The 49th Annual Greek Festival, which will have a new feature of an entertainment stage in the center of the venue, will be held Labor Day weekend at the Sacramento Convention Center, 1400 J St., from Friday, Aug. 31 through Sunday, Sept. 2. Festival hours are from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday, noon to 11 p.m. Saturday and noon to 10 p.m. on Sunday. Admission is $5 for ages 12 and older, $4 for seniors 55 and older and free for children ages 11 and younger. Admission is also free for anyone attending the event on Friday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
The Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation is not only known for its historic East Sacramento church complex west of McKinley Park, but also for its annual Greek Festival.
And playing an important role in the founding of this event was Eugene Fotos, who was raised in East Sacramento.
Today, the event is recognized as one of the state’s most popular Greek festivals. But the event, which was first held on Nov. 15, 1964, had a much more humble beginning.
Cosmas Alliapoulos, who was serving as president of the Greek Community of Sacramento and Vicinity (which was incorporated on Jan. 30, 1920), attended one of the earliest editions of the Greek Festival presented by St. Basil Greek Orthodox Christian Church in Stockton.
The event was first held at the Stockton Civic Auditorium in 1960.
Inspired by St. Basil’s Greek Festival, Alliapoulos asked Fotos, who was already a longtime Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation member, to chair a local food faire.
Fotos accepted the role of the event’s chair and began working with Lillian Psihopaidas, who served as the faire’s co-chair.
This faire, which is recognized as the first Sacramento Greek Festival, was the most modest edition of this now longtime, annual event.
This inaugural event, which was attended by 718 people at the Hellenic Center on Alhambra Boulevard and included a band, dancing and a pastry booth with few sales, netted $2,556.
Fotos said that a large part of this pastry booth’s inability to be successful was due to the fact that people were dancing around the booth.
“Because the people were dancing around the booth, (the booth’s manager) Mrs. (Vasiliki) Manolis, couldn’t sell the pastries,” Fotos recalled. “She had 8-foot tables (to display the pastries). The band started playing and pretty soon people started dancing around the tables and the poor thing, (Manolis), said, ‘I can’t sell. I can’t sell.’”
Eppie at the festival
In 1966, the festival was relocated to the Scottish Rite Temple at 6151 H St.
Among those in attendance at the 1966 festival, which raised $4,200, were Fotos, Bill Demas, Perry Georgallis and Eppie Johnson.
Johnson, who had opened Eppie’s Restaurant and Coffee Shop at 3001 N Street in East Sacramento about two years earlier, drew much attention at the event, as he wore a traditional Greek fustanella – an article of clothing similar to a Scottish kilt.
In remembering Eppie’s appearance at the 1966 festival, Fotos said, “I was shocked after I saw that. I couldn’t believe it. Usually (these fustanellas) are white and blue. But what did Eppie have? He had green or some strange color. And he picked (the color).”
During the latter part of the 1960s and 70s, the site for this event changed several times.
These sites were the Governor’s Hall on the old State Fairgrounds at Stockton Boulevard and Broadway, the Country Club Plaza mall parking lot, Jesuit High School and the grounds of the Greek Orthodox Church, next to the Hellenic Center.
Fotos said that the festival at Jesuit High proved to be a very lengthy affair.
“In those days, we just had a two-day festival – Saturday and Sunday,” Fotos said. “We had to pick up everything, because the school was going to be in session the next day. And we worked, we worked, we worked. There weren’t a lot of us working and we drug everything over to the trucks and loaded them on and we got to the church (in East Sacramento) at 7 (o’clock) in the morning. We worked all night long.”
Cal Expo and beyond
During the early 1980s, the festival was held for a couple of years at Cal Expo.
Fotos vividly recalled the 1981 festival, which proved to be a fairly infamous event.
“Just two days before our festival, an indoor rodeo had been held in the same building we were to use (at Cal Expo),” Fotos said. “The remaining multitude of horseflies and the lingering aromatic scent of horses were almost too much to bear.”
The festival was relocated to its present site at the Sacramento Convention Center in 1984, and four years later, the event’s earnings surpassed the $100,000 mark for the first time, as the festival raised $108,657.
The festival’s Greek cuisine and desserts collectively serve as a popular draw of the event.
These edibles include dolmades (stuffed grape leaves), souvlaki (meat kabobs), gyros (Greek sandwiches on pita bread), tiropites (cheese puff filo dough triangles), homemade salads, baklava (a rich, flaky filo dough pastry filled with walnuts, butter and cinnamon and soaked in honey) and loukoumathes (honey-dipped donut holes).
Food items such as imported Greek olives, cheeses, crackers, coffees, cookies and candies can also be purchased at the event’s pantopoleon, or Greek grocery store.
Another festival attraction is the agora, or Greek, marketplace, where guests can purchase items such as jewelry, artwork and recorded music.
Also attracting much attention at the festival are Greek dancing groups, who wear festive Greek clothing and perform traditional Greek dances.
As a family-oriented event, the festival also offers various children’s activities.
Fotos, who will turn 80 next month, said that he is proud of the festival’s longtime existence and popularity.
“We are very proud to be of Greek descent and to share our heritage and traditions with Sacramento area people and others,” said Fotos, whose nephew, Father James Retelas, serves as the priest of the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation.