A Greek festival in a Latino area? Zorba would say, ‘Why not?’

Sample souvlaki (meat grilled on a skewer) and loukomadis (miniature balls of fried dough tossed in honey, nuts and cinnamon), sip ouzo and dance like Zorba at the L.A. Greek Fest 2008 (Sep. 5-7) at St. Sophia's Cathedral.
(Courtesy of L.A. Greek Fest)
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

As ethnic stereotypes go, it’s not such a bad one: More than 50 years later, Anthony Quinn’s portrayal of earthy, irrepressible Alexis Zorba, a.k.a. Zorba the Greek, remains a revered embodiment of the Greek lust for life. And each year, the organizers of the L.A. Greek Fest try to bring a touch of that “Zorba spirit” to their celebration.

“The idea is to put a little madness in your life and enjoy the moment,” says Ted Pastras, who co-produces the annual festival with his wife, Jan. “That’s not to say you go crazy or you lose all control, but you put a little fun in your life and try something that maybe you haven’t done before.”

There won’t be any dishes thrown into the fire -- “It’s too costly, for one thing, and that’s something they only do from time to time in certain areas of Greece,” Pastras explains -- but the festival will feature a Zorba dance contest. And in keeping with the spirit of the character, the contest isn’t limited to traditional Greek folk dance. All styles are welcome, whether break dance, jitterbug or polka.

"[Zorba] would relish it. He wouldn’t care what dance you were doing, as long as you were up there doing it and having a great time,” Pastras says. Whether it’s a case of life imitating art or art imitating life, it’s hard to overstate how thoroughly the popular image of Greek identity is wedded to Quinn’s portrayal of Zorba. And yet the festival, like the movie, highlights a typically Los Angeles story of cultural fusion.

Just as Quinn was a Mexican American actor portraying a Greek character, the once heavily Greek area surrounding the festival’s site, St. Sophia’s Cathedral at Pico Boulevard and Normandie Avenue, is nearly 90% Latino. In 1999 the neighborhood was designated by the city as the Byzantine-Latino Quarter. Growing over the last 10 years from a humble church social, the festival is expected to draw 5,000 to 7,000 people each day, Pastras says. To create an event that’s inclusive of the overall neighborhood, the festival will feature a “Margaritaville” booth as well as evening salsa performances by Pablo Mendez and Charanga Latina. “In the beginning it was viewed as very unorthodox to fuse two cultures like that, but after the first couple years, the concept took hold. People loved the whole idea,” Pastras says.

But for those seeking a Hellenic experience, the festival remains devotedly Greek. Guest hosted by Tom Hanks and his wife, Rita Wilson (born Margarita Ibrahimoff to a Greek family), there’s Greek food, music, dancing and “A Night With the Ancients,” a theatrical presentation in which historical figures such as Socrates, Athena and Alexander the Great honor Zeus with the “This Is Your Life” treatment (7:30 p.m. Friday, 4 and 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday). And a troupe of actors made up like ancient statues, stationed around the festival grounds, will periodically come to life.

“We offer people an opportunity to come and be Greek for a day,” says Nick Begakis, the festival’s official chef, who’s preparing 800 legs of lamb for the weekend. “You can let everything go and just eat, drink and be merry.”