Started in 1958, The Garden Grove Chamber of Commerce put on the first Garden Grove Strawberry Festival as a way to bring together the east and west sides of Garden Grove. Resident Tom Hoxie, a public relations professional, suggested a festival to celebrate the area’s then prolific strawberry fields. That first festival was held on a vacant lot in the Brookhurst Triangle, an area bordered by Garden Grove Blvd., Brookhurst St., and Brookhurst Way. And Hoxie, true to his profession, sent locally grown strawberries to a monastery in Europe — the festival’s first PR ploy.
When the Chamber decided not to hold a strawberry festival the following year, a group of citizens formed a non-profit organization, the Garden Grove Strawberry Festival Association, and moved the festival to Garden Grove Park where there was more parking.
The festival became and has always been a charitable event benefiting local organizations. In the past 60 years over $7 million has been donated to hundreds of non-profits. While many have mistakenly believed the festival is part of the City of Garden Grove, it is in fact a totally separate non-profit organization which has raised money for numerous city projects, as well as the city’s police and fire departments. Festival profits have built the amphitheater seating, two showmobiles, the children’s wing of the central library, a police command post, the twin towers in Atlantis Park, and a building for the Garden Grove Boys and Girls Club. The board provides scholarships annually and supports local schools. Charities such as Kiwanisland, homeless and abuse shelters and children’s non-profits have greatly benefited. Service groups, who are the only ones allowed to sell food at the festival, also raise many thousands for their organizations, often enough to fund all their events for the year.
The 1959 Garden Grove Strawberry Festival was the first to include a parade, and had as its grand marshal silent movie matinee idol Francis X. Bushman. There were no other celebrities in the parade, nor were there floats or bands, as there are today. The parade consisted simply of a line of antique cars that motored down Brookhurst St. to Westminster Blvd.
On the festival grounds visitors enjoyed carnival rides and strolled long row of booths where they could buy a wide array of strawberry treats, fresh strawberries, other food and merchandise. A hang glider pulled by an airplane was hired to swoop over the festivities but when the big day came, it was so windy a car had to pull it instead. Hoxie’s friend, Woody Williams, had a helicopter so it was also enlisted to give excited riders an aerial view of the festival grounds.
We even brought in a circus in those days, recalls Jack Wallin. It was a DeWayne Brothers Circus and featured famous musician Big Tiny Little in the Big Tent. The newspaper wanted a photo of a board member near the lions cage, he laughingly remembers, and I volunteered. The photographer told me to get up on the cage trailer for a better shot, then as a joke someone prodded the lion with a pole and he let a huge roar. I took off so fast and I don’t think I stopped running until I reached Westminster!
1963 – Helicopter rides at the festival
In 1959 Hoxie came up with the idea for the first Red-Head Roundup contest, which is still an annual festival event. Today prizes are awarded in eight redhead categories of baby, toddler, cutest, teen, prettiest, classiest, red head with the most freckles, and Strawberry Blond Image. In earlier contests prizes went to the curliest, tallest, best crew cut and prettiest redheads, as well as the Largest Redheaded Family and the Best Redhead Smile. The Berry, Berry Beautiful Baby contest, Strawberry Idol Karaoke contest and the competition for Tiny Tots King and Queen were added later and remain today.
To help underwrite the event a Program Book where they sold ads and listed events was printed in 1959. It featured Beverly Hansen, a beauty pageant winner who became the very first Miss Garden Grove Strawberry Festival. She and her court rode in the parade and presided over the festival cake cutting. Later, the contest, re-named the Miss Garden Grove Beauty Pageant, became part of the Miss America Pageant. Miss Garden Grove and her court still ride in the Festival parade each year, along with Miss Outstanding Teen.
In the 1960s, The Garden Grove Strawberry Festival became the second-largest municipal event in the 13 western states, and the largest in California.
Throughout the years, the world’s largest strawberry shortcake (which local paper reported to have weighed as much as 500 pounds), has been the centerpiece of the festival’s opening ceremonies. Priscilla’s Cake Box, a longtime Garden Grove bakery, made the first cake and other local bakers followed. For the past 22 years the task has gone to Herb’s Black Forest Bakery in Fountain Valley. The mayor of Garden Grove cuts the first piece and presents the top to Miss Garden Grove, then, as many as 4,000 more slices are cut and served free to festival-goers attending the ceremonies.
Dr. Sheldon Singer, who was festival board president in 1965, recalls that rodeos were a popular attraction at the festival in the early 1960s. There was so much manure after the festival the grass in that area was absolutely gorgeous, he quips. Unfortunately, the rodeo era came to an abrupt end when the rodeo guy ran off with a bundle of cash. The festival also featured a bowling tournament, a Drum and Bugle Corp competition, a dog show, plus a popular Koffee Katch that included a Miss Chapeau best hat contest. In 1966 the newspapers reported that Ronald Reagan’s Reagan for Governor Cavalcade caused a huge traffic jam, and that a Navy Drill Team member cut himself on his own bayonet.
