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If one could identify the major cultural influences on Santa Barbara, one would at least have to cite its Spanish history and heritage, the ranchos, the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB) and the effect of its temperate setting on daily life and creative inspiration. Conversely, its location may also limit cultural life in Santa Barbara.
There are Santa Barbarans who have lived here for generations and can trace their heritage to the Spanish missionaries and soldiers who founded El Presidio de Santa Barbara in 1782. The Old Spanish Days Fiesta, each August, harkens back to the fiestas of old, when Santa Barbara was part of colonial Spain. Those are still Spanish flags on the downtown light poles during Spanish Days. Descent from the the Ayalas, Carrillos, Cotas, de la Guerras, Ortegas (pick a Santa Barbara street name) still counts. And it’s the mission, the haciendas and the old paseos that are revered in Santa Barbara’s urban design and architecture.
No discussion of Santa Barbara culture would be complete without a tip of the hat to its ranchero traditions. Once the dominant culture, today Santa Barbara still maintains connection with these roots with rodeos, barbecues and the annual iconic May ride of the Rancheros Vistadores, a generations-old traditional trail ride -- sort of a serial barbecue -- of rancheros and hundreds of modern-day gauchos (cowboys) who ride "the back country" behind Santa Barbara from rancho to rancho, partaking in grand barbecues and paying homage to the days of old. Counting Will Rogers and other movie western performers -- oh yes, and Ronald Reagan -- among its former members, the Vistadores have maintained the "Old West" connection not only with Santa Barbara, but also with Hollywood and beyond. UCSB paid homage to Santa Barbara's two deepest roots when its teams became the proud Gauchos.
Today, and for fifty years, UCSB has been a major contributor to Santa Barbara culture, attracting performing artists, public lectures and exhibitions from around the world. Lotte Lehman Hall has attracted classical performers for decades, and major rock groups have performed in its larger venues since the ’60’s. Santa Barbarans, faculty and students alike attend the former by the hundreds, and the latter by the thousands. A popular venue for fairs, equestrian and traveling shows of all kinds (rodeos, concerts, circuses, dog shows, gem fairs, antique shows, and more) is the Earl Warren Showgrounds. And the Santa Barbara Bowl is popular for outdoor performances in the spring, summer and fall.
Santa Barbara often tends to attract long-established talent of all types, artists and performers for whom the surroundings matter perhaps more than volume and revenue prospects. Live theatre and other entertainment is presented at the Arlington and Lobero Theatres.
Santa Barbara’s museums are of the smaller, more intimate variety, celebrating and educating about the local natural assets, pre-history, history and the artistry that reflects them.
Recent years have seen growth in the prominence and size of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, across two weekends in February.
How would location limit cultural life? Santa Barbara lies approximately 1.5 hours from Los Angeles. Many big-name shows, exhibits and other events don’t make it up to Santa Barbara, unless an artist has a particular love of the town, or is drawn by the surroundings. For the most part, Santa Barbarans are content with this, traveling to LA for the big-name entertainment. (However, Santana played Santa Barbara in summer 2006...)
Ironically, many celebrities do migrate to Santa Barbara and Montecito and the neighboring Santa Ynez Valley when they want to be in the middle of beauty, a temperate climate, a slower life, and away from the maddening crowd. President Reagan chose the crest of Santa Barbara's Santa Ynez range for his Western White House. Indeed, some refer to Montecito as "Beverly Hills North" for people of similar means who want a more rural life, and who do NOT want to be seen. And some rich and famous who have settled in the Santa Ynez Valley don’t have to be named here.
The free newspaper The Santa Barbara Independent is thick with arts & entertainment listings, and articles and commentary about happenings between San Luis Obispo and Ventura. It is available at most hotels, news stands and bookstores. Abbreviated: