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KIDS & FAMILY

Getting within spitting distance

August 07, 2008|Elina Shatkin | Times Staff Writer

At the northern tip of the Crescenta Valley between the San Gabriel and Verdugo mountains, communities still take pride in living close to the land. An annual highlight is the Sunland-Tujunga Watermelon Festival, which starts Friday. Now in its 47th year, the watermelon fest remains a throwback to the farming life. "The best part of the story," however, according to Marynance Schellenbach, secretary of the local Lions Club that organizes the festival, is the event's origin.

Half a century ago, the Sunland-Tujunga Lions hosted an annual fundraiser in the Angeles National Forest that consisted of a fish fry and light gambling with roulette wheels and the like. "We were in sheriff's territory up there," Schellenbach says. "They knew what we were doing, but they turned a blind eye." That is, until someone lost too much money and lodged a formal complaint. The sheriff confiscated the gaming tables, put the kibosh on the casino night and filed formal charges against the club. "Fortunately, the judge was also a Lions member," Schellenbach continues. "He gave us a slap on the wrist, so we didn't have to do jail time."

But you can't keep a good Lion down for long. Like a phoenix from the ashes, the club took a slice from the popular annual watermelon festival hosted by Kingsburg, a small town in the center of the San Joaquin Valley, and rebounded with a melon fest of its own.

Back then, the Sunland-Tujunga Watermelon Festival was just games, carnival rides, a hot dog stand and free watermelon. This year, in addition to the free watermelon, the event includes live music, belly dancers, an international food court, ornate watermelon carvings by Anait Zadoyan and a pair of alpacas courtesy of Sunland's Twisted Lock Alpacas ranch. Also scheduled are hands-free watermelon eating contests (2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday), a children's bike race (3 p.m. Sunday) in which racers stop to eat a piece of watermelon at each end of the dragway, and the crowning of the Watermelon Festival queen.

A festival favorite is the highly competitive seed-spitting contest. A dollar buys you three seeds and a chance to step up to the "spitway." For a novice, a good spit is 15, maybe 20 feet, which hardly compares to the fair record of 45 feet, set last year by high school student Kyle Silos. And that's not even within spitting distance of the world record, 68 feet 9 1/8 inches, set in 1989 at Luling, Texas' annual Watermelon Thump. Beat that and you'll win a juicy $1,000.

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elina.shatkin@latimes.com

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Sunland-Tujunga Lions Club Watermelon Festival

Where: Sunland Park, 8651 Foothill Blvd., Sunland

When: 5-11 p.m. Friday, noon-11:30 p.m. Saturday, noon-10:30 p.m. Sunday

Price: $1

Info: (818) 298-1510; www.lions watermelonfestival.com

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