San Juan Will Sport a New Look for Swallows' Return

Times Staff Writer

As they have in the past, the swallows undoubtedly will be back next week. But when they arrive in San Juan Capistrano this year, they will be in for a bit of a surprise.

The weeklong fiesta celebrating their return has traditionally been a raucous western affair, but this year's festival, which also marks the city's 25th anniversary, reflects the town's new image. Among the featured events are a polo match, an Easter Sunday fashion show (riding attire and spring collections from the Beverly Hills Polo Club), a formal ball and a 10-kilometer run.

And while the official theme of the city-sponsored Heritage Festival is "equestrian heritage," its corporate backers include some yuppie favorites: Saddleback BMW, Mission Viejo Imports (a Mercedes-Benz dealership) and Hanns Kornell Champagne from Napa Valley.

Other sponsors include Barwick Nissan, Coors beer, Lemon Quench Soft Frozen Lemonade and two developers, the Santa Margarita Co. and Birtcher.

Another celebration of the swallows' traditional return on St. Joseph's Day, the privately run Fiesta de las Golondrinas (swallows), is changing, too. The fiesta kicked off Friday night with a $25-per-person hoedown and ends next Saturday with what is said to be the largest equestrian and marching parade in the country. But the beer and liquor that used to flow freely in the streets is now consumed indoors--sheriff's orders--and some of the city's new residents wish the horseback riders would parade right on out of town.

Earlier this year, San Juan's equestrian community stormed the City Council chambers when a city report suggested that their horses were not liked by a majority of residents. The report also introduced the concept of a $60 annual hoof tax on locally boarded horses. The council has yet to take any action.

"You cannot, unfortunately, keep yesterday around forever," said Jay Leitzke, publicity director for the fiesta and an avid horseman. "We've got a lot of new people in town, and they're interested in the more fashionable, more upscale kind of thing. They have to give us a little room, too, though. . . . It's important that they realize this is a genuine western town with a strong equestrian tradition."

Leitzke, who prefers "brush-busting" to swinging a mallet when he rides, nevertheless said he thought events such as the the polo match and fashion show "are a great idea."

"There are people around who like polo, and I don't think there are any ill feelings about it," he said. "All of these things benefit the community and ease tensions. The two festivals have meshed well, better than expected."

Last October, the city hired Special Events Marketing, a Long Beach company, to organize the Heritage Festival, which has incorporated into its three-week schedule the fiesta and separate Lions and Women's club events. Company general manager Andrew Thornhill said the city's prolonged birthday party "isn't offsetting the fiesta; it's adding to the celebration. The community has been very supportive."

About 200,000 people are expected to visit the city during the festival, Thornhill said.

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