off the coast of Santa Barbara, sending a menacing rumble through the ground.

For the next five days the fleet, assembled by President Theodore Roosevelt to circumvent the earth as a show of U.S. Naval power, sat patient on the horizon, waiting as roughly 1,600 sailors experienced Santa Barbara.
The day before the fleet pulled away, diesel engines belching black smoke, Santa Barbara threw The Fleet Flower Festival, an ornate day-long event that included a parade, which snaked west on Cabrillo Boulevard (then called Ocean Boulevard), and turned around and retreated east after circling a fountain that once stood at Castillo Street.
It was a lavish celebration and would be Santa Barbara’s last Flower Festival, which according to Marc Martinez, float chairman for the Old Spanish Days El Desfile Historico, or parade, occurred regularly in Santa Barbara whenever something important needed to be commemorated.
Now Santa Barbara has Fiesta, which will notch its 84th year when the five-day celebration kicks-off this Wednesday. For Martinez, who has dedicated countless hours of time to the parade since 1988, and succeeded his father as float chairman, 2008 — the centennial anniversary of the Great White Fleet — is the perfect time to use the Fiesta parade as a throwback to that last Flower Festival.
And if this year’s parade, dubbed by Martinez The Dance of the Flowers, is even half of what he hopes, it will transcend mere parade status, and become a historical reenactment of The Fleet Flower Festival, sailors and all.
“So many people say if you’ve seen one parade you’ve seen them all,” he said. “But They’re not going to be able to say that this year because we’re going to have the best parade that any of us have seen in our lifetimes.”
All of this year’s 16 floats — the maximum number allowed and the most Martinez has ever seen entered in the parade — will either be replicas of floats that were in the 1908 parade, or floats that commemorate Santa Barbara’s waterfront, the site of the 1908 festival.
Three of this year’s floats will be battleships. Instead of being painted white, the ships will be covered with thousands of white flowers. Martinez said he doesn’t know the exact number of flowers that will be used, but anywhere from seven to 10 five-gallon buckets of flowers are given to each float. He said the flower budget nears $9,000.
At the Santa Barbara Carriage and Western Art Museum yesterday, which is the epicenter for float building in the lead-up to Fiesta, Martinez showed off pictures and paintings of The Fleet Flower Festival, and said he’s dreamed of this year’s parade for more than a decade.
At each float workstation, a picture of a float that appeared in the 1908 parade is being imitated. Martinez hopes the parade will come as close to imitating the earlier event as possible. He’s whittled it down to the last detail, making a couple of long poles with spear-like ends that appear in one photograph. In another photo, an odd-shaped crest on the front of a grandstand is lined with roses and surrounded by palm fronds and stars. Martinez and Fiesta Flower Chair, Donna Egeberg, have carefully redesigned it. They even though about the sailors, of which at least 50 are expected to show.
“We’re trying to make this as close as possible,” he said. “Santa Barbara has a great history and we’re all so fortunate. Not many towns have a fiesta where you can step back into history.”
History is Martinez’s specialty. He can talk for hours about Santa Barbara. He can name long extinct buildings and streets that appear in photographs well over 100 years old. In one panoramic photo of The Fleet Flower Festival, the parade can be seen in progress while a host of ships are docked off shore.
It is this kind of nostalgia Martinez lives for. He and Egeberg have amassed one of the most extensive collections of Santa Barbara historical memorabilia. They put different segments of their collection on display at two of the largest Fiesta celebrations, the El Presidente and La Primavera events.
Though Martinez said he feels an immense wave of satisfaction each year as the parade goes off without a hitch, his favorite Fiesta moments come late at night, in the build-up to Fiesta after the float builders have gone home and the flood lights have been turned off.
“You can feel the spirit of past Fiestas, like you can cut it with a knife,” he said. “I really do feel all those who have gone before in the years. They’re still here, so proud that we’re remembering them.”
The parade begins at noon on Friday. It begins on the west end of Cabrillo Boulevard, heads east until it meets State Street, then concludes at State and Sola streets.

No comments: