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Monday, December 17 , 2018, 2:18 am | Fair 52º


Annual French Festival Draws Happy Crowds

Oak Park becomes home of Bastille Day for a South Coast tradition of food, fun, dancing and more food

Thousands gathered at Oak Park on Saturday, some dressed in traditional French garments — including berets — for the 22nd annual French Festival celebrating Bastille Day, the French version of Independence Day.

“For two days a year, Oak Park becomes a province of France,” event director Steve Hoegerman said. “It’s the biggest French celebration in the western United States.’‘

The festival attracts about 20,000 people for the two-day event, Hoegerman said. Of those, about a third are visitors to the region, he said.

At least one of those visitors was pleased with the festival.

“I take my hat off to him for keeping this going at this magnitude,” attendee Retta Etchegaray said of Hoegerman. “We didn’t know what to expect, and we were really impressed.”

The festival features traditional French dance and music, face painting and jump houses for the children, vendors selling anything from sunglasses to shoes, wine and, of course, a large selection of French food.

“I had some French food; the food was good,” said Rudy Gonzales, who also thought the crepes were “excellent.” Crepes are a French staple, and can be filled with fruit, vegetables or meat.

Ray Jones agreed, adding that he liked that the fresh crepes were “made right in front of you.” Jones was pleased with the festival overall, but did suggest that a visitors map could be beneficial next year.

“Every year we get a little more polished,” Hoegerman said.

Because of the downturn in the economy, the festival has lost some major corporate sponsors, such as Air France, which used to donate air fare, said Cherif Khoury, coordinator for the Eiffel Tower stage. However, the event itself is one of Santa Barbara’s most enduring traditions, and year after year draws big crowds.

“This makes the gears of the economy turn in these times,” Hoegerman said, referring to how the festival affects tourism in Santa Barbara.

Saturday was the first of the festival’s two days, and featured a variety of entertainment, including Tahitan dance and the very popular Femmes Fatales Drag Revue, assistant festival director Samantha Sheppard said. “For free entertainment, this is really a fabulous event,” she said.

Also on stage Saturday were French Polynesian dancers and French Moroccan Tribal belly dancers, Hoegerman said. The dancers regularly attract big audiences, and this year’s festival was no exception.

Claudia Lopez, 11, dances during a show at the French Festival on Saturday
Claudia Lopez, 11, dances during a show at the French Festival on Saturday. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

“I particularly liked the entertainment,” Etchegaray said. “It was really amazing.”

One of Saturday’s most popular attractions was painting of Mona Lisa minus her head so that guests could snap photographs of friends and family members with their heads in the painting. Nearly 400 adults, babies — and even dogs — took advantage of the photo opportunity, Sheppard said.

Temperatures in the upper 80s didn’t dampen festival-goers’ enthusiasm, with most seeming to enjoy the sun.

“What heat?” Howard Lim asked. “There’s no heat; it’s just great weather.”

Gonzales, a native of McAllen, Texas, said that last week, temperatures reached 109 degrees in his home state. “I had to wear a windbreaker here,’’ he said.

Assembling the stages and booths for the festival takes just a day to put together and then be dismantled, Hoegerman said. “It’s like fireworks; they’re gorgeous for a moment, then they’re gone,” he said.

Anyone who missed Saturday’s festivities will get another opportunity when the festival resumes at 11 a.m. Sunday.

Noozhawk intern Kenny Lindberg can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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