3 Exceptionally Weird Bay Area Festivals We Should Bring Back

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Just the kinds of attendees we most enjoy at Bay Area festivals! These two are actually at "El Gallo de Carnaval" (the Carnival Rooster) in Mecerreyes, Spain. Shame.
Just the kinds of attendees we most enjoy at Bay Area festivals! These two are actually at "El Gallo de Carnaval" (the Carnival Rooster) in Mecerreyes, Spain. Shame. (CESAR MANSO/AFP via Getty Images)

As we all know, the Bay Area is one of those very special little corners of Earth where surreal niches don't just survive—they often thrive. Just ask the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. Or the Naked Guys. Or even Frank Chu, the 12 Galaxies protest dude. Our inherent love of the unusual is why we have a BDSM festival. And it's definitely why we have a second BDSM festival for people who think the first BDSM festival is too mainstream.

In truth though, we could be doing more, because—for reasons I cannot fathom—some of the strangest festivals in Bay Area history are no longer with us.

Without further ado, I present three festivals that we almost certainly should bring back. One of the strangest things about all of them is that they ever fell out of favor here in the first place...

The Annual Humming Toadfish Festival, Sausalito

Local cartoonist Phil Frank designed this promo poster for Sausalito's Annual Humming Toadfish Festival, in 1988.
Local cartoonist Phil Frank (of 'Farley' fame) designed this promo poster for Sausalito's Annual Humming Toadfish Festival, in 1988. (Courtesy of Sausalito Historical Society)

In the summer of 1981, houseboat residents in Sausalito began hearing a strange hum coming from the water. It came only at night, it prompted residents to check their electrical boxes for faulty wires, and it was compared by one witness to the sound of a distant air raid. "The humming is so strong,"  South Dakota's Argus-Leader once reported, "it is able to penetrate even the steel-reinforced concrete hulls of some houseboats."

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Speculation was rife about the source of the disturbing audio vibrations. Locals pointed fingers at Russian submarines, CIA surveillance, a secret sewage plant, unknown mechanical devices, and—of course—aliens. For a while, many people's best guess was that it was just another example of "The Hum"—a throbbing noise of unknown origin heard in remote locations around the world.

Then, in 1985, after years of disturbances, the then-director of Golden Gate Park's Steinhart Aquarium, John McCosker, finally figured out the source of the nocturnal humming. It was the plainfish midshipman—a.k.a. porichthys notatusa.k.a. the humming toadfish. The noise came specifically from amorous male toadfish trying to attract mates. "It may be the mating call of the toadfish," an unimpressed Yellow Ferry Harbor resident told United Press International, "but it plays havoc with the sex lives of people living here.’"

Regardless, for Sausalito residents who'd spent years puzzling over the mystery, McCosker's answer came as such a welcome relief that they decided to honor all that aquatic amor with a festival at the Sausalito Bay Model. Attractions at the preposterous Annual Humming Toadfish festival included: attendees dressed as fish, sea monsters and fauna; a parade of hundreds of kazoo players mimicking the underwater hum; audio recordings of toadfish calls; and a "living, hands-on" display of the animals by McCosker. According to the Petaluma Argus-Courier, the 1988 edition also included a marching band, Presbyterian church choirs, food stands, and beer from 20 California microbreweries. Plus? Each year a special attendee was crowned King of the Humming Toadfish.

Sadly, I can find no existing footage of any of this nonsense.

Oakland's Wild Duck Festival, Lake Merritt

Girls dance, while ducks fly overhead at Lake Merritt's Annual Duck Festival, New Year's Day 1923.
An outtake from 'The Wicker Man.' Just kidding. It's a scene from 1923's Annual Duck Festival, held on New Year's Day at Lake Merritt. (Courtesy of the California Historical Society)

The photo, taken on the shores of Lake Merritt on New Year's Day 1923, looks positively pagan. A circle of girls, dressed in white tights, bonnets and frilly dresses, dancing while clutching an extra long feather boa. Behind them in the lake and flying over their heads is the reason for their strange dance: scores of ducks. This was the Annual Wild Duck Festival in Oakland and—just look at that photo, man—it was pretty eccentric.

