Skies were fair in Berkeley last Wednesday, but John Solomon had a raincloud over his head. He had attached a long pipe to his shoulders via a welded steel armature with a pillow of chicken wire and cotton padding on top. He had spray-painted the padding to have a dingy black cast, like the cloud that constantly hung over Joe Btfsplk in Li’l Abner. Beneath it, wearing glasses and a long trench coat, Solomon looked forlorn and crestfallen — with good reason. A few weeks ago, he had to cancel the “How Berkeley Can You Be?” Festival, an irreverent celebration that he devised back in 1996. After more than a decade of parading up University Avenue with a large retinue of lawn-chair brigadiers, art-car drivers, faux NIMBYs, and other celebrants, Solomon didn’t have the ducats to put it on anymore. And Berkeley — the festival’s namesake, chief target, and main honoree — had thwarted, rather than abet, his efforts.
Solomon has always had a pugnacious sense of humor. Formerly the owner of Ay Caramba taqueria (which went belly up in the mid-1990s) and Caffé Venezia (which he sold to his employees in 2005), the Brooklyn-born entrepreneur has run businesses in Berkeley since 1978. He’s always had a penchant for silly costumes and quirky behavior. He’s an odd breed of city booster. When Solomon got the idea to launch his own parade thirteen years ago, he wanted it to celebrate Berkeley and promote the retail corridor on University Avenue without seeming square or by-the-book. This was, after all, a place affectionately dubbed “Berzerkeley” and “the People’s Republic of Berkeley.”
Solomon thought a festival in Berkeley should resemble the Doo Dah Parade in Pasadena. It would honor — but also satirize — all the best-known Berkeley clichés: health-food fascism, NIMBYs, animal-rights activists, grizzled naked people, pot smoking, and political proselytizing. Moreover, it would represent a vast cross-section of Berkeley, allowing members of the Piedmont Lawn Chair Brigade to co-exist peacefully with sincere Communist pamphleteers, and KPFA to march side-by-side with the Chamber of Commerce. The ironic and the irony-deficient would hold hands and sing a happy Kumbayah. He pitched the idea to then-Mayor Shirley Dean, who loved it. She drummed up seed money for the inaugural parade and accompanying celebration. The name came easily.
City funding comprised one-third to one-half of the parade’s $25,000 to $30,000 budget, Solomon said. The city contributed $8,000, while Berkeley’s Civic Arts Commission dispensed an additional $2,000. The rest of the money came from private donors — including real estate developer Patrick Kennedy — booth fees, and beer sales in the park. In total, it was just enough for Solomon to break even, pay co-producer Karen Hester, and occasionally plow money back into the University Avenue Association. Three years ago, Hester and Solomon ceded production duties to Epic Arts, a South Berkeley arts organization that shut down right around the time of last year’s festival. At that point, Solomon had a huge problem on his hands. Berkeley’s police and fire departments, which had traditionally been somewhat permissive, now wanted $8,000 for event security. Such demands essentially canceled out the annual $10,000 grant to which Solomon had grown accustomed. Not to mention they required Solomon to cordon off his alcohol vendors in a fenced beer garden at Civic Center Park, which caused beer sales to plummet from $6,000 to $1,500.
“It’s been a fiasco,” Solomon said. “The police and the fire department have never been to Burning Man. They have no idea what happens at a good event.”
Attempts to cultivate other revenue streams have been unsuccessful, Solomon said. Understandably, it’s been tough attracting corporate sponsorship to an event as anti-everything as this one. At one point, he thought he could bait local car dealerships, since the parade has included a huge art car segment since 1999. No dice. Granted, he understands their hesitation. “We’re sort of making fun of cars.”
City spokesperson Mary Kay Clunies-Ross says it’s more about the economy than anything else. “The hit that nonprofits are taking is forcing them to make some difficult decisions,” she said, adding that as events like “How Berkeley” get bigger, the city has no choice but to charge more money and make more restrictions. “When you think about traffic control, you really have to do it right in order to have a positive impact,” she explained. “With a parade you’ve got extra large impacts and people going everywhere and you’re trying to keep people from getting hit by cars. … You have to bump your game up.”
Former Epic Arts program director Justin Katz, who helmed “How Berkeley” for three years, had a slightly different take. He attributed the parade’s collapse to three factors: the hard numbers, the challenge of sponsorship, and the iron heels of city officials. “The city has been so much less tolerant about an event that has its own character,” Katz said. “We got cracked down on for people throwing candy to kids. ‘What if a kid goes running out into the street to pick up some candy and gets hit by a float?No candy. You guys have to put it in your contract: No candy will be thrown.’ I was like, ‘Well, what about carrots?'” He added that all the greatest hallmarks of old “How Berkeley” fests — fire, Burning Man installations, people serving drinks off floats — are now prohibited. There’s much less incentive for the producers to donate their time because, frankly, it isn’t as much fun.
A few weeks ago, Solomon sent a letter to several Bay Area newspapers seeking advice on how to sustain his event. After it ran in the Berkeley Daily Planet, a few people e-mailed Solomon to commiserate about the event’s demise. He got a sympathetic note from Berkeley City Councilwoman Linda Maio. He also got one suggestion: To permit nudity in the parade again, but charge the nude people a fee. Solomon had allowed an older group called the Explicit Players to march in several earlier parades. In 2006 he bowed to pressure not to invite them. No one else knew what to do, and Solomon remains flummoxed by the situation. “I don’t want to insinuate that we are the only festival that’s being charged these things — all festivals are being charged,” Solomon said. “But for a free event, it’s hard. If we could get a buck from each person we’d be happy, and we’d be able to pay a producer. I’ve often thought if I could figure out some way for people to donate then they could mail a check, but it’s a little untenable.”
Katz has faith that “How Berkeley” will return in 2010 under the auspices of former co-producer Hester. Meanwhile, Solomon nurses fond memories of past parades. One of his favorites was a PETA spinoff whose acronym stood for “People Eatin’ Them Animals.” Its members butchered a hog’s head with chainsaws. They shot Spam into the crowd with giant bazookas, and waged war against rival group the Vegit-Aryans. Another of his highlights was the somewhat distasteful Seoul Café, whose baristas served cocktail weenies and handed out pamphlets that championed a new way to dispose of unwanted dogs: Turn them into weenies. The weenie roasters had a barbecue fired up beneath a goat carcass that had been stripped of all its skin — so all you could see was muscle and bone. It did, indeed, look like a passable dog corpse. “The SPCA came,” Solomon remembered. “Someone actually reported them.”
You don’t get much more Berkeley than that.