A Page from History: Kite Festival is still high on the Ocean Beach event list after 73 years
The blustery breezes of March have always blown some added anticipation and excitement into the hearts of Ocean Beach children. In fact, all true Obcecians feel the same way, for we know that those March gusts portend the arrival of kite season!
And in the kite capital of the country, that is no small thing.
So return with us now to a time not so long ago — those simpler days of, say, the 1980s, an era before entertainment and experiences had become “virtual” and when the Kite Parade still proceeded proudly down the middle of Newport Avenue.
We had a real store-bought kite, “Sleeping Beauty,” if I am not mistaken. But my 5-year-old daughter nonetheless spent a good 45 minutes on the floor of the OB Recreation Center making and decorating her own small kite, which was “guaranteed to fly.” (No such guarantees existed in my childhood, but that is another story.)
She also had decorated her tricycle with flowers and crepe-paper streamers on the playground of Ocean Beach Elementary School — the better to ride that trike in the Kite Parade down to the beach. I was recruited to accompany her along those three blocks, as she was quite nervous about being in the middle of the procession by herself. The Kite Parade was a big thing at the time, and there were hundreds of people along the street, all eager to vicariously enjoy the excitement of the children and their kites.
As a kid, I had been happy — proud, in fact — to walk in that parade with my kites. But as an adult, I felt like a dork. That’s OK — I wanted my kid to experience the fun and excitement of the parade.
I walked next to her as she pedaled tentatively amid a large group of other young cyclists for a block and a half. It was at that point, just as we were passing the Little Chef, that, seeing her mom, grandma and little sister waving from the crowd, she jumped ship and bolted for the sidelines! That left me holding, while not exactly the bag, two kites in one hand and the handlebar of a tricycle in the other. My position in the middle of a group of kids on bikes precluded my own early escape from the parade. On we rolled. We were passing Tony’s, I believe, when one canny kite critic called out, “You’ll never get that thing off the ground, buddy!”
Plenty of history, mythology and, OK, corny anecdotes may be compiled from any community tradition that has been celebrated for 73 years, and that happens to be the anniversary the Ocean Beach Kite Festival will celebrate in 2021. Precisely when the event will again take flight remains ... up in the air. It may get the go-ahead for May, but that will depend on the city of San Diego reopening parks for large events. Stay tuned.
The Ocean Beach Kiwanis have been tangled up in the Kite Festival since the beginning. Current Kiwanis President Jim Nickel remembers: “Several gentlemen from the OB Kiwanis came to my kindergarten at Warren-Walker School. They gave us a two-day lesson on kite-making. Paper, paste and string, I think they went to all the schools, but it was very interesting to me.”
Nickel flew the kite he made at school in the first OB Kite Festival. He won’t mind us revealing that he was a kindergartner in 1948.
“The Kiwanis was established in Ocean Beach in 1928,” said Nickel’s wife, Melanie, “and to celebrate their 20th anniversary, they organized the first Kite Festival.”
Tale of the Kite Festival
The Kiwanis have had plenty of help staging the Kite Festival over the years, significantly from the Ocean Beach Recreation Center and Rec Council, Ocean Beach Elementary School, the Key Clubs of Point Loma and other area high schools, and from San Diego-area kite clubs. It is a lovely and unique tradition that is the oldest kite festival for children and the second-oldest kite festival of any kind continuously celebrated in the United States.
Kite flying was a huge deal in the 1960s, or so I am told. Barrels filled with the old paper, diamond-shaped kites could be found in Homer’s, Cornet, Western Auto and even Delta Drug. Forty-nine cents! Those were great kites, too — they almost always flew.
The “Man in the Moon” was a very popular design. I remember a clown juggling and a jet fighter, but the most popular kite was the “Jolly Roger.” Yes, that’s same kind of kite that Charlie Brown used to fly too close to that gnarly “kite-eating tree.” That didn’t happen in real life though — we had plenty of telephone wires for that purpose.
The “Jolly Green Giant” kite was something of a rarity. It was not sold in stores. You needed to acquire labels from two cans of peas and had to be careful not to get your mom involved if you didn’t want to end up with the contents of one of those cans on the end of a fork. Additionally, you had to tape two quarters to an index card and send the whole thing off to someplace nobody ever heard of, like Minnesota. Weeks later, when the kite finally showed up, it proved significantly larger than the Man in the Moon or the Jolly Roger. Plus, it flew like a champ. What a great kite! Ho, ho, ho!
You had to make your own kite, though, if you wanted to be in the running to win a prize at the Kite Festival. We sure made a bunch of kites on Devonshire Drive — even a couple of box kites. My dad cut dozens of kite sticks on his table saw, and all the neighborhood kids made kites in our driveway. The most popular paper was, of course, the Sunday funnies, but Christmas wrapping paper worked great if you could get your hands on any.
The dynamics of the Kite Festival have fluctuated significantly over the decades. The Kite Parade morphed from a line of children holding their homemade kites to much more elaborate affairs featuring kids on bikes, plus antique cars, cheerleaders, marching bands, local dignitaries and professional athletes. Game show host Monty Hall was grand marshal one year.
An attendant Craft Fair sprang up along Santa Monica Avenue in front of the Rec Center for many years. Carnival rides were set up on the playground of OB Elementary, and llama rides were always popular. The Kite Festival has often featured a kite hospital where damaged kites are brought back to health — by the OB Moose Lodge at one time and more recently by OB’s super-volunteer Claudia Jack and her staff of kite doctors and nurses. Free hot dogs were traditionally a fringe benefit for Kite Festival kids. How great was that?
Melanie Nickel now is director of the Kite Festival, though she says she has no official title and that husband Jim is also very involved in the event’s organization. Melanie walks in the footsteps of Ocean Beach “Kite Lady” Marion Miller, whom Melanie describes as “an amazing woman.”
Miller was the festival’s guiding force for decades, from the 1970s until shortly before her death in 2008. It never rained on the Kite Festival while Miller was involved. She famously had worked out an agreement with the Man Upstairs. It was for the kids, of course.
Rain did catch up to the Kite Festival one year since Miller’s passing, and that hastened its move from March to May. After several years at Dusty Rhodes Park, the festival has recently moved to the open spaces and better breezes of Robb Field.
The ill winds of the pandemic knocked the Kite Festival off course in 2020 but could not shut it down completely. A small turnout — nine folks and three kites in the Nickels’ large front yard — kept the tradition alive. Keep your fingers crossed that the OB Kite Festival gets off the ground again soon.
As a reminder, the OB Kiwanis also sponsor the annual OB Fishing Derby and the popular Canine Carnival. Check in at oceanbeachkiwanis.org.
Much has been written about the Kite Festival over the years, but one quote that resonated with me was from a dad who spoke with a San Diego Union reporter years ago. “You have to model for your children,” he said, “and show them that you never have to grow up.”
Eric DuVall is president of the Ocean Beach Historical Society (obhistory.org). OBHS board member Kitty McDaniel contributed to this article.