Sibilant Surprise: Santa Barbara’s Safe Social Distance Summer Solstice Celebration

By Steven Libowitz   |   June 18, 2020
This year’s virtual Solstice theme is “Beautiful Earth” (photo by Robert Bernstein)

A lot of things seem impossible to produce during a pandemic, most assuredly a parade, especially one as perennially popular as Santa Barbara’s Solstice Parade and Festival, which draws crowds of more than 100,000 participants and spectators from town and all around. Held at high noon on the Saturday closest to June 21, Solstice (as the locals call it) is a day of pure delight, full of dancing, drumming and all sorts of imaginative arts, both human and papier-mâché, that moves and gyrates up State Street to arrive at Alameda Park for more partying on the longest day of the year.

Participants like Raven Wylde have sent in videos to partake in the virtual Solstice celebration (photo by Fritz Olengerger)

But even the most popular pagan ritual has given way to a pandemic, kowtowing to COVID-19 and stay-at-home orders that have only recently started being relaxed. So the in-person version has been nixed for 2020. But that doesn’t mean the local 
Solstice spirit has been squashed.

Indeed, the organizers decided to innovate and take this year’s theme of “Beautiful Earth” – which now seems even more appropriate as sheltering in place has led people to rediscover nature and let the planet begin to heal – into the online world. And while government orders to combat the novel coronavirus prevented activities at the Community Arts Workshop where normally in-house and ad hoc artists construct massive floats, produce life-sized puppets and concoct crazy costumes, a different approach took shape.

“There was no way we weren’t going to celebrate Solstice,” explained Ricardo Morrison, Solstice’s longtime artistic director. “So we had to come up with some way to have a parade when you can’t actually come together.”

Watch Claudia Bratton and other participants at high noon on June 20 on the Summer Solstice Celebration website (photo by Fritz Olengerger)

So this year’s parade features a pre-recorded roster of homemade mini-floats fashioned by regular folks from found objects or other paraphernalia – Morrison himself created a YouTube video showing how to construct one and then how to capture it with a mobile phone’s camera – which will be interspersed with individuals and ensembles celebrating at home or in parks (one even shot on the beach and in the water) plus a selection of still photos.

It’s the result of a call to action for participants to get creative for the virtual version that was answered enthusiastically.

“It’s been incredible, because we’ve received a lot of video submissions from artists, families, individuals, ensembles,” Morrison said. “It’s a lot of people who are normally part of the parade, and quite a few who are new.”

One of the unexpected results was hearing from past participants who no longer live in the area, including Laura Smith, who now calls St. Paul, Minnesota, her home, and receiving submissions from a foreign country.

“It’s a really wide spectrum, from professional stilt puppet makers in England to kids pushing a mini-float on the lawn,” Morrison marveled. “It’s truly capturing the spirit of Solstice in the variety of expressions of creativity.”

Among the contributors, Morrison said, are fire jugglers, drum ensembles, Brazilian capoeira dancers and an annual favorite in World Dance for Humanity.

“What they did was use a single piece of music and send it to each of the dancers who then filmed themselves,” he explained. “Some of them did the same choreography, while others just made up something else. But it’s all the same music. Then they put it together on the video, with the screen showing anywhere from one to six dancers at a time so you get that ensemble experience.”

This year’s Solstice poster artist Katreece Montgomery (photo by Fritz Olengerger)

The theme itself was responsible for attracting one newbie ensemble, Morrison said, as “Beautiful Earth” enticed an ecology group to submit a video. Another smaller ensemble actually recorded their video of dancing up State Street. “They were small enough so that they could do it while social distancing and, yes, they wore masks.”

Organizers also filmed a virtual opening with John Palminteri, the ubiquitous newsman who shows up every year, Morrison said. “We’re acting like we’re waving the parade floats out as we always do. We’re trying to keep as many elements of the parade as we can.”

Morrison himself participated in the final entry, the large drum ensemble that traditionally serves as the ending float. That took place a couple of weeks ago, organized by Pali X-Mano, who had to eschew his annual inflatable but instead offered everyone a chance to don costumes from previous parades.

It was filmed on State Street, but also in front of the Solstice mural behind the Granada Theatre in an impromptu decision. “It wasn’t in the original planning, but it turned out great, because we have the present parading in front of Solstice past,” Morrison said. “That was a beautiful overlap.”

Justin Gunn, the filmmaker and artist whose short film A Solstice in Santa Barbara that he made just a few months after moving to town and which premiered at SBIFF, also shot some video in front of the murals, including his own entry, a giant macaw that appears to swoop and fly.

“The whole concept is silly, it’s goofy, and it’s fun,” he said. “We really have no idea how it will turn out. But the point was to make an effort to continue to share the spirit of what the Solstice Parade embodies.”

The parade can be seen on Solstice’s new YouTube channel and stream live at high noon on June 20 on the Summer Solstice Celebration website. Other associated online events include a full slate of music, a virtual beer garden and dance party, screening of Solstice-related films, sales of Solstice swag, and “Solstice Stories” interviews with special guests. Visit


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