Getting Into the Spirit of OB Street Fairs – Looking Back at the Street Fair of 2009

by on June 24, 2015 · 0 comments

in Culture, Economy, Environment, History, Media, Ocean Beach

OB Street Fair 2013 TomC longview

Looking down Newport towards the OB Street Fair. Most photos by Tom Cairnes

We’re getting into the swing of things like street fairs and chili cook-offs. In an effort to get into the spirit of this weekend’s OB Street Fair of 2015, we decided to conjure up the spirits of a Street Fair of yesteryear, the 2009 annual OB festival down Newport.

OB Street Fair 2013 TomC stview

You want some confusion, The text is about the OB Street Fair of 2009, these photos are from the fair of 2013, and we’re about to have the 2015 fair.

Six  years ago, the OB Rag – in conjunction with the OB Mainstreet Association, published a series of articles about different aspects of the yearly tradition, giving extensive coverage to the musicians, the street vendors, the trolley, the chili cook-off, and where all the money came from and went.

Plus some history – was the OB Street Fair of 2009 the 30th as was officially claimed or was it the 28th as one of the founders of the tradition claimed?

The OB Rag published 18 different articles or posts – including a couple of just photos – and actually won an award that year from the Mainstreet Association for our coverage.

OB Street Fair 2013 TomC ChiliCook The OB Street Fair of 2009

The Chili Cook Off

Some background on BBQ Chili – from Doug Porter’s Some Like It Hot – Getting Ready for the OB Chili Cook Off by Doug Porter

Why All The Fuss?

We have no idea. But Chili Cook Offs are a really big deal in the United States.

One of the two groups that sanction these events (the OB event is not sanctioned) has 38 Cook Offs listed for California in 2009. Chiliheads are a cantankerous bunch, rarely agreeing on much of anything except for their love of what Texans call “A Bowl of Red”.

The first recorded event, according to author Linda Stradley at the website What’s Cooking America, was at the Texas State Fair in 1952, when Mrs F.G. Ventura of Dallas was crowned the first ever “World Champion Chili Cook.” She retained that title for 15 years.

The event that launched the Chili Cook Off phenomena as we now know it took place in 1967 Terlingua, Texas. This seminal event was actually a competition between two writers, one of whom had penned an article for Holiday Magazine boasting this his chili recipe was better than anything that was currently being served in Texas. The recipe included beans, which offended many Texans, and the scene was set for a showdown in a remote mining town, located nearly 300 miles from the nearest commercial airport, to discourage non-Texans from attending.

The competition ended in a tie, when the tie breaking judge spit out his chili, declaring that his taste buds were “ruint”, declaring that they would have to re-do the event next year.

According to Sports Illustrated coverage of this historic showdown, the judge was given a spoonful of chili which he promptly spit out…

“Then he went into convulsions. He rammed a white handkerchief down his throat as though he were cleaning a rifle barrel, and in an agonizing whisper…pronounced himself unable to go on.”

And for those of you who think that chili is somehow a Mexican invention, we refer you to the 1959 edition of Diccionario de Mejicanismos, which defines the stuff thusly:

“Detestable food passing itself off as Mexican, sold in the US from Texas to New York.”

For more cool stuff about chili, visit:

OB Street Fair 2013 TomC OBTC Here’s more on chili and the cook-off itself:

By OB Rag Staffer

It’s that time of year again when things really heat up in OB. It’s the Annual Chili Cookoff. It was another perfect day, the kind of day we take for granted in OB. But the heat wasn’t in the air. It was inside the bubbling kettles heating up over propane flames.

Not many foods can give you the same rush as a bowl of hot chili. The sting of the heat and the pleasure of the savory taste combine for a sensory explosion with every bite. You take a big spoonful of chili, your mouth starts to burn with quick heat, your head sweats and your eyes water, then the afterburner kicks in with the delayed creeper heat, you grab for a gulp of something cold, catch your breath, then you do it all over again. Deadly good stuff.

The Chili Cookoff took place at the lawn on Abbott Street just south of the Lifeguard Tower. There were about 25 booths set up around the perimeter of the lawn. The booth designs ran from plain to fancy and everything in between. Walking around as the chili cooked, the aromas were incredible. I spoke with some of the teams before the tasting started at 11:00. As soon as the tasting started, long lines started to form and the crowds moved in. At some point, it was hard to tell which line I was in, but it didn’t matter, it was all good.

The chili that I tasted was all very good, not a dud in the bunch. There were a variety of flavors and textures and styles. A few teams had both vegetarian and meat versions of their chili. (Being a carnivore, I chose the meat.) One thing that surprised me was that none of the samples I tasted were excessively hot. All had a nice, pleasant “zing” to them. They ranged from mild to what I would call medium heat, but none sent me frantically grabbing for water.

By around 1:00 some of the teams were starting to run out of chili and the crowd began to thin out. About that time my tastebuds were starting to cry Uncle, so I gave them a break. I couldn’t get into the Beer Garden with my backpack, so I went for a large lemonade at the foot of Newport and walked out the pier. The winners were announced at 4:00 at the pier stage. By then I was getting tired and sunburned and craving a beer, so I walked back home. It was one of the most enjoyable days I’ve had in a long time.

The Chili

Competition Chili is different from the ordinary Chili con Carne with Beans that you might cook up for dinner. To be strict, competition chili would consist of a smooth sauce with cubes of meat and no beans. There is even an organization called the International Chili Society (or ICS) that promotes chili and chili competitions, and sets the judging standards. But this is OB, and we’ve never been known for following somebody else’s rules. It’s chili, have fun with it. The ICS website is located at

Representatives from the Health Department were on site to make sure the chili was kept hot enough and prepared under healthy conditions. A Hot (Chili) Time in OB – The Winners!

 OB Street Fair 2013 TomC viewpierThe Vendors

OB Rag writers took a couple of different looks at the vendors. Here’s what Lane Tobias concluded:

As I walked down the street, scribbled some notes in my notepad, and put on my party hat, I couldn’t help but think of how unique the OB Street Festival really is.

When you attend expecting to get drunk, listen to music, and have a good time, it is very easy to overlook all the people that make the scene what it is. Obviously, those who organize this event have it down to a science, and the OBMA should be commended for running such a clean, tight ship.

In the end, however, it is the vendors and the connections they make to the attendees who give the street festival its distinctly “OB” vibe. At a time when many people are struggling to get by, there was definitely a lot of people spending money that they probably don’t have. By providing an atmosphere where people can feel comfortable enough to forget about their troubles, the event is bound to be a success.

Whether or not every vendor goes home with a profit, at least they can say they were a part of something bigger than dollars and cents. As people in OB have been saying for the last thirty years, there’s always next year. Vendorland at the Fair – Street Level by Lane Tobias

 The vendors take risks. Here’s what writer Frank Gormlie surmised:

By now I believed I had a sense of what was going on, the risks for the vendors. They had to make their initial investment and then some to make it all worthwhile.  Granted, I had talked to the vendors between 2 and 3 pm, not at the end of the day, not after they had counted their take.  Perhaps there had been a surge in the late afternoon. They were going to be up for another 5 hours or so, which gave them hope.

And granted, my take on everything was obviously not scientific. But to hear every vendor I spoke to who had been at the OB Street Fair in 2008 say things were slower and there weren’t as many people at the Fair was definitely a telling account of the economic side of things. This could have all been predicted, I guess, but to hear it from the vendors’ own mouths was another thing.

One vendor asked me, how I was doing financially compared to last year, as a comparison. We both agreed we had less money to spend. “I don’t go out to movies anymore,” he said, “and don’t eat out as much.” I understood.

These are sad times – sad times for the vendors on the street, sad times for their potential customers who don’t have as much money as they used to.  Yet, no one was crying. It was a street fair, don’t forget. People seemed happy – except for that one woman vendor sitting alone amongst her hand-stitched skirts.  The glow on the faces of those walking by, and the sights and sounds waffling in the air told me I was still in OB Enchanted Land. The Lot of the Street Fair Vendor in OB Enchanted Land by Frank Gormlie

OB Street Fair 2013 TomC dancingThe Music and Musicians

‘We all had a great time’ – musically speaking – at the OB Street Fair by Dave Gilbert

The Trolley – and Tales

Writer Anna Daniels and her beloved Rich Kacmar took the trolley to the fair and began their report with this:

9:30 am. We arrived at the Sea World Drive parking lot shortly after Gary GIlmore had opened the gate-with bolt cutters. Gary says this has become an annual tradition. The gate is never opened by the City as planned and Gary has learned to never leave home on this day without the OBMA bolt cutters. Two shiny Old Town Trolleys were waiting there as the trolley drivers, Curly and Kaye marked off the boarding area with orange cones.

Curly is a veteran of this event. I told him that I had heard that the drivers were entertaining and part of the fun of the fair. He shot me a smile as he moved cones around and quipped “You got to be kind of silly to do this work in the first place.” Kaye, this year’s “rookie” driver was looking forward to the day ahead.

