For Dolores Faherty, it’s the fashion of her childhood that first comes to mind. A light brown, ankle-length dress embroidered with roses, a bow tied in the back, a bonnet and lots of ruffles.
That’s what she wore to the first Santa-Cali-Gon Days in 1940 at the age of 12.
She can still recall walking through the festival in this dress, sewn by her mother, and noticing a “great, big sign” featuring the festival’s name. In the frenzy around her, men participated in a beard contest and a spitting contest – “I thought that was kind of gross,” 90-year-old Faherty recalled with a grimace – and horses trotted by with buggies drawn behind them. The William Chrisman High School Band provided entertainment.
“It was really quite exciting,” Faherty said.
Perhaps most shocking to those today, Faherty doesn’t remember what she ate at Santa-Cali-Gon Days – or even if there was food. However, she can still think back to the vendors’ vibrant wares, and her Aunt Ellen’s elegant wave and bright smile.
“She was the queen of the parade,” Faherty noted.
Faherty’s memories of Santa-Cali-Gon Days act as an overarching symbol for her carefree childhood in Independence. She walked to school at Bristol School in Englewood – now a post office – every day. After school and on the weekends, she would roam the Square with friends. Faherty would also take care of her family’s cows and chickens, and, above all, she danced, taking lessons from age 3 to age 17.
“Some girls were raised to be pretty. I was raised to be independent,” Faherty said. “My mom would say, ‘We’re going to Grandma’s, tell me how to get there,’ when I was 3 years old. The way I grew up – with cows and chickens – is a good way to live.”
“That’s why I could do so many things later.”
This early empowerment led to Faherty opening up her own dance studio at the age of 17, after her lifelong teacher moved to California. On her first day as an instructor, she welcomed 40 pupils. A month later, she began paying her own bills with the studio’s proceeds, kicking off an enjoyable and lucrative career that would span 35 years.
Despite Faherty’s studio setting in Independence and later Raytown, her work had national significance. She traveled across several states in a summer dancing competition and also helped judge pageants. Later, she taught John Lewis, who would go on to become a Tony award-winning choreographer and work with Liza Minnelli, Debbie Reynolds and Dean Martin.
“I was sitting in my living room and watched him and Liza get a Tony award,” Faherty said.
Though Faherty had a wide-reaching impact as a dancer and instructor, she continued to choreograph dances for Santa-Cali-Gon Days. In this role, she emulated her aunt as “queen of the parade” – walking in front of her young students and giving them an example to follow.
This year’s Santa-Cali-Gon Days continues today from 10 a.m. to midnight and throughout the weekend. For more hours and a full entertainment schedule, visit santacaligon.com.