• Otter Views: Where Queen Topaz Reigns

    As the last skyrockets boomed and flared over Monterey Bay, each bright flash fixed a fleeting image in the mind’s eye. One burst lit hundreds of sky gazers huddled on a crazy-quilt of tarps laid across the beach. Above them, a thousand more cheered from cliff tops, car windows, sea-view balconies.

    Another flash gave momentary presence to the sightseeing fleet becalmed offshore. As streaks of fire dwindled overhead, the sloops and fishing boats seemed to dematerialize as well, fading to dotted outlines on a kelpy cobalt sea.

    A final fusillade cast hot blues, pinks and greens over the stone boat ramp that had hosted the day’s festivities. As the colors sizzled out, retinal after-images lingered: bands playing, ethnic troupes dancing, royals crowned, and a legend reenacted.

    All week at work, visitors asked about the colorful lanterns hung all over town. After many recitations, I managed to whittle my novice historian’s account down to three minutes, but that left a lot out. I realized I was dwelling on the parts I enjoy – the sidewalk chalk drawings, the beach volleyball, the graciousness of the royal court, and the sea dragon that snorts like a fire extinguisher.

    Among the verities I couldn’t manage to convey was the town’s abiding affection for this long-running event. That finally clicked during the run-up to Saturday’s pageant, when the announcer introduced princesses and queens from prior Feast years.

    As each name was called, the former royal court members did a graceful, spot-lit promenade along the causeway. The announcer recited their festival roles and years, subsequent life achievements, current home towns, and favorite Feast activities. An impressive number of past princesses and queens had returned for the 2014 event, and the crowd applauded each one warmly.

    That’s when the singular history of the whole thing finally sank in. Pacific Grove is probably the only town in America – maybe the world – where someone can truthfully say “I was Princess Amethyst” or “I was Queen Topaz” and receive an enthusiastic welcome.

    I’ve lived in hard-nosed big cities where a likelier response would be: “Right, and I’m Winston Churchill.” Even self-actualized places like Santa Cruz or Maui, home of many “Windsongs” and ”Cloud Dancers,” might treat a Princess Ruby mention as a pretext for past-life one upmanship.

    “Well, I was Cleopatra,” one respondent might sniff.
    Then her friend would put in: “But I was Cleopatra before you.”
    And a third would add: “I’m still Cleopatra.”

    Thankfully, in PG the former princesses and queens needn’t contend with any of that. Instead, they are honored for their many contributions to the festival and for being essential players in a long and cherished tradition.

    I had a chance to photograph the 2011 Feast of Lanterns for an earlier PG paper. Being a thorough sort back then, I tried to get to all the events, of which there were (and are) many. I still missed a few.

    My lantern week started one Saturday at the Natural History Museum, which hosted a sweet afternoon of folk music, lantern-making, face-painting and sidewalk chalk drawing. Next up was a midweek ceremony held in a breezy mini-park with tori’i gates and origami cranes dancing from twine. A teenage girl shooting video of the proceedings wore a much-coveted black satin jacket lettered: “Queen’s Sister, 2011.”

    At the five festival events I attended, Queen Topaz and the princesses Amethyst, Ruby, Pearl and Turquoise were absolutely stellar. Thronged by children, beset by admirers, pulled upon by factotums of the public and the press, they discharged their duties with grace, kindness, patience and boundless energy.

    I was to see these royals twice on Friday, first at a whimsical pet parade; later at an all-comers DJ dance in historic Chautauqua Hall. To me, both events seemed well-attended and upbeat, but the parade had a slight edge. Where else can you see laughing ballerinas pulling bowls of goldfish in a wagon?

    Saturday’s finale was a feast for the senses. Fragrant smoke from many cuisines mingled in mid-air with children’s shouts and seagull squawks. Volleyballs smacked sand all afternoon as old friends gathered for beach ball and a courtside cookout then in its 32nd year. (For the 2014 edition, the v-ball group added a cotton candy spinner).

    This past Saturday as in 2011, marvelous entertainment pulsed across the water from the cement pier. I recall among many well-amplified acts several excellent cover bands, soulful pianist Michael Martinez and a team of high-octane jazz dancers.

    Then came the promenade of past royalty and The Legend of Blue Willow, complete with fawning courtiers, Asian dancers, fog-snorting dragon, and stirring rowboat getaway. J.R. Rouse then treated everyone to an eye-popping fireworks finale, and Saturday ended with a shuffle of thousands of tired but happy feet.

    I listened carefully as the throng departed. I’m happy to report, no one said “I was Cleopatra.”

    posted to Cedar Street Times on August 1, 2014

    Topics: Otter Views

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