Thursday, September 19, 2019

Balboa Pirate Days

Balboa Pirate Days, circa late 1940s.
It’s International Talk Like A Pirate Day today! But talking like a pirate is nothing new in Orange County. Balboa Pirate Days was a tradition started by the local Junior Chamber of Commerce in 1935. The dredging of Newport Bay to become Newport Harbor was well underway, the Great Depression was in full-swing, and local businesses wanted to bring potential customers to town.

The annual festival was held over three or four days in the summer, usually in early September.(Pretty close to today’s Talk Like A Pirate Day).  Festivities included a pirate boat landing and invasion, a kiddie parade, costume contests, musical performances, a street dance for Balboa residents, aquatic sports competitions, a treasure hunt near the pier, a musical boat parade at the Fun Zone, a beard-growing contest, tall ships holding mock battles, and a ball at the Rendezvous Ballroom at which the "Pirate Queen" and her court were crowned. In the early years, those in town who refused to dress like pirates were put on trial in a kangaroo court and were then subject to a dunking in Newport Bay, being put in a "brig" at the base of the pier, or paying a “fine” that went to charity.

Balboa Pirate Days (sometimes called Newport-Balboa Pirate Days) went on hiatus during World War II. But it returned immediately afterward, in 1946, under the auspices of the Balboa Improvement Association. It lasted until at least 1948. The event, writes author Jeff Delaney, “became a headache for police when participants got a bit carried away in their pirate roles.” Or as the Newport Beach Historical Society puts it, the event "got out of hand and created some unwanted rowdiness in Balboa."

By the early 1950s, the new and nearby Orange Coast College (team name: Pirates) took up the mantle and began holding its own Pirate Days festivities for students. It was certainly a much smaller event, but it continued in one form or another until at least the mid-1990s.

Also hanging on to some semblance of the tradition was the Orange County Fair, which incorporated the Pirate Queen beauty contest into its roster of events from at least 1951 – when the fair’s theme was “Ports o’ Plenty” – until the early 1960s. (The contestants were usually brought down to Newport Harbor for photo ops.) And throughout much of the 1950s, the Fair also featured “The Return of Bouchard the Pirate" outdoor musical play – a rather fanciful tale of about a real privateer who once raided San Juan Capistrano.