San Diego Celebration Is July 4th in January : Local, Out-of-Town Revelers Pack Downtown for Fireworks, Bayside Parties and Street Scenes

Times Staff Writer

It was the 4th of July in January in downtown San Diego on Friday night, with one important difference: It was bigger.

A crowd estimated at 80,000--about three times larger than any ever assembled at the bayside Seaport Village--gathered shoulder to shoulder, knee to knee and beer bottle to beer bottle to kick off the city's first Super Bowl weekend.

They viewed one of the city's largest fireworks displays, as the pyrotechnics painted brilliant umbrellas of light over the bay. The loud, cannon-like pop from each explosion--the rockets were launched from barges along the Coronado shoreline--sent sensitive car alarms throughout the area screaming.

Green laser lights also danced in the sky, though they were often obscured and fuzzy because of low clouds.

Hyperbole Was Rampant

But no matter. The mass of humanity delighted in the show and brought out the hyperbole.

"This is the greatest thing to happen since Moses," proclaimed Bob Tagye of Chula Vista, an elderly gentleman. "Every big city should have an event like this."

"This is better than when the Padres won the pennant," said Tony Babida, a barber who lives in Poway.

After the fireworks extravaganza ended, many in the throng descended on downtown, mainly the Gaslamp Quarter. Though part of 5th Avenue was closed for a street party, local residents and out-of-town fans of the Redskins and Broncos--many of them dressed in their team's colors--jammed restaurants large and small throughout the historic district.

Lines of people snaked in front of places like Smedley's, Croce's, Patrick's II and the Golden Lion. The bar at the U.S. Grant, usually quite roomy on a Friday night, was wall-to-wall with boisterous patrons.

Streets, such as Market, Harbor and G, became no more than narrow parking lots for a time, as people tried to maneuver their cars through the gridlock.

It was evident by noon--six hours before the first fireworks explosion--that downtown and Seaport Village were about to receive a face-to-face greeting with the Super Bowl.

Traffic Was Clogged

Traffic near the Marriott Hotel & Marina, the National Football League's headquarters, was bumper to bumper, and police were called to bring order to the budding automotive anarchy.

By 1 p.m., the Seaport Village parking lot was full, as was the large one across the street. If there was ever any doubt about when the anticipated Super Bowl crush would arrive, it was removed by then.

Rose Williams said she, her husband and her daughter drove to San Diego from North Carolina to join in the Super Bowl frolic, though they couldn't get any tickets for the game.

"I came to San Diego because I heard it was America's Finest City," she said. "So far, so good."

Even in Friday night's dense crowds--which are anathema to growth-conscious San Diegans--there was good will toward the visitors who clogged Lindbergh Field and downtown streets.

"We can share San Diego for a week," said Gene Sumner of La Mesa, who was sipping beer and nibbling on cold cuts. "It will be super for a week."

Interjected Sumner's companion, Suz Trolinger, also of La Mesa: "They should have their fun, and then they should return (home)."

Police, who had about 90 officers patrolling the downtown streets Friday night, reported no major crime problems as of about 9 o'clock.

While the late-night festivities were left to adult revelers, the focal point of the evening--the fireworks--drew many families and children. They straddled the rocks along the bay, they stood on the fishing pier in Coronado, and those who could find the space set out blankets on the lawns at Seaport Village.

Theme Was Patriotic

The crescendo of pyrotechnics had a patriotic theme, ushered in by way of a taped greeting from President Reagan. The show was set to music and simulcast by radio station KCBQ-FM. There were songs by Neil Diamond, Frank Sinatra and Bruce "Born in the USA" Springsteen, as lasers attempted to spell out USA against the smoke left by the explosions.

There was a giant inflated football.

There was President John F. Kennedy invoking his famous line, "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."

There was Martin Luther King Jr. resounding with parts of his "I have a dream" speech.

There were old sportscasters describing the big plays of big games played long ago.

The display, which cost about $150,000, was paid for by Great American First Savings Bank.

"This was bigger and better than anything I've ever seen here," said Don Wendell, a San Diego engineer.

But even the furor of the celebrations didn't serve to change the perception of San Diego for one die-hard football fan from Florida. Leonard Kohn of West Palm Beach walked among the crowd with a stuffed dolphin atop his cowboy hat and wearing a Miami Dolphins jacket.

"It's about as dirty as it was 20 years ago," Kohn said, when asked his impressions of San Diego.

At Horton Plaza, a lot of people thought the party there was free. They went up to the gate and found out it cost $20 to get in. A lot of people walked away disappointed.

Tom Wallace, an attorney from Denver who was trying to maneuver through the downtown crowds, said, "This is a disaster. I hope the game turns out better than this."

A Dressed-Up San Diego

Remarked one woman at the front door of the Omni Hotel, "This isn't San Diego, being all dressed up like this."

Pat Haggerty, a Denver Bronco fan whose father is a referee in the National Football League, was walking around the Omni Hotel, sporting a bright orange Bronco T-shirt and an orange baseball cap.

"San Diego is great," Haggerty said. "When you compare it with Denver, it's even better. There's no snow."

Times staff writers Curtis L. Taylor, Raymond L. Sanchez and Ralph Frammolino contributed to this story.

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