When Steve Hoegerman first shared his idea of starting a French Festival in Santa Barbara's Oak Park, his friends started making jokes:
"Hey, for atmosphere, why don't you get the Eiffel Tower and stick it right in the middle of the park. Ha, ha, ha," Hoegerman said, remembering the teasing he received from his buddies.
"Why don't you get a bunch of those French poodles together and make a parade. Ha, ha, ha.
"So what's everyone gonna do at a French Festival? Stand around and be rude to each other?"
Hoegerman dismissed the last joke. "The Parisians do have a reputation of being curt," he said. "But stereotyping the French would be like one of them visiting New York and then saying that all Americans yell at each other."
He did take a keener interest in the other two jokes. And now the wooden Eiffel Tower and the poodle parade are two regular and whimsical features of the celebration.
The tower, about as tall as a two-story building, looms over the park, overseeing the two-day festival this weekend like a demure French ambassador. The other 363 days of the year, the structure is separated into three parts that Hoegerman stows in his mother's carport.
Along with the tower, other attractions at the third-annual Fete Francaise include French food and wine, folk singing and dancing, free French lessons and a display of classic and contemporary French cars. The poodle parade will run from 5 to 7 p.m. Sunday.
Last year, about 40 poodles attended, some in costume, some in styled coiffeurs, to do tricks or just promenade around the park.
"My favorite was this huge, black great dane that someone covered in crumpled up pieces of paper to make it look like it had a poodle cut. They called it 'Mademoiselle Pseudo Poodle," Hoegerman said in an accent achieved through years of study and travel.
Visitors to the event will have a chance to enjoy fine food and wine as 15 chefs from some of Santa Barbara's best French restaurants prove their talents. Customers can eat their meal at dozens of outdoor tables complete with umbrella and checkered tablecloths.
From that vantage point, they can view the colony of impressionist-style painters working at their easels; the mimes and jugglers wandering through the crowds; the models showing off the French flair for fashion, and can-can girls recalling the years when that style of dance was considered more risque than the lambada is today.
Hoegerman, who has a bloodline that classifies him as "marginally French, not enough to really count," started the event when no one else would. "The local French never started their own French festival," he said, "because they're so typically French."
While some people are viewing the antics of the poodle parade, others can enjoy the cavorting of the Cahoots improvisational comedy troupe, at 7:30 p.m. Sunday. Members invite suggestions from the audience and improvise scenes on the spot. Tickets are $6 and available in advance or at the door at Alhecama Theatre, 914 Santa Barbara St. (805) 962-8606.
For those wanting to frolic mid-week, mandolinist David Grisman and his new quintet will make their Santa Barbara debut tonight at the Victoria Street Theater, 33 W. Victoria St. Grisman, who composes and plays an acoustic sound known as "Dawg Music," has performed with such artists as James Taylor, Bonnie Raitt, and Dolly Parton. Tickets for the 8 p.m. show are $15 and available at Folk Mote Music (805) 962-0830, and Arlington Ticket Agency, (805) 963-4408.
* WHERE AND WHEN: The third-annual Santa Barbara French Festival will be celebrated Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. at Oak Park. Admission is free. For 24-hour information, call: (805) 568-5933. To register for the poodle parade, call (805) 569-1636.