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Where colorful dreams take flight

Special to The Times

“With tuppence for paper and string you can have your own set of wings, with your fist holding tight to the string of your kite.”

-- Burt the Chimney Sweep,

in “Mary Poppins”

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YOU don’t have to be serious about kites to feel as if you have the world on a string.

Thousands for whom the airborne wonders are a flight of fancy will join scores who have made kites a lifelong passion on Sunday at the 32nd annual Festival of the Kite, with the skies around the Redondo Beach Pier promising to turn into a montage of brightly hued objects of all shapes and sizes.

“Kites are more popular than at any time in history, and festivals are growing around the world,” says Mel Hickman, 55, executive director of the 4,000-member American Kitefliers Assn. “It’s a great hobby and is inexpensive, and kites are easy to make and [they] teach the maker about the physical world.

“The best thing is that you don’t care what color a person is or of what political party or gay or straight. The wind either blows for you or it doesn’t, and there’s nothing you can do about who you are that can change that. It’s a very ‘commonizing’ factor, and so kite fliers tend to be a lot less caught up in themselves than maybe other groups. It’s also a great tension reliever to stand there with a kite and watch it play with the clouds. If you’re near the water when you fly your kite into a setting sun it’s almost mystical.”

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Indeed, the Redondo Beach gathering -- which will offer entertainment on the pier throughout the day -- has turned into something of a showcase for Tom Fine, 44, who has owned nearby Sunshine Kites for 10 years and sponsors the festival.

“My dad brought me to a kite festival on this pier in 1976, and I was hooked,” says Fine, who has competed in AKA competitions, winning in 1998.

Sunshine Kites opened in 1974, and founder Randy Joe (who now manufactures kites) celebrated by inviting about 40 friends to fly kites at Redondo, Fine says. Now the festival attracts thousands.

As a competitive flier and specialist in the field, Fine has some pretty formidable contraptions; his biggest kite, for instance, is 25 feet wide and 16 feet tall.

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“This is a surfing kite, which goes on a special board with straps for your feet,” he says. “It generates 400 to 600 pounds of pull and takes you in the air, so you need to be on water or you would hit land or sand too hard when you come down.” There are smaller versions used on land in which a buggy is attached.

Such engineering might seem sophisticated and the competitions -- including kite fighting and kite ballet -- a bit overboard, but those endeavors are merely extensions of centuries-old practices.

“Kites date back thousands of years in China and spread through Asia and eventually the Western world,” says Dave Shenkman, 39, owner of the Kite Connection in Huntington Beach. For the last 15 years, Shenkman has been teaching children about kites in school assemblies, which have been praised by administrators.

THERE’S plenty of history. In 1752, Benjamin Franklin studied the atmosphere by using kites and conducted his experiment that proved lightning is electricity. In 1847, people of Niagara Falls decided to build a bridge spanning the gorge but couldn’t figure out how to put the first line across. Many adults tried it with a kite but failed. Ten-year-old Homan Walsh succeeded.

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The Wright Brothers were skilled kite fliers. Kites made military history because they were used for target practice and to pass important papers from ship to aircraft.

“I flew my first kite at 8, and it was an inflatable Mickey Mouse head. I started flying professionally at 16 in competitions and gave lessons on the Huntington Beach Pier,” says Shenkman, who flies sport kites such as the four-line Revolution, a 7-by-20-foot acrobatic kite that looks like a bowtie.

And like any activity that’s this much fun, it has its therapeutic side.

“For adults, kite flying is an expression of freedom from the grounded mundane life experiences,” says clinical psychologist Sidney Walter.

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“For children it’s the same idea of freedom from control of their immediate environment. Kids can control with strings. All flying, especially the kite, is an expression of freedom and complete abandonment of earthly things.”

The doctor might have something there. Just ask Shenkman’s 10-year-old daughter, Courtney, who borrows her father’s kites to fly on the beach.

“I like how fast it can move and how quickly it stops,” Courtney says. “It makes me feel like I’m in the kite, because I’m making it do what it’s supposed to do.

“It’s feeling free.”

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Fly a kite

Festival of the Kite

Where: Redondo Beach Pier, at the end of Torrance Boulevard

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When: Noon to 5 p.m. Sunday

Info: pierkites.com/kitefestival.htm

Organizations

* American Kitefliers Assn.: www.aka.kite.org

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* Ventura County Kite Flyers: www.vckf.org

* Up Up & Away Kite Club, Seal Beach: www.kiteclub.org

Stores

* Sunshine Kites, 110 Fisherman’s Wharf (on the pier), Redondo Beach. (310) 372-0308; www.pierkites.com

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* Kite Connection, 1 Main St., Huntington Beach. (714) 536-3630; www.kiteconnection.com

* KitesEtc., 806 E. Balboa Blvd., Newport Beach, (949) 673-0450; and 16802 Pacific Coast Highway, Sunset Beach, (562) 592-5483. www.kitesetc.com

* Up Up & Away Kites!, 139 1/2 Main St., Seal Beach. (562) 596-7661; www.upupandawaykites.com

* Colors of the Wind, 34255 Pacific Coast Highway, Suite 101, Dana Point. (949) 443-5483

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