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JAUNTS: Ventura County

Gallic Gathering

Accordions, the cancan, escargot and a poodle parade will strike a chord for Bastille Day at 2-day Santa Barbara festival.


The weekend of Bastille Day is no ordinary weekend--and vive la difference.

In Santa Barbara, the 11th Annual French Festival converges on Oak Park on Saturday and Sunday with a potpourri of stuff Francais--vichyssoise to escargots, cancan to Chevalier, and, of course, the infamous poodle parade.

This is no tete a tete in the park. It's a freebie that yearly draws some 20,000 Francophiles intent on celebrating French independence (actually on July 14) with a certain je ne sais quoi.

This year's festival touts some new attractions. Half a dozen local accordionists will hold a jam session, knocking out Gallic melodies. Also, costumed messieurs et mesdames--including knights in shining armor--will re-enact tidbits of French history.

But the most, shall we say, extraordinaire of all is Les Femmes Fatales Drag Revue, half a dozen female impersonators who strut their stuff in "La Cage aux Folles" style.

"We're a bunch of guys who dress like women and lip-sync and dance," explained one member of the group who goes by the name BellaDonna or Pearl Necklace, depending on whether he is portraying Janis Joplin, Bette Midler, Barbra Streisand or Stevie Nicks.

Costumed to the hilt, the men perform individually at gay and straight bars in the Santa Barbara area under names like Buffy or Lady Love. For the French Festival, they pooled their talents. "We've put together a little show," he said. "We'll have a lot of French numbers, it'll have French attitude. We'll work our little buns off."

If it sounds a bit risque, check out the accordion group that calls itself La Grande Assemblee des Accordeons.

They'll do such old chestnuts as "The Poor People of Paris" and "C'est Magnifique," as well as some lively polkas and, naturally, "Cancan."

It wouldn't be much of a French festival without accordion music, and there's plenty of it at this one--so much, in fact, that one of the three entertainment stages is just for accordion music.

Anyone who thinks accordion music is, well, uncool, should chat with Nena Quiros who helped pull this group together. According to Quiros, Santa Barbara boasts an active club of 18 accordion players who meet monthly. And, in the San Fernando Valley, membership in another accordion club is booming.

"I think it's making a comeback," Quiros said. She remembers watching Lawrence Welk as a kid, and how, in those days, liking the accordion was like "admitting to someone you're a former drug addict. But now, the younger generation is real open to it."

If accordion music isn't your bag, singers will perform in the style of French legends Maurice Chevalier and Edith Piaf, and the entertainment lineup also includes Moroccan sword and belly dancers, cancan dancers, and roving mimes. The scene will be very French, with artists working at their easels. One artisan specializes in silhouettes, crafting portraits with scissors and paper. The Eiffel Tower will stand at the ready, and last year's new addition will return: an 8-foot-high working model of a guillotine. Classic French cars will also be on display.

"This is the only French celebration of any import in the Western U.S.," claimed Steve Hoegerman, festival organizer and founder. "The largest French population outside France is in the southwestern U.S."

Since the first festival here, the poodle parade has been a real draw. (It's scheduled Sunday at 5:30 p.m.) It started as a lark, but now the parade includes some 50 or 60 dogs, most of them poodles or wannabes.

"One year we had Mademoiselle Pseudo-Poodle, a Lab with crepe-paper puffs," he said. Another year it was a canine Napoleon, and around his neck was a picture of a bone broken in two--voila Bonaparte.


Santa Barbara French Festival will be Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., at Oak Park, Santa Barbara. (Take the Pueblo Street exit; park is at Junipero Street and Alamar Avenue.) Call (805) 564-PARIS.

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