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FESTIVALS & EVENTS : Fulfilling Their Mission in Life

March 17, 1994|BENJAMIN EPSTEIN | Benjamin Epstein is a free-lance writer who contributes frequently to The Times Orange County Edition.

Every March 19, or St. Joseph's Day, for 61 years, San Juan Capistrano patriarch Paul Arbisco has rung the mission bells upon spotting the first cliff swallow on its migration north from Goya, Argentina.

Or at least the first swallow he sees in the mission that morning.

No matter that more of the birds return to other locations in the Capistrano Valley, or that just when they arrive is pretty hit-and-miss. When Arbisco, born in 1895, rings the bells, it signals the start of Swallows Day festivities.

Which is what everybody except the ornithologists is waiting for anyway.

"Swallows always return to the mission on Swallows Day," pointed out event organizer Brian McInerney. "So we rejoice. We rejoice especially this year because it falls on a Saturday."

The celebration at the mission features continuous entertainment on three stages, including Aztec and Juaneno dancers and flamenco guitarist Michael Olson. Mission School children will perform Mexican dances; docents will lead free half-hour tours, and the local Indian Council will teach bread baking, basket making and beadwork.

Visitors can converse with "Living History" characters and have photos taken with the six-foot-tall costumed character known as Big Swallow. Migrating south from Hollywood for the day are Tony Dow and Jerry Mathers of "Leave It to Beaver" fame, and Ruth Buzzi of "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In."

Raphael Rene will sing his father Leon's famous song, "When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano."

"The song that made the swallows' return famous was written in 1939," McInerney noted. "Before the '40s, the mission was the largest structure in the downtown area, so that's where the birds primarily came. As the town grew, they found other places to nest.

"Scouts have already been spotted as we wait for the official arrival," he added, thereby perpetuating another myth: a scout is any bird that arrives before March 19.

What: St. Joseph's Day/Swallows Day Celebration.

When: Saturday, March 19, from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Where: Mission San Juan Capistrano, Ortega Highway and Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano.

Whereabouts: Take the San Diego (5) Freeway to the Ortega Highway exit and head west.

Wherewithal: Adults, $4. Seniors, children 12 and under, $3. Children 3 and under, free.

Where to call: (714) 661-7117 or (714) 248-2049.

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