Reviving the Sausalito Art Festival

By Nora Sawyer, Sausalito Historical Society

As Art Festival weekend approaches, it’s good to recall that such festivities have been part of Sausalito for more than 60 years.  The history of the festival includes many intriguing stories, such as this one:

Enid Foster, standard bearer of the Sausalito artists’ colony in the 50s.  Photo courtesy of Sausalito Historical Society

Enid Foster, standard bearer of the Sausalito artists’ colony in the 50s.

Photo courtesy of Sausalito Historical Society

It was 5 AM on October 15, 1955, more than an hour before sunrise. Beneath the elephant statues in what is now Vina del Mar Plaza, shadows began to gather in the fog. First came a single figure, carrying “masses of bright cellophane furbelows, a number of short bamboo sticks and some long poles dangling paper fuchsias.” Another soon joined, and then another. Finally, at 5:30, the group, bedecked in colorful bows, started to move down Bridgeway, silently waving their bamboo wands and carrying poles between them.

1955 was a year without an Art Festival. For the first time since the Sausalito Art Center had begun sponsoring the festival in 1952, the group was unable to muster enough interest or volunteer power to pull it off. In July, the Center took a “vote of apathy,” cancelling the event.

Sausalito’s artists weren’t so apathetic. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that artist Enid Foster “became so appalled by the dark ages of practicality. . . she took vows to start a renaissance.” With other local artists, she put together an artist’s celebration much smaller and more diffuse than the Festival, with window displays around town showcasing local artists’ work. With all the participating artists serving as judges, one artist would be awarded “a perfect jackpot” of prizes from local merchants, including hosiery, a banana split from the Sausalito Drug Company Fountain, a box of Sausalito earth from a local realtor, and an assortment of cocktails from Sausalito’s bars and taverns.

To kick off the celebration, Foster proposed a parade. Her original idea called for a procession down Bridgeway on September 24th or 25th, led by a band or two. She envisioned painted banners representing the nine muses and lei-bedecked marchers carrying Japanese lanterns. After some consideration, the city council refused to grant a permit, citing the inconvenience of shutting down streets on a busy afternoon and the immutability of bus schedules.

Muralist Val Bleeker came up with a solution. If busy streets made an afternoon parade impossible, why not hold the parade at the “less conspicuous hour” of 5 AM?

After much discussion, the city council agreed, on the condition that the parade not disturb the early morning peace, and parade participants stay on sidewalks as much as possible. The celebration was also moved to mid-October.

And so, on the fog-bound morning of October 15th, a small group of artists, Sausalitans, and reporters assembled.

Foster took the lead as the parade’s grand marshal. Val Bleeker carried a sign reading “Silence! Genius at Work.” Everyone except abstract painter Serge Trubach sported colorful cellophane bows on their jackets. “Does everyone have a wand?” Foster asked. “Let us go forward then."

As they exited the Plaza, the group was joined almost immediately by a couple in red striped nightshirts. One, who identified himself to reporters as Gottleib Schmekinlipp, “wore a cedar bark hat in the Kwakiutl style.” His companion, Carol Potter, accessorized with an Australian helmet and “a cardboard mustache for effect.”

Now the parade commenced in earnest, heading south along Bridgeway. A lone spectator, Bert Pond, stood outside the Glad Hand restaurant (now Scoma’s), waving his wand aloft and softly crying “Yea,” as the revelers passed (“verily,” one marcher responded). Swede Pedersen, “his early morning pallor emphasized by his yellow cellophane bow,” escorted the parade in a fire truck, “a wand in one fist and a cigar in the other.”

Continuing south, the parade passed Sausalito Bait and Tackle Shop, crowded with fishermen. “Revel in that air,” Foster instructed. “It’s like champagne.”

The group narrowly escaped disaster while executing a turn on the municipal pier. With bamboo poles clashing, “bearers were obligated to teeter on the brink of disaster,” almost “dropping over the edge into the bay.”

In another tangle of poles, the group turned around at Richardson Street. The sun was rising, and the Chronicle reports that “fog and water met in a luminous backdrop as they walked along the seawall toward the plaza.”

Two young men “with very red eyes, but a respectable steady gait” joined the parade and were handed wands as the parade returned to the Plaza for photos. Afterwards, the group disbanded and “descended on the Bait Shop for refreshments and appropriate exchanges of congratulations.”

Some weeks later, Enid Foster recounted the parade in verse for the Sausalito News:

So into darkness, one by one,
Go marchers to the lightless park
’Round which the bugle street lamps blaze.

Out of the charcoal dark they come—
Embargo's brood—

Not to avenge
But reconcile the artist with
The populace.