Arnie Zimbelman was dressed to the nines on July 28 when he watched the return of the Strauss Festival of Elk Grove at Elk Grove Regional Park.
It did not matter that he was in a wheelchair or that the late afternoon heat was in the triple digits - he still wore a tuxedo. He also wore an Austrian flag pin that was a gift from the Austrian Consul-General and a pin that resembled a purple Iris.
A few dozen festival dancers, dressed in 19th century Austrian fashion, made sure to greet Arnie before the performances began. His late wife, Iris, created the festival in 1987 when she wanted to see the traditional Austrian waltzes and polkas they watched during a vacation trip to Vienna.
“What pleases me the most is the fact that it’s still going,” Arnie told the Citizen. “Iris was told way back when it started that 90% of these things die after one year, and here is the 33rd show and it’s still going.”
The 33rd annual Strauss Festival of Elk Grove was revived on July 28-31 after two years of cancellations, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. More than 70 dancers, ages 5 to 81, performed waltzes, polkas, and quadrilles to Austrian composer Johann Strauss II’s music that was played by the Camelia Symphony Orchestra on the Strauss Island stage at the park. Paolo Reyes returned as the orchestra’s conductor this year.
Mark Hedlund, a retired News 10 reporter and longtime Elk Grove resident, returned as the show’s master of ceremonies. During the festival’s opening night, Cosumnes Community Services District Board President Jaclyn Moreno presented a $36,000 check from her district to the festival.
Becky Bennett sat on a blanket near the island to enjoy the production’s opening night. She started attending the festival during its early years in the 1980s.
“I like that it’s community–oriented (and) to see the kids,” she said. “And you know there are families in the performance. It’s definitely a festival.”
Dancers included Strauss veterans like John Matthews who have been with the festival for 30 years. He joined the festival’s polka troupe at age 17, and he said that he never knew it would be such a long part of his life.
“It’s a family, it’s not just my actual family, but the dancers - they’re family,” Matthews said. “There’s also a rush when you go out on stage and it’s just fun.”
His daughter, KatieJohn, starred as “Iris” in this year’s festival storyline that was a retelling of Lewis Caroll’s classic tale, “Alice in Wonderland.” This storyline, which named its heroine in honor of Iris Zimbelman, was originally intended to be performed at the 2020 festival that was canceled during the pandemic’s early months. Popular characters like the White Rabbit, the Cheshire Cat, and the Queen of Hearts appeared at the festival. In the scene where Iris shrinks after eating a cake, KatieJohn quickly disappeared behind a playground slide that was decorated like a large green rock. A little girl then slid down the slide and appeared as Iris’ tiny self.
Old festival traditions remained, such as the grand finale that had dancers waltz to Strauss’ 1866 classic, “The Blue Danube.”
New families such as the Pattanis joined the dancer cast and spent several months rehearsing. Tushar said that he and his wife, Tanima along with their teenage sons Medhansh and Kavish rehearsed a few times a week since March. He mentioned how the experience is educational for his children.
“It’s not just fun, it’s also teaching them a lot about communication, getting along with people, and hearing everybody’s perspective,” Tushar said.
Raelynn Springer, a festival board member, spent much of her time pausing to be greeted and hugged by attendees before the show started. She told the Citizen that volunteers spent up to seven months preparing for the festival.
“It’s a long haul, and they do it because they enjoy it and to see people come out and support it,” Springer said. “It’s heartwarming - it brings back that old Elk Grove feel, that nostalgia.”