by Cheri Rae
With all the talk these days about Greek austerity measures, we Santa Barbarans can only wonder what could be going wrong in that ancient Mediterranean land. For most residents, the closest we ever get to Greece is the annual Santa Barbara Greek Festival held at Oak Park. It’s one of the most joyful weekends of the summer—an epicurean celebration of sumptuous foods, distinctive drinks, soulful music, lively dancing and memorable costumes.
And festival organizers assure us they’re not about to go all stoic on us this summer in Santa Barbara. A tradition for nearly 40 years, Santa Barbara Greek Festival won’t cut back on its 39th annual presentation of Greek food and culture to the community.
The festival originated in a fundraising brainstorming session with parishioners of St. Barbara Greek Orthodox Church, long before they built the remarkable Greek village sanctuary nestled into the Mediterranean foothill setting.
Longtime festival director Mike Pahos gives full credit to Helen Stathis for coming up with the idea that started it all. “She said, ‘You know, on the Saturday before Fiesta week, there are a lot of people here in town, because Fiesta starts on Sunday, but there is not much going on. Let’s have a little picnic at Oak Park; we will serve Greek food, have music and everything, and we will call it The Santa Barbara Greek Fiesta BBQ,’” Pahos recalls.
”The first festival was from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., and afterward, even though we all fell, exhausted, to the floor, we were pleasantly surprised that everyone seemed to enjoy the food, the singing and the dancing.”
That single fundraising barbecue grew into a major annual event for the parish, requiring months of preparation—including planning, publicity, cooperating with a maze of bureaucracies, cooking up old family recipes, and selecting and presenting an array of talent on two stages for two full days of non-stop entertainment. Add managing a small army of volunteers who run an assortment of booths—from the labor-intensive food line to the well-oiled machine that is the pastry booth, the boutique with fine jewelry and even the small chapel where religious items are offered—and the parishioners certainly have their work cut out for them!
Pahos notes an unexpected aspect of Santa Barbara at just the right time that helped ensure the success of the Greek Festival, “There was a very active folk dance community in Santa Barbara, and those dancers were a constant presence on the dance floor, which taught us a valuable lesson: never stop the music!” When the late, great Plaka Restaurant was founded—which featured owner George Alexiades performing his famous table dance—many Santa Barbarans learned the art and considerable fun of Greek dancing. And they couldn’t wait to show off their skill every summer at the Greek Festival.
The rest is history. The Greeks were joined by the Italian, the German, the Thai, the Chinese, the French, the Caribbean and the Jewish communities—all of which produced similar festivals at Oak Park. “Summer in Santa Barbara was filled with ethnic festivals, unique in the entire country,” says Pahos. “It was magic.”
The heyday of Santa Barbara’s ethnic festivals was a special time of unique collaboration among the festival chairs, who would meet once a month to share notes, work with the police and health departments and hammer out the many complex issues that arose in running their shows. They agreed to use local vendors whenever possible and freely exchanged vendor information with all at the table. As Pahos observes, “We never considered ourselves competitors, but part of a unique alliance; each of us could do better because of the grand scope of the different festivals, all at the same place.”
But for various reasons, one by one all of the ethnic festivals dropped out—though the French Festival will be back this year after a hiatus. Luckily the Greek Festival continues going strong. Planning has been underway for months—lining up talent, tweaking the menus, getting ready for the yearly bake-a-thon of baklava and other distinctive Greek treats.
Now that the original ethnic festival at Oak Park is one of the last ones standing, it has only strengthened the resolve of the younger generation to carry on the traditions founded by their parents. Pahos’s daughter Maria helps run the festival these days, and Helen Stathis’s daughters Patti and Karen take their places as singers on the entertainment stage—and since they were in elementary school, Stathis’s grandchildren have staffed booths and entertained as dancers, musicians and singers. Of course, they’ve been joined by hundreds of additional volunteers over the years—and this one is no different.
The ancient Greek Epicurus (342–270 B.C.) observed, “Not what we have, but what we enjoy constitutes our abundance.” So even if times are tough in the center of the Hellenic world, here in Santa Barbara, we can be Greek for the weekend at this classic family affair, July 28–29. No belt-tightening necessary—after enjoying all those Greek treats, it wouldn’t be possible anyway.