Jeff Jardine

Graffiti event always a year in the making

The 14th annual American Graffiti Car Show and Festival, hosted by the North Modesto Kiwanis, is pictured at the MJC west campus in June 2012.
The 14th annual American Graffiti Car Show and Festival, hosted by the North Modesto Kiwanis, is pictured at the MJC west campus in June 2012. Modesto Bee file

In June 2014, just three days after they wrapped up the 16th American Graffiti Car Show and Festival, members of the North Modesto Kiwanis Club met for what John Sanders, the event’s general chairman, called “a debriefing.”

Mostly, they talked about what went right, what went wrong and what they could do to improve next year’s festival.

Next year is now this year. Friday night, the annual festival begins with the Graffiti parade through downtown Modesto followed by the annual car show.

In essence, last year’s wrap-up chat became the first of roughly 100 planning sessions and subcommittee meetings to plan what has morphed into an enormous event for the city each year.

Thousands of people will line the streets for the parade that will include nearly 1,000 custom and vintage cars representing 110 cities from six Western states. Nearly half of the entries are Chevys, with Fords accounting for 27 percent, and the cars will range from 1920 through 1979 vintages. It will include 13 other specialty cars including Teslas and Ferraris. Many of those same cars will be on display at the two-day car show at the golf course next to John Thurman Field.

Every bit of it is volunteer, and proceeds go to charitable and spiritual causes, youth camps, education and individual college scholarships, with last year’s amount surpassing $102,000. Because it is all volunteer, Universal Studios allows the Kiwanis to use the “American Graffiti” trademark, which emanated from the 1973 film about teens, cars and cruising in Modesto and launched Modesto native George Lucas into stardom as a film director.

Clearly, these events don’t materialize. They are the result of tremendous effort, organization and cooperation. Between many of the North Kiwanis’ 100 members, recruits from high school Key Clubs (which are sponsored by Kiwanis) and members of other Kiwanis organizations, they have developed a highly sophisticated game plan knowing that if just one person fails to execute, the effects can be felt throughout the festival.

“It’s really rewarding,” Sanders said after a monthly club meeting Wednesday that doubled as a review and update for the festival. “Being general chairman is probably the easiest part of this. Everybody in this room today does (his or her) own thing. If anybody drops the ball, it would be noticeable. They operate sort of invisibly, working through the details.”

Lots of details. There are nearly 50 separate but equal jobs/duties ranging from advertising securing generators and golf carts, accepting entrants, handling money, enlisting the 22 food vendors and 96 non-food vendors for the car show, and finding enough volunteers to do the duties. And hey, someone has to make sure the Port-a-Potties are there ready to, well, go. Each category has its own point person, though several members are involved in more than one.

As Sanders spoke, five members met for a quick session to discuss duties of the corner captains along the parade routes.

Two decades ago, violence made cruising illegal in Modesto. A riot in 1978 ended with 60 arrests and 500 others receiving citations. In 1980, a police shooting left one man dead. Throw in a stabbing in 1991, more violence in 1992 and a gang fight that resulted in six people being shot in 1994, and the police simply said no more.

The North Modesto Kiwanis, though, brought it back as a family-oriented event, first with the American Graffiti Car Show in 1999 and then the parade in 2002 with the caveat that it would not be called a “cruise.” The car show went from Modesto Junior College’s west campus to the east campus and then back to the west campus, each move precipitated by campus construction. This is the first year at the roomier Municipal Golf Course, and Sanders hopes it’s the last move.

“The city encouraged us to use Muni,” he said. “We hope it is permanent.”

The change of venue, he said, means members will have a new learning curve.

“It’s going to be like doing this for the first time all over again,” Sanders said. By Sunday night, “We’ll know what worked and what didn’t.”

And come next Wednesday, they’ll compare notes and share ideas when they hold their first of 100 or so meetings to begin planning the 2016 car fest.

There’s no time to waste: Next year will be here before they know it.