There weren’t many cars in the lot yet, but the trolley was almost completely filled when we left on the first run of the day to OB. Curly asked “How many of you are going to the OB Street Fair for the first time?” Hands shot up. “Where are you from?” “Mississippi.” “San Antonio.” “Eastgate, Los Angeles.” “Indiana.”

When Curly heard “Indiana,” he said “These trolleys are on a John Deere tractor base.” The family from Indiana knew the Deere’s and called up one of them on the spot to relay this piece of information. A small world–but I don’t want to paint it.  Trolley Tales – OB Street Fair 2009 by Anna Daniels

Behind the Scenes

Writer Doug Porter went behind the scenes and filed this report:

For the dozens of volunteers that made the OB Street Fair happen, the day started early. On Saturday morning, round about 3 am, as the last stragglers are headed home from the bars, the volunteers made their way out into the streets of Ocean Beach. Friday nights frivolities made way for Saturday mornings’ sober realities. First up on the agenda, getting last night’s leftovers out of the way. There was trash to be picked up and cars to be towed so the booths and stages can be set up.

stfair09wirehangtenchiliEvery year, the Street Fair Committee puts up more and better signs trying to warn people that their cars need to be gone by 2 am Saturday morning. And every year there’s some people that don’t get the message. This year was no exception, with a really nasty confrontation taking place in the wee hours of the morning between Committee staff and a resident. Tempers flared. Words that everybody later wished could be taken back were spoken. And then it was over.

Stages were brought in, streets were blocked off and the next wave of volunteers came rolling in shortly after sunrise. Behind them came the early bird vendors, mostly people who work street fairs and other big events for a living. In sharp contrast to the tension in the air earlier, a jovial atmosphere prevails, a kind of silent solidarity shared by people who spend their lives ahead of the curve.

Thirty years of putting on an event has given these Obceans some perspective on planning. Check lists are made and used. New comers to the effort get a healthy dose of mentoring. Cell phones have replaced two way radios as the preferred means of communication. By 9 am things start to get chaotic as later waves of vendors begin to clog Newport Avenue. Ninety minutes later, all the pieces are in place, seemingly in defiance of the laws of human nature.

I’ve been lurking on the “inside” for a few weeks now, hanging out with some of the OBMA (Ocean Beach Main Street Association) staffers and volunteers that actually run the show. Their level of dedication and ability to focus on the issues at hand has been nothing short of amazing. The Monday evening organizing meetings, where over a dozen committee chairs made reports and “challenges” were discussed, started promptly at 6pm and were finished in under an hour. It was amazing. There were few, if any, personal agendas being pushed, and it was all about getting it done. One hour meetings…amazing!

Putting together the OB Street Fair is like putting together a giant jigsaw puzzle, except that each of the pieces of that puzzle has an “opinion”. The smooth operation of the Street Fair, despite a constant stream of challenges and distractions is a testament to the dedication of the people who ran the organization. And, although they would be the last to highlight this fact, a large majority of those people happened to be women. Coincidence? I think not. (I’d list names here, but the fear of omitting any of the valuable contributions made by these Obceans has prevailed as I penning this.)

Having said all this, I did see the opportunity for the energy generated by these folks to do even more good for our community. They’ve got the basics covered, ranging from an efficient re-cycling program to providing (short-term) employment for some of our most disadvantaged residents. The need to put on and event that is more than just a short term economic opportunity for the OB community is something that can and should be addressed in future years. It Isn’t News When Mostly Good Things Happen at the OB Street Fair by Doug Porter

Photos and Photos

OB Street Fair: Da Bomb – Photos and More Photos! OB Street Fair 2009

Finally – the Money

Gary Gilmore wrote a 2 part series about all the money behind putting on the street fair. In his intro first piece, he said:

There’s more to our little Street Fair than chili, music, beer & good times. What makes this whole extravaganza tick is money. That’s right, crass as it may seem, it’s money that makes the Street Fair go ‘round. OB Street Fair: SHOW ME THE MONEY!! by Gary Gilmore

OB Street Fair 2013 TomC stfairNext, he laid it all out:

The rockets’ red glare is gone. The echoes of the bombs bursting in air have faded. The volleys of  marshmallows have been put to rest for  another year. It’s time for an accounting. Where did all the money go?  At the risk of tainting the innocent pleasure that our fireworks bring  to the happy hordes of revelers that flock to our little beach town on this holiday I’m going to tell you what they cost.

Twenty five grand. $25,000.

