Santa Barbarans have long been proud of their city's heritage from Spanish founders and from the Spanish, Mexican and North American pioneers who first settled here and built the city. The tradition of colorful music, dance, and song together with a spirit of friendliness, hospitality and tolerance are part of this heritage which the Fiesta "Old Spanish Days In Santa Barbara" seeks to preserve and perpetuate.
In the year 1924, two circumstances motivated the first Fiesta.
First off, there had for some time been a feeling among the business people of the city that Santa Barbara should have an annual summer event to attract and entertain visitors. The city had come to be a favorite place for winter tourists, but visitors had not been drawn to Santa Barbara in any considerable number during the summer months.
Secondly, in August of 1924, the Community Arts Association of Santa Barbara planned the opening of the new Lobero Theatre.The old historic theater founded by Jose (Giuseppe) Lobero had been condemned and unused for several years until 1922 when the CAA purchased the property and began remodeling the building under the Spanish-California architectural plans of George Washington Smith. The executive director of the Community Arts Association, Hamilton McFadden, called a meeting of businesspeople to plan a celebration to mark the opening of the new theater. He approached a merchants' association, and a committee was formed of which Charles E. Pressley was elected chairman. The interest of the city manager, Herbert Nunn, was enlisted.
The group began to formulate plans for the celebration, designing some activities including a parade, rodeo, family activities, aquatic, athletic and musical events, and, of course, a gala celebration at the theater filled with Spanish dancing on its opening night. As preparations were under way for this community event, Mayor Charles M. Andera declared fiesta week "one of festival and gaiety, during which period, which shall be known as 'Old Spanish Days,' the spirit of old Santa Barbara shall be lived again and again and the new Santa Barbara shall give way to the traditions of the city's founders", a time of homecoming for former residents and one of hospitality for guests.
As mentioned previously, the original celebration was planned to include a parade.
The parade committee was headed by Dwight Murphy, a fancier and breeder of Palomino horses who had come to Santa Barbara County and purchased large ranch holdings in the area of San Marcos Pass. Approximately two months before the parade, Murphy was invited to attend a meeting with the city manager, Herbert Nunn, and was asked to arrange the details of the parade. The type of parade was left to Murphy's discretion, and he was allocated a budget of $200.00. He called together a group of community members including Francis Price, Sam Stanwood, Ed Borein, Harry Sweetser, James Rickard and Wilson Dibblee; they met several times before deciding on a historical parade presenting a living portrait of old Santa Barbara.
Price, Sweetser, Dibblee and Murphy met with members of the De la Guerra and Ortega families to obtain information regarding the early Spanish customs. After these meetings, various committees were appointed to arrange for costumes, floats, carriages, and horsemen. Service clubs, such as the Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West, were invited to participate and to wear the costumes depicting the various historical periods. All of the floats were horse-drawn and built by representatives of the organizations riding on the float bed. Marching groups were secured to represent the Chumash Indians and the soldiers of Spain and Mexico.
Over the years, the character of the parade changed somewhat: the floats came to be drawn by motorized vehicles, more individuals and riding groups wearing their own or their organization's distinctive attire began to participate, and the number of marching band entries increased. Due to these changes, some feared that the historical character of the parade was in jeopardy of completely disappearing. In recent years, an effort has been made to deal with these concerns. The parade is now divided into two sections: the historical section, which has been carefully revised and is mainly presented on the floats depicting highlights of local heritage and history, and "Santa Barbara of Today", which includes the many other types of participation based in accord with the spirit and purpose of Fiesta.
Being that the most prominent Fiestas in the Spanish and Mexican tradition have always been closely connected with church celebrations, it is only fitting that Santa Barbara's annual Fiesta has included traditions with the historic Old Mission Santa Barbara. With the gracious involvement of the Franciscan Fathers, those traditions continue today.
