No shortage of watermelon

A diverse group of nearly 60 food, community and business vendors from across the San Fernando Valley, along with thousands of local residents, marked the 47th annual Watermelon Festival this weekend at Sunland Park.

The event, organized by the Sunland-Tujunga Lions Club, featured two Burbank contingents and representatives from the Verdugo Hills Golf Course Committee, a Glendale-based group hoping to save the course from a developer who wants to build 229 single-family homes on the existing links.

The committee joined with members of the Sunland-Tujunga Neighborhood Council at the three-day festival in collecting hundreds of signatures from supportive residents against developer MWH Development Corp.’s plans.

“We haven’t had anyone say, ‘I’m not going to sign your petition,’” said Lloyd Hitt, a member of the neighborhood council who works with the Glendale group. “People are very respective.”

But politics took a back seat to food, music and games during the event, billed as a fundraiser for local clubs in need of funds, festival chairman Ara Zeithlian.

About 20,000 people visited the three-day fest, each given the chance to donate $1 to the Lions who, in turn, will donate the money to organizations like the City of Hope, the Meet Each Need with Dignity poverty center and other charities, he said.

“Our charter says we cannot take one single penny from funds raised for ourselves,” Zeithlian said. “It all goes to charity. It’s nice because as the word gets out, it gets bigger and bigger every year. It’s a festival that’s getting more and more attention.”

Burbank has started to notice, as Hollywood Way bicycle shop Bicycle John’s was one of the vendors and the Burbank Music Academy one of the music acts to grace the stage near the eastern entrance of the festival’s sprawling hub of games, rides and its tent filled with hundreds of watermelon slices.

Bicycle John’s on Sunday hosted a bike race for children in which participants were asked to weave around watermelons along a dirt path, eat a piece of watermelon, turn around and speed toward the finish line.

The winner received a $50 savings bond that John Fries, the shop’s owner, said was a nice gift — instead of cash or a gift certificate — considering the harsh economic climate. But the real gift was the exercise inherent in the short spurt of bicycle riding, he said.

“There are long-term benefits for both,” he said. “The exercise is really important though. Eating right, exercising — it’s a tough message to get through.”

Diluting that healthy-lifestyle message was the multitude of sugary snacks and drinks available at the festival, he said.

But while some children shoveled popcorn and licorice, others played guitars and drums with the Burbank Music Academy, which provides music lessons to local students and holds annual fundraisers to raise money for arts education programs.

Four musical acts from the academy played Sunday, including The Knuckleheads, a quintet of Burbank students who started their set with Social Distortion’s “Ball and Chain.”

“They practice so much, it’s so good for them to get up there and play,” said Scott Strobl, whose son Josh Strobl played guitar in the band. “He absolutely loves it.”

The crowd during Sunday’s performance was less than the 2,000 who saw a recent Starlight Bowl performance, but the group’s owner, Don DeSimone, said this represented a great opportunity for the young musicians.

“One-third of people who ask us to play know us, so this will be different,” he said. “People are drawn in by how cute it is, but then they hear how they play, and they stick around.”

The crowd, which numbered about 50, filtered in and out during the afternoon sets, but applauded loudly after each song.

“I think this is real cool,” said Sunland resident Ramon Altaca, 47. “It certainly makes this [festival] pretty unique.”

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