“Celebrate Santa Barbara” is the theme that La Presidenta Joanne Funari chose for this year’s Old Spanish Days Fiesta, a perfect choice for the blond dynamo with the word “fun” right in her name.
“I really do want everybody to have fun,” said Funari, the president and a co-founder of Business First Bank.
Funari has been involved with Fiesta since she and her husband, Carlos Plascencia, moved to town in 1991, shortly after the birth of their son, Ryan. She started with Old Spanish Days as an ambassador for the Santa Barbara Region Chamber of Commerce and working on Fiesta parade floats, then became a board member in 1999, where she managed — what else? — celebrations.
“I oversaw that for a very, very long time,” Funari said. “In fact, there was one year that I chaired every single party!
“It was fun but it’s a lot of work. The Old Spanish Days board is probably one of the hardest working boards I sit on. They are all volunteers and they work hard. Everybody has a real job and then Fiesta is also kind of a second job.”
As for her “real job,” Funari has always been in banking and finance, starting her career at Chemical Bank in New York then transferring to its Los Angeles branch in 1980 while working her way through school at UCLA. She also held executive positions at Santa Barbara Bank & Trust and Bank of New York prior to founding Business First Bank in 2001. Two of her co-founders, Mike Pfau and Dr. Michael Behrman, are close friends who will also serve as her honorary directors for Fiesta, along with Pfau’s wife, Aleisa.
“I love the people I work with. I really do,” said Funari, who includes in that group both her banking colleagues and her philanthropic cohorts, of which there are many. In addition to Old Spanish Days, she also sits on the boards of the Santa Barbara chamber, the Santa Barbara Downtown Organization and the UCSB Economic Forecast Project; is president of SBCC’s Continuing Education Advisory Council; co-chairs the South Coast Business & Technology Awards Committee; and was appointed to the Santa Barbara County Finance Committee by 1st District Supervisor Salud Carbajal.
“I’m very involved in the community,” said Funari, in what has to be the understatement of the year. “I’ve always been involved with this community and I love it.”
Inspired by the “resilience, camaraderie and strength of our community,” she plans to honor local firefighters and law enforcement at each Fiesta event.
For example, in a characteristic way of combining fun with community, at the July 31 Recepción de La Presidenta at Fess Parker’s DoubleTree Resort, Funari plans to have traditional mariachis entertain, as well as Santa Barbara police Sgt. David Gonzales singing “God Bless America” and dancing to deejay Gavin Roy.
“You’ve got the whole spectrum,” she laughed. “It’s going to be very entertaining.”
In addition to choosing the theme for Fiesta, as la presidenta, Funari also selected the poster. Out of almost 40 “really wonderful” entries from local artists, she chose Laura Jespersen’s acrylic painting “Celebrate with Cascarones!” to be made into the official 2011 Fiesta Poster. All of the juror’s choice artwork is on display at Casa De la Guerra, 15 E. De la Guerra St., from noon to 4 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
This year, Funari also decided to commission a second poster, based on Kay Neola McWilliams’ acrylic painting “Hattie,” as a limited edition honoring Hattie Feazelle, the 100-year-old grande dame of Fiesta who has ridden on horseback in every one of the 87 historical parades. Feazelle will also be this year’s parade grand marshal.
“Hattie came to the La Primavera party and she was autographing her poster and it was so cute,” said Funari. “She’s adorable.”
Since they were going to be spending so much time together for Old Spanish Days, Funari and her husband have also gotten to know Spirit of Fiesta Marisa Leon Haro and Junior Spirit of Fiesta Anais Crespo Peña.
“They are awesome and their families are great,” said Funari. “We’ve done a couple of things. We went to a baseball game together. It was fun. They are great girls and they are just totally awesome. They are great dancers.”
Funari loves the dancing and is looking forward to La Fiesta Pequeña, “The Little Fiesta,” which officially opens Old Spanish Days on Aug. 3 on the steps of the Santa Barbara Mission.
“It’s really the coolest thing, and to see all of the performers at their best,” Funari said. “This is the 225th anniversary of the Mission, too, so this is a huge celebration.”
Celebración de los Dignatarios, on Aug. 4, is also a favorite event.
“I’ve been on that committee for a very long time … with the (Santa Barbara) Zoo people and Old Spanish Days, and it’s just one of those committees that we work so well together and we just know what to do,” she said. “Plus, it’s great seeing everybody having so much fun and really enjoying it.”
Born and raised in New York, Funari is still a diehard Yankees fan.
“Whenever the Yankees are in the playoffs, we travel to the playoffs,” she said. “We just hop on a plane and go.
“That’s kind of one my bucket list things, to go to every single American League stadium,” she added. “I’ve got about half of them done now.”
But with playoff season far in the distance and with Fiesta just two weeks away, Funari plans to stick close to home and hopes others will, too.
“I really hope that locals would be excited to stay and do a staycation this year because we have so much fun stuff and such a variety of things to do for everybody,” she said.
Funari’s son, Ryan, is home from college for the summer, too — during the year he studies guitar at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston — and although he won’t be playing for Fiesta, she hopes to entice him to ride alongside her in El Desfile Histórico, the main parade on Aug. 5.
“Not many people know this but probably one of the coolest things I’ve ever done was perform in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade,” Funari said. While she was in high school, she performed as a rifle twirler to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
“It was really exciting, right up there with riding the floats in the Fiesta Parade,” she said. “We live in such a great area; that’s why I chose the theme Celebrate Santa Barbara. I am really happy and very thankful to be here.”
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» Click here for a previous Noozhawk Talks column with 2010 El Presidente Michael Dominguez.
» Click here for a previous Noozhawk Talks column with 2009 El Presidente Anthony Borgatello.
— Noozhawk contributing writer Leslie Dinaberg can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter: @LeslieDinaberg.