Jack Wallin, who has served continuously on the board since 1958, says back in the 1960s when the event was held at Bolsa Grande High School football field, it drew good crowds, and musical groups were invited to play. The first and only official Garden Grove Strawberry Festival song, written by board member Gene Rotsch, was introduced in 1966, and the California State Battle of the Bands was held two years later at the 1968 Strawberry Festival. There was a Tournament of Drums and 14 rock bands competed, with the best band winning an electric guitar and a trip to the national finals in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
1968 Festival board w/ Wallin
Wallin recalls that there were huge crowds and a big police presence. It was also the year Police officer Andrew Reece was fatally hit by a car while directing traffic. Wallin shakes his head remembering a time when he inadvertently put himself in harm’s way to help a policeman. Two men were attempting to rundown the policeman, so he jumped on the car, grabbed the steering wheel and turned it to the curb so that the police officer wouldn’t get hurt, then Wallin wound up in the hospital. I was young and foolish in those days, says Wallin, who was honored in 2008 as the parade’s Theme Grand Marshal.
Through the years the festival has drawn an eclectic group of celebrities. Among notables who came in the 1960s was Steve Martin, who had won the festival’s Talent Search competition. The decade’s grand marshals and celebrities included California Governor Edmund G. Brown and entertainers Jimmy Durante, Connie Haines, Jayne Mansfield, Jane Powell, The Carpenters, and Sebastian Cabot.
Robert Kennedy visits Garden Grove Strawberry Festival
In 1968, New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy rode in the festival parade and later spoke about the heated race for the Democratic presidential nomination to a crowd of more than 5,000. Joining Kennedy at the festival were his wife Ethel, six of their children, astronaut Col. John Glenn, California Assembly Speaker Jesse Unruh, Assemblyman Kenneth Cory and former Olympic decathlon champion Rafer Johnson.
The day before Kennedy’s appearance, Garden Grove Police Chief George Tierisch commented to the media that Kennedy’s visit to the festival would present one of the greatest security and protection challenges that his department has ever faced. Two-and-a-half days after speaking at the festival, Senator Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles.
Sporting events were part of the Garden Grove Strawberry Festival during the late 1960s and early 1970s. The festival even put on a tennis tournament in town and handed out trophies. It sponsored a hole-in-one contest, and the first Annual Strawberry Festival AAU Women’s Invitational Track Meet which was held at the Bolsa Grande High School stadium. Among the participants were Jarvis Scott and Barbara Ferrell, both members of the 1968 Olympic team.
In the ’70s, the festival moved to its current home, The Village Green at Euclid and Main streets where carnival rides and over 100 booths offered even more food and fun. Events added were a clown contest, pony rides, a fishing pond, a Candlelight Memorial Service, petting zoo, chalk art contest, a Kung Fu Exhibition, and the first Senior King and Queen Contest. The festival added stage shows in the newly-built 550-seat amphitheater, then known as the Strawberry Bowl.
Celebrities who took part in the festival parade during this decade included Debbie Reynolds, Loren Green, Nancy Sinatra, Danny Bonaduce, Joan Van Ark, Tommy Lasorda, Mickey Mouse, Hubert Humphries, and Strawberry Festival pioneer Tom Hoxie.
By the 1980s, The Garden Grove Strawberry Festival was such a hit, the planners continued many of the events that had made the festival a success for more than 20 years, then added a few new ones. That included an array of creative competitions such as a fiddlers’ contest, an amateur talent show and a strawberry pie-eating contest.
Special Kids Day was added and continues today. The rides are opened one day early to over 2,000 mentally and physically challenged children who are bussed in from surrounding schools for a day of free rides, food, fun and entertainment. In recent years Kids with a Cause, an international charitable group of young film and TV stars, joins board volunteers to help kids on and off rides and serve them food.
In the 1980’s The City of Garden Grove began broadcasting the festival parade on local television stations, a tradition which continues today. The station also interviews celebrities honored in the parade. Joey Bishop, Phyllis Diller, Billy Barty, Beverly Garland, Rip Taylor, Alyssa Milano, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Scatman Crothers and Fred Willard were some of the ’80s stars who participated.
The Garden Grove Strawberry Festival goes high tech: In 1990, the festival’s first telephone hot line of recorded program information was introduced.
Among the celebrities adding star power to the festival during the 1990s: Ben Vereen, Pat Boone, Billy Barty, Nadia Comaneci, Bart Conner, Earl Holliman, The Platters, The Galaxy soccer team, Buddy Hackett and Pauly Shore. In 2004 the festival honored the Olympics and medal-winning Olympians Dr. Sammy Lee, Chuck Bittick, Kim Rhode, Cliff Meidl, Bruce Furniss, Bruce Ibbetson, Cathy Marino Bradford, and Paralympian Robert Balk joined the parade.
The festival, long known for its carnival rides, added a roller coaster in 2003. Today there are dozens of rides for adults and young children, provided by Butler Amusements.
Celebrities who have participated in the festival during the first seven years of the 21st century include Hilary Duff, Shirley Jones, Marty Ingels, Jerry Mathers, Mickey Rooney, Margaret O’Brien, Masiela Lusha plus Congressional Medal of Honor recipient and Garden Grove resident, Tibor Rubin.