Layering of cultures makes Solvang sweet

Danish Days, now in its 78th year, showcases the heart of a small town worthy of an artist’s touch

Photo: Folk artist Eric Dowdle This version of Solvang was premiered at Danish Days by artist Eric Dowdle for his upcoming TV show “Painting the Town.”

Photo: Folk artist Eric Dowdle
This version of Solvang was premiered at Danish Days by artist Eric Dowdle for his upcoming TV show “Painting the Town.”

Larrie Wanberg
Features Editor

Something about a torchlight parade conjures up memories of childhood folk tales, especially when the likeness of Hans Christian Anderson is in the shadows.

Then as the Danish Days torchlight parade in Solvang, Calif., enters the city park off Main Street where the statue of HC Andersen stands, a flash of color, music, and familiar faces of town folks lighten up a big screen to dramatically capture the attention of a large crowd of people, including families with young children.

On the big screen, the story of the “Danish Capitol in America” opened the 78th annual cultural festival of a town settled by immigrants 103 years ago.

This year, a special attraction was added to the traditional faire of foods, dancing, concerts, entertainment, and a park full of booths that demo the crafts of Danish heritage, either for participation or purchase.

Renowned folk artist, Eric Dowdle, who is host of public television show “Painting the Town,” premiered the public showing of his original painting that he held at the width of his two outstretched arms, titled “Solvang, Danish Village,” as the festivities opened on Friday evening.

The painting is a centerpiece of his upcoming 30-minute TV show, where tiny painted images come alive with a full screen video interview of the local artisans, ranging from bakers to chocolate-makers to wineries, and a host of traditional cultural specialists with storefronts along the idyllic streets.

“My wife and I first came to Solvang 18 years ago,” Eric said. “We fell in love with the setting and the culture, and five children later, we are still coming to our favorite town.”

“Of all the towns in my life of travels where I paint an artist’s view of a town,” he continued, “I picked Solvang for my upcoming pilot TV show on public television. The painting sets the scene and video interviews with town folk become the story.

I asked him if his five children—now ages 10-25—share his adventure with Solvang?

“They love to come here. It’s a place that has all the appeal of Disneyland, without the noise!”

“About 50 million people watch public television,” Eric said, “and when you combine art and live storytelling, you draw people, just like Solvang does.”

For a small town, Solvang does big things.

Solvang has a population of 5,300 residents and draws about 1.5 million visitors a year. The quaint town offers 16 hotels, 35 restaurants, 160 shops, and a full menu of events. The numbers attending Danish Days is expected to exceed 10,000 visitors.

Hans Christian Andersen, enacted by classic storyteller Randel McGee, captures audiences, by bringing familiar folk tales to life while demonstrating author HC Andersen’s favorite pastime of Danish papercutting. Master Papercutter Rick Marzullo adds genealogy to this “Papirklip” design art with scissors by scribing in calligraphy the names of ancestors, as if the paper-art were a “family tree” or creating wall art, telling the story of Solvang.

Each year, the festival has a “Danish Maid” who serves as “hostess” to many promotional events, and during the weekend. This year, Angelique Heron holds the honor. She is the third generation in her family to be a civic “ambassador” to highlight the town’s Danish ancestry.

Angelique, who is a junior at Santa Ynez High School, dresses in costume and welcomes people among the crowds. Her mother with ancestry from Jutland hosted the event in 1988, while her grandmother (born in Norway and married to a Danish-American) was the first in 1967.

In a curbside question to Tracy Farhad, Executive Director of the Solvang Conference and Visitors Bureau, who was the grandmaster of Saturday’s daylight parade and master of ceremonies at the opening event, said “This weekend is an enduring festival that runs across generations, over years of Danish traditions and the families who have lived it. Everyone that comes is part of it, no matter what one’s heritage might be.”

As she took a breath while moving on to head another scheduled activity, she added: “As a community, we embrace the culture of fun, foods, music, dancing, and wearing the traditional dress of our origins … or we design one for the occasion, like mine.”

Bent Olsen of Olsen’s Bakery once shared with me the secret of what makes Danish pastry so tasty to the palette: “It’s the layering of thin strips of a time-worn recipe of flattened dough, stacked upon each other and topped with frosting or something sweet,” he said. “When baked, it’s the airiness that holds the flavor but it is the recipe that counts.”

It occurred to me that it’s the layering of cultures in a small vibrant community that makes Solvang special, starting with the Chumash tribe, the Spanish times, the Danish settlement, the food growers in the valley, and more recently the abundance of wineries. Each contributes to a community culture, yet each has a “flag” to fly that distinguishes them, like the Nordic countries do by the national flags that represent them.

The architectural vision, the monetizing of artful style and design, the anchoring in images that reflect a village of nostalgia, the zoning that preserves its heritage, and its openness in governance—all add to Solvang’s charm and success.

Danes are known to be friendly, fun-loving people. Solvang Mayor Jim Richardson chooses to be without an official office. When I was first in town to spend a winter here researching my Danish great grandfather, I called him up for an appointment and he walked across a parking lot from his home to meet me at a small round table in a coffee shop, as if I were a friend of the family. That’s Danish hospitality.

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 26, 2014 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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Larrie Wanberg

Larrie Wanberg, 1920–2021, contributed features to The Norwegian American for many years, drawing on eight decades of life experience highlighted by three career recognitions: as a researcher through a Fulbright Scholarship to Norway in 1957; as a health care provider in behavioral science through a 27-year military career and awarded upon retirement in 1981 the highest non-combat medal, the Legion of Merit medal; as an educator, through a 50-year career in college education, culminating in the 2010 Public Scholar award at the UND Center for Community Engagement. Wanberg passed away in May, 2021.