INDIO — A little rock 'n' roll, a dash of country fair and a whole lot of casbah came to Indio on Friday, when the desert city opened its 42nd annual National Date Festival.
It's an unusual fair that celebrates the end of the harvest season of an unusual fruit. Where else could you watch camel and ostrich races, view a play based on "Tales of the Arabian Nights," take part in a tamale cook-off and bid on 600-pound hogs--all while sipping a date milkshake?
"We like to think we've got something for everybody, plus a little bit more," said festival spokesman Bill Arballo.
The fair, which runs through Feb. 21, is open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. General admission is $4, and $2 for children, ages 5-11. Children younger than 5 are admitted free.
The Arabian Nights Pageant will be held each evening at 6:45. This year's show is "Aladdin's Doom," in which an evil genie and Aladdin's greedy brother plot against the courageous prince to prevent him from marrying his beloved princess and inheriting the wealth of the great King Haroun al Rashid.
The pageant features a cast of about 100 local residents, plus camels, an elephant and other animals.
The All-American High Diving Team, magician Chuck Jones, the Shanachie, folk singers and the Mitchell Marionettes perform three times daily, as do several other artists. There's also a children's petting zoo and a working blacksmith's corner.
There are plenty of country fair features, including date and citrus displays, wood-carving booths, a gem and mineral show, and livestock and photography exhibits. The Farnum Brothers Circus presents big-top shows at 12:30, 3 and 5 p.m., and a carnival is open until midnight each night.
The festival will also feature several country music artists, plus rock groups that were popular in the '50s, '60s and '70s. Different singers and groups perform each day at 2:30 and 8 p.m.
Queen Scheherazade--also known as Crystal Brown, a 19-year-old marketing major at Riverside Community College--presides over the events, along with the rest of her royal court.
Special one-day events include:
--A daylong rabbit, poultry, dog and horse show today.
--The "Baghdad Bearderino" contest today at 11 a.m. Entrants wearing Arabian Nights costumes vie for awards for the longest, thickest, most colorful and most handsome beard.
--An Arabian Nights parade on Monday. The parade--with floats, animals, bands and a few belly-dancers--begins in downtown Indio at 10 a.m., marches past the fairgrounds and ends at a shopping center. Most festival-goers watch the parade first, then enter the fair.
--Kids' day, Feb. 19. Children younger than 12 are admitted free.
--A "diaper derby" for babies as old as 12 months at 3:30 p.m. next Saturday. "Theoretically, the parents put their kids on this long mat, and the babies are supposed to race to the other end," Arballo said. "But sometimes, the babies fall in love with whoever is racing next to them, and all they do is make goo-goo eyes at each other and drool."
--A junior livestock auction, 1 p.m. next Saturday. Cattle, sheep and hogs raised by children are auctioned. Proceeds help the youngsters offset cost of their projects or pay for part of their schooling.
To get to the festival from Los Angeles, drive east on the San Bernardino Freeway to the Monroe Street exit, turn right (west) and head toward Indio. When you reach California 111, turn left (east) and go two blocks to the fairgrounds between Oasis and Arabia streets. Parking is $2.