Given under the direction of the Oakland Playground Department, and funded by the Oakland City Council ($460 was provided for it in 1921), the duck festival was first held in 1920. That year also marked the 50th anniversary of Lake Merritt's wild duck refuge—a sanctuary first conceived by Dr. Samuel Merritt. Merritt wanted to protect both the birds and surrounding residents from hunters' gunfire, as well as from dogs and cats, which were subsequently banned. By 1915, organized feeding of the ducks—with corn, wheat and crumbled loaves of bread—had also begun.

In 1921, an estimated 15,000 people came to greet the wild ducks on New Year's Day. The following year, the neighborhood celebration was described by newspapers around the country as "A pageant of decorated boats on the lake, and a parade of decorated automobiles on the drives surrounding the bird sanctuary." As the above photo illustrates, "hundreds of children from the Oakland public schools, all in costume, danced folk and outdoor dances on the lawn bordering the lake."

Kansas newspaper the Phillipsburg News even compared the Wild Duck Festival to "what the Tournament of Roses is to Pasadena, or Shrove Tuesday is in New Orleans." The paper reported that "the entire city took a holiday" to go to the park. There are worse ways to get rid of a New Year's Day hangover, I guess.

Banana Slug Festival, Guerneville

A banana slug race in action, as seen in the 'Press Democrat' on Oct. 15, 1987.
A banana slug race in action, as seen in the 'Press Democrat' on Oct. 15, 1987. ('The Press Democrat')

This outlandish celebration of Northern California banana slugs was born from the fact that—as one Monte Rio resident told the Los Angeles Times in 1987—"Other small towns had something to celebrate, but nothing will grow under our redwoods ... except the banana slug."

Cue a festival that became infamous in the late '80s for combining slug races for kids at one end, and slug tastings for grossed out grown-ups at the other. Inspired by the knowledge that Yurok indigenous people once ate the slimy yellow friends (fried, apparently), competitors in the festival's cooking competition tried endlessly to make the dead slugs more palatable. Dishes offered up over the years included slug Wellington, slug enchiladas, slug sushi and slug focaccia bread.

In some years, the festival also held a competition to find a "Super Slug"—though all the winning slug had to do was weigh more than of all the other slugs in the category. According to Tacoma, Washington's News Tribune newspaper, after the 1990 winner was announced, the slug was "dressed in a velveteen cape, presented on a purple pillow, and carried to theme music from Rocky."

Slugfest became so infamous that, in 1989, the New York Times printed an extensive report about it. That year, the festival was picketed by protesters who were alarmed at all the slug consumption. The newspaper of record reported:

Bearing placards that read 'Animals Suffering For Petty Human Amusement,' the protesters took particular offense at an advertisement in a local weekly newspaper that explained how to prepare a slug for cooking. The instructions included ... feeding the slug corn meal for a week to purge it of whatever else it's been eating and soaking it in vinegar to remove the mucous that coats its body. But what really infuriated the protesters was the assurance that live slugs thrown into boiling water 'scream a lot less than lobsters.'

The Times went on:

Some of the protesters abandoned their principles long enough to watch the slug races, which were won by Slimer, who is owned and trained by 12-year-old Nina King. ... How, Nina was asked, had she trained Slimer for the big race? 'I played with him after school a lot,' she said. 'And today I just yelled 'C'mon, C'mon.'

The Times also acknowledged an unfortunate incident one year when one of the culinary judges was inspired to go rogue. Mid-tasting, he crossed the room, snatched one of the racing slugs off a table and ate it alive. "It's the only time I ever saw a man turn green," one witness reported.

In short, the Slugfest was anarchy. And while costume competitions for the slugs would probably be significantly more fun than eating them, the Banana Slug Festival is definitely something we should bring back. In 2009, a Banana Slugs Facebook account wrestled with the same thought, and reached a similar conclusion.

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"They eat the banana slugs, and that feels wrong," the post said. "But at the same time, those slugs are being celebrated in a way, and their lives are contributing happiness to the people around them. What would Kant say?"