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With the Summer Olympic Games just around the corner, Santa Barbarans recently got an early sampling of international flair in their own backyard at the 24th Annual French Festival. The event took place July 14-15 at the City’s Oak Park and drew some 20,000 Francophiles for the two-day extravaganza that featured three stages of ongoing entertainment accompanied by French, Moroccan and Cajun cuisine during the celebration that traditionally falls around Bastille Day.

“The joint was officially jumping,” says Teri Ball, executive director of Center Stage Theater and French Festival director, of Saturday’s festivities which included the antics of a “French” Johnny Cash. Center Stage Theater, together with fellow non-profit Speaking of Stories, produced the festival for the first time this year. Started by Steve Hoegerman nearly a quarter-century ago, it looked as though it would come to an end when last year’s party was cancelled.

“After 24 years, he (Hoegerman) decided that he was tired and was ready for some new adventures,” explains Ball. According to Ball, Hoegerman attempted to sell the festival, but the deal fell through at the last minute, leaving little time to pull another one off. Festival weekend is normally buzzing with activity as locals are entertained with a variety of acts from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., with one stage dedicated to playing accordion music for the entire two days put on by the Accordion International Music Society.

Kicking off the festivities at the Moulin Rouge Stage on Sunday morning was the Historical Ballroom Dance Club of UCLA instructing folks of all ages on various dance steps such as the vintage tango, foxtrot and waltz. Meanwhile across the footbridge, the Montecito Jazz Project opened the Eiffel Tower Stage with their finger-snapping, head-bobbing array of tunes.

One of the more popular draws, the Famous Poodle Parade, takes place at the end of the weekend. “Poodles, big poodles, little poodles, wannabe poodles, dress your dog as a poodle, all come on out,” says Ball of the festival-closing spectacle of strutting canines. Another well-attended attraction, the Femmes Fatales Drag Revue, had so many participants that security had to thwart people from coming on to the stage, fearing it may collapse.

With its crepes, Belgian waffles, tri-tip, Le hot dogs and even the French delicacy of escargots, the event has a little something for everybody, which could be why it lures in hordes of people from all over. “We got calls from people in Pennsylvania saying that they were coming out,” says Ball, who for many years worked the beverage booths during past weekends.

Colorful displays of art, clothing and jewelry also add to the festival’s appeal. Although Oak Park has hosted a variety of other ethnic festivals over time, such as Greek, Thai and Jewish tributes, the French Festival may be its most popular. “I think the French have a way to celebrate life that seems to click with Santa Barbara,” affirms Ball. With her and her colleagues’ efforts, it looks as though Santa Barbarans will be able to throw their berets in the air in celebration near Bastille Day for many years to come.