The 1926 Fiesta held its sunset service at the Mission. A year later, restoration of the Mission from the damage it received in the massive earthquake of 1925 was completed, leading to a celebration on Wednesday evening as a prelude to the opening of Fiesta. There was an Ecclesiastical Procession along the Mission corridor up to the steps of the Mission and followed by a program including addresses by dignitaries, music, and dancing and ending with a reception. From 1927 to the present the tradition has not changed. Fiesta continues to open with this program at the Mission that has come to be called Fiesta Peque–a, "Little Fiesta."
In 1936, which marked the sesquicentennial of the founding of the Mission, a Solemn High Mass was sung on the first day of Fiesta at the Mission. The public, of all faiths, was invited to attend in traditional costume.
Today, La Misa Del Presidente is held on the second day of Fiesta in the morning and continues to be open to people of all faiths. In recent years, the Franciscan Fathers have held a reception in the Mission Garden following the mass.
El Mercado as its known in Spain and Mexico, or "the marketplace," has been the center of village and city life all over the world. However, as Santa Barbara had no Mercado, the gathering spot for the people of Santa Barbara had been the Presidio. During the many fiestas prior to the first Old Spanish Days Fiesta in 1924, booths were set up in various locations in the city where merchandise was sold and food and entertainment provided. These centers came to serve as the marketplace for the fiesta. This custom has continued and become an established part of Old Spanish Days.
For many years the Mercado took on a variety of personalities until 1949 when the foundation for the present mercado was laid. Rosario Andrea Curletti was in charge of the Mercado's that year and insisted all things having to do the Mercato be authentic. Robert Hoyt, a well-known architect, designed and constructed the booths reflective of true Mercado puestos and helped determine the rental to be charged to allow the Mercado to become self-supporting. For the first time each booth was sponsored by a non-profit or religious organization of the City of Santa Barbara and the revenue earned was to be used for their organization. The food, beverage, candy and merchandise sold was limited to the items that would be found in a Mercado of the Spanish and Mexican California period.
This tradition has continued over the years. Many booths at Mercado Del Norte and Mercado De La Guerra are still sponsored by local charitable organizations with proceeds supporting their programs. The form of the booths has been standardized and updated over the years, not only for convenience but also to meet city health and safety ordinances. Entertainment is offered throughout the day and evening to provide an even more festive and enjoyable atmosphere.
Noches De Ronda "Nights of Gaiety" was first organized in 1922 at the home of Leontine and Arthur Verhelle with the assistance of William and Rosa Poole.
Members of the community were invited to the Verhelle home for an evening of music and dance performances by the Poole-Verhelle Dance Group. This group had previously been formed to preserve and perform the traditional music and dance of California with many of the members having performed in the dancing groups of La Primavera.
Over the years, the size of the party grew until the Verhelle yard could no longer accommodate the crowd. Due to the popularity of the event, Mayor Sam Stanwod invited the Verhelles and Pooles to move the event to the lawn of the Santa Barbara County Courthouse when it opened in 1930. It was then, with a crowd of 250-300, that Noches De Ronda gained a new and permanent home.
Originally Noches De Ronda was staged for the sheer joy of those participating, but in 1934, the format of the evening changed to accommodate the increased number of spectators. It then became less of an audience participation activity and more of a staged show or performance.
While the event now includes many numbers of varied songs, instrumental music, and dance, it has never lost focus on the original purpose of the 1922 gathering, continuing to present the traditional California songs and dances as the featured numbers.
In 1926 the group of merchants who had formed the first official "Old Spanish Days" committee and members of the parade committee met under the leadership of Dwight Murphy and established the present non-profit corporation of "Old Spanish Days Fiesta, Inc." Murphy was elected president and thus became the first "Presidente."
After the creation of a board of directors and an executive committee, the group undertook plans for Fiesta 1926, with the consensus of all the members that the celebration should continue the policy of presenting California traditions as exemplified in Santa Barbara's history. Many years later, the residents of Santa Barbara continue to preserve and celebrate the traditions of historical Santa Barbara through Old Spanish Days Fiesta!