Elk Grove Regional Park was once again the scene of one of the city’s most anticipated annual events: the Strauss Festival of Elk Grove.
Continuing this tradition from July 25-28, a total of about 12,000 spectators from throughout the region and beyond gathered around Strauss Island to view dancers as they performed to the music of Johann Strauss Sr., Johann Strauss Jr. and Josef Strauss, played by the 40-piece Camellia Symphony Orchestra. This year’s conductor was Paolo Reyes.
With its theme of “The ‘Pea’utiful Princess,” the event featured scenes of dancers in colorful and elaborate costumes twirling and gliding across the stage. Dances included polka, waltz and quadrille.
The storyline of the production involved a prince’s search for a “real princess.”
While dancing in front of decorative stage sets, 94 dancers, ranging in age from 3 to 70 years old, kept the crowd’s attention throughout each evening’s performance.
As usual, the ending waltz number, “The Blue Danube,” drew the greatest applause. The finale included pyrotechnics provided by Elk Grove’s fireworks king, Lynden King.
Arnie Zimbleman – a Strauss original
Among the usual sights in the crowd was Arnie Zimbleman, whose wife, Iris, founded the festival in 1987.
Arnie was quick to give credit to his late wife for establishing this annual event.
“She was the guiding light of the whole thing,” he said. “It was her idea, never mine.”
Donna Eisenbeisz mentioned that she was pleased to see Arnie at this year’s festival.
“I see Mr. Zimbleman out here, and it just makes my heart feel good to know that he’s still here,” she said. “(It’s nice) that people are stopping by and saying hello to him. He is very much a gentleman and a very nice man.”
While sitting next to her father – Arnie – at the event, Terrie St. Clair said that she enjoyed watching the festival with him.
“We fly out here from Freeport, Maine to see the show, and I want to sit by my dad every night for every show,” she said. “Previous years, I would come whenever I was able to, but certainly I made a big point of being next to my dad for the last four (years). It’s a big highlight of our lives.”
The hard work pays off
Carol Bayles, secretary of the festival’s board, said that the quality of the event has much to do with the amount of time the dancers spend rehearsing.
“They have their kickoff meeting in February and they practice two nights a week until May, and then they go up to three nights a week, and then in July it’s four nights a week,” she said.
Ann Wittich, a former Strauss board member, recognized both the many months that it takes to produce this entertainment, and the costumes that accompany the dances and music.
“I know there’s a lot of hard work that goes into this (event),” Wittich said. “The (costumes) are always gorgeous. They’re always very customized for each dance. I think everything is just beautiful.”
First-year festival dancer Casey Schmidt mentioned his enjoyment of performing old-style dancing.
“Being (a polka dancer) really just broadened my spectrum of learning dances that I hadn’t done before and truly challenged me in many ways of doing lifts with young girls, and having the experience of dancing that doesn’t happen anymore nowadays,” he said.
Donna Hatch, another first-time festival dancer, told the Citizen that she was inspired to dance in this event after attending last year’s festival.
She added that she looks forward to dancing with her husband, Tom, in next year’s festival.
Although the festival lasts for less than a week, planning for the event annually takes months to organize.
For the five days leading up to the show, volunteers perform such work as setting up the staging, decorations and booths, and preparing the lighting and sound.
Margie Jones, co-chair of the festival’s board, noted that following the festival, volunteers assisted with clean-up duties.
“By 1 o’clock (Monday), it was completely torn down,” she said. “It’s kind of like a swarm of bees. When it’s time to clean up, everyone (gathers together) and puts stuff away.”
Jones added that now that the festival has concluded, it is time for reviewing the event.
“There are still some background things that need to be done (such as) evaluating how we are doing and making notes for next year,” she said. “We always want to be bigger and better and learn from what worked well and what didn’t work well.”
Festival is a tradition for families
As much as the festival is a tradition for many spectators whose families have attended this event since its early years in the late 1980s, many of the entertainers themselves are part of families with deep roots as performers on the Strauss stage.
Margie Jones, co-chair of the festival’s board, recognized those roots.
“There are a number of families that are three or four generations that have been participating in the Strauss Festival,” she said. “The event is so family-friendly.”
Denise Sears and her daughter, Camey, are building a family tradition with the festival.
This year, Denise was a stitcher for young polka dancers.
“I sewed their dresses this year and have done previous (Strauss Festival) projects in years past,” she said.
Camey, an 11-year-old dancer, just completed her third year of dancing in the festival.
She said that she loves dancing and hearing the “roar of the crowd.”
“I enjoy performing in the Strauss Festival, because it’s an old-time tradition of Elk Grove,” Camey said. “I can’t wait to perform next year. The Strauss performers group is like my second family.”