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Fish, Chips and Nostalgia in Costa Mesa

The Lions Club fish fry, revived last year, is back on a roll, organizers say. The event takes some in the community back to a simpler time.

June 07, 2004|David Reyes and Dave McKibben | Times Staff Writers

In the 1960s and '70s, Costa Mesa's annual fish fry meant marching bands, Hollywood stars and floats parading down Harbor Boulevard and tens of thousands of visitors from throughout Southern California flocking to town.

"If you were a kid," said Costa Mesa Councilman Mike Scheafer, "the two greatest things in our lives for the summer were getting out of school and fish fry."

Three years ago, though, because of the aging membership of the Lions Club -- which organized the event -- a lawsuit and increased costs for police, the fish fry came to an end.

But last weekend, a revived fish fry returned for the second year in a row.

Though bands no longer march down the street, there was a carnival, and a rock band entertained Sunday as families munched on battered fish and cole slaw.

Organizers realize the fish fry will never again close down Harbor Boulevard and attract crowds from all over the region, but they do think that as word gets around, it will continue to grow.

Saturday, lines went almost out to the street at Lions Park, and organizers sold more than 1,500 fish-and-chips dinners for $7 each and ran out of corn on the cob.

"I think we're back on a roll," Scheafer said.

Lions Club member Irvin Kinney said that like high school football games, the fish fry is one of the few events that still bring the town together.

"Everything is so fast-paced now," he said. "Both parents are working. Everybody is so busy with their daily lives they usually don't have time for this sort of thing. It's nice seeing people stop and mill around a bit."

The fish fry has served as the major fundraiser for the Newport Harbor-Costa Mesa Lions Club during the event's 58 years. In the old days, the club would earn more than $100,000 from the fish fry, said Jim de Boom, another Lions Club member.

Despite the success, growing costs led to cutbacks. In 1998, the Lions fried the fish but dumped the parade when the city asked for $20,000 for police protection, permits and related fees.

The final blow came when the Lions paid $15,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by a woman who broke her ankle at Orange Coast College when the fish fry was held there, Scheafer said.

"That took the motivation and the steam out of it for us," he said.

But after no fish fry for two years, the Lions tried again.

"We decided the community needed this thing, and we needed to do it," Scheafer said.

The fish fry has been revived not only for nostalgic reasons, but also because it's a fundraiser for community projects. This year, Schaefer said, the two-day event should bring in about $50,000 that the Lions will donate to the City of Hope, the Boys & Girls Club, Costa Mesa Little League and other civic groups.

"I thought it was wrong to cancel it," said Cindy Rodriguez, 48, of Costa Mesa, who became a fish fry regular in the mid-1970s. "The Lions Club works for the community, and it's the community that makes the city."

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