In the span of time that it takes to have a leisurely stroll to the end of the pier and back twenty five thousand dollars was launched into the sky to bring a climax to a local tradition that is now 30 years old.  This display is brought to you by the revenues generated by the annual OB Street Fair. While a healthy chunk of change was raked in, it took a lot of bucks to pull it off.

The first chunk of change goes to the city of San Diego. Right around $1600.00 goes for the permits to use the parking lot s on SeaWorld Drive and the Robb Field parking lot.

There is a special event permit and, in order to get the permit it’s necessary to show that there will be a whole lot of security. That means $20,800 to the police and fire department and, another $4,000 for private security.

Then there’s clean up. You show me 70,000 happy fair goers and the food they consume and I’ll show you a lot of sticky streets and sidewalks. It costs $2,800 to do the job right. By doing it right I mean that all the water used is captured and recycled. Nothing goes down the storm drains.

If you want the hungry hordes to show up you have to advertise. In all fairness to City Beat, The Beacon & Sophie FM 103.7 they gave us great discounted rates but, it still cost somewhere around $8,000 to 9,000.

Of course the gave terrific coverage at NO COST WHATSOEVER and was glad to do it.

Once the hungry hordes were satiated with food and drink they wanted to be entertained and entertained they were!

37 local bands and musicians worked 5 stages and they played their hearts out all day long. The bands were great and again, in all fairness to the musicians, they gave us terrific rates. Still, a whole lot of well deserved dollars were forked out to the bands.

Along with the bands come sound systems, stages, stage hands (many of them locals), electricians (local), banners, programs, T shirts (Thank you James Gang) and transportation.

Then there’s the not so glamorous stuff like portapotties, a crew to keep the trash under control, another crew to keep the tables and chairs clean and, a recycling crew.

The insurance for this one day event costs in the ballpark of $3,000.

After all the checks have been written and, if everything has gone very well, there is some left over and that goes towards steam cleaning the sidewalks, emptying the trash containers (the City doesn’t do it), maintain the landscaping (The City wanted $15,000 to repair an irrigation system. Local plumber did it for $2,000), replacing trash can lids and painting out graffiti along with a lot of other little stuff.

Why do all this work for a 30 minute firework display? After all, we can see fireworks on just about any given night of the year if we look towards SeaWorld around 9:50 pm.

Well the OB show is more than a firework display. Ask any of the dozens of devoted volunteers who work insane hours without complaint and they’ll tell you that our fireworks are part of our identity. Events like this marry the residents to the community. It’s money well spent.  Show Me the Money – Part II – Where Did the Street Fair Money Go? by Gary Gilmore

Was the 2009 Street Fair the 30th or the 28th?

And again, finally, Mike James has the final say

As co-chair of the first Street Fair, I must set the record straight. This year’s [2009] 30th Annual Street Fair is actually the 28th.

The first street fair which took place July 4th, 1982 and was an expansion of the Fireworks Festival which began in 1980 (hence the 30th annual).

Sponsored by the Ocean Beach Merchants Association and KPRI Radio, the event was held on the 4900 and 5000 blocks of Newport Ave. With no vendors and a crowd in the hundreds, it seemed somewhat bare compared to the hundreds of vendors and the tens of thousands that show up now a days.

The venue included a few rides, a stage for the 4 bands and a 40’×80? metal fence encased “Beer Garden”.

Still fun was had by all.

My favorite memory was the mechanical bull which was situated right in front of the Strand Theater. I can still hear the amplified Texas twanged voice of the bull operator as he encouraged the crowd, “Whose gonna ride this here bull in Oceeean Beeeeach Calli-forn-ya.” Urban Cowboy had just been released and Obcieans wanted to give John Travolta a run for his money. So with long hair a flyin, many earned the title of “O.B. Buckaroo”.

The most popular event that day was the competition for the coveted title of Miss and Mister O.B. In the late afternoon, bikini clad ladies and muscular men strutted their stuff in front of hundreds of adoring fans. With no Q and A, winners were quickly chosen and the audience and contestants poured back into the bars.

Another highlight was a martial artist breaking a world’s record by breaking something like 5 blocks of ice with his bare hands. I believe the ice was later used for Margaritas at Le Chalet.*

Much was learned by the committee that first year. I recall pushing a broom up and down Newport Avenue at ten o’clock that evening (while cursing my co-chair and brother Ron who was entrenched at Pac Shores) and thinking next year we should hire a cleaning crew.

It’s satisfying to see that this event has become one of San Diego’s premier events.

*the Le Chalet later became Bullfrog’s and is currently Gallagher’s Irish Pub. Also the ice was never really used for human consumption    The First Ocean Beach Street Fair by Mike James

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