Fish Fry is a tradition unlike any other in Costa Mesa

Rollo McClellan, 92, is looking forward to the fish fry next weekend like it was his first.

The first Costa Mesa Newport Harbor Lions Club Fish Fry was in 1945, and McClellan hasn't missed one since.

Well, he had to cut out a day early once to go take a cruise, but he still made Friday and Saturday of that year's event.

"We had the cotton pickin'-est weather you ever saw," McClellan said. "Everyone got drenched, the parade got rained out, and it was still a good time."

This year's 65th annual Fish Fry and Carnival, which has a much nicer weather forecast, will be held June 2 and 3 at Fairview Park.

The fish fry is the Lions Club's big annual fundraiser. Fish dinners cost $10, and there are also carnival rides, vendors, live entertainment, and on Sunday, a traditional baby contest.

"All three of my boys were trophy members" in the contest, club member Mike Scheafer said. The best part of the baby contest is seeing how worked up the grandparents and aunts get, he said.

"The parents are usually fine," he said.

Scheafer has been going to the fish fry since 1965, when he was a kid who had to help his parents man the soda booth.

"The fish fry was like the beginning of summer," he said. "We knew school was almost over and we could get back to surfing."

The highlight for young Mike Scheafer and his friends was the battle of the bands that used to be held on Friday night of the event.

"For us, it was like a free rock and roll concert," he said.

According to a blog maintained by local historian Chris Jepsen, the fish fry got its start when the Lions Club started selling fried fish at a four-year-old community event then known as the Scarecrow Festival.

McClellan remembers club member Heinz Kaiser, then a county supervisor, bringing the fish he and some buddies had caught off Newport Pier. Another club member had a restaurant, so they borrowed his grill. The rest is history.

Scheafer's favorite memory is from 1976, when then-First Lady Betty Ford was supposed to make an appearance.

"My father, who was club president, and my mother were supposed to give her a book on stage. My mother was petrified," he said.

The Secret Service arrived, and then about 15-20 minutes after Ford was due to appear, rushed off, he said.

"We eventually found out she had been at a friend's house in Pasadena and was going to fly in on a helicopter, but apparently she was so intoxicated she had to be taken to the Long Beach Naval Hospital," he said.

Two years later, after another trip to the Naval Hospital, Ford got sober and started her famous work to help others do the same.

"The Lions have since claimed that because of us, the Betty Ford Clinic was founded," he said. "My poor mother could finally stop sweating. She looked like the weight of the world had been lifted off her."

Beer and wine will be sold at the event this year for the first time.

This will also be the first year the event is held at Fairview Park, after a long history at Lions Park, which was named for the group.

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