Forever yours, Garlic Fest

Members of the Christopher High School wrestling team help put up the gourmet alley food booth signs Tuesday on the ranch side of Christmas Hill Park.

Larry Connell remembers when the Gilroy Garlic Festival was a fledgling vision with a dubious future.

“He brought the idea to Rotary at least four times,” said Connell, 78, recalling the dogged insistence of festival co-founder Rudy Melone.

The former president of Gavilan College became inspired after reading about Arleux, a quaint French town which held an annual garlic festival and considered itself “Garlic Capital of the World.”

“We unanimously said, ‘it will never work for Gilroy,’” Connell remembered.

Among other reservations, Rotary club members were concerned with the fact Melone originally wanted to hold the festival the first week of August – the same time slot as San Juan Bautista’s widely attended annual antique fair and craft show.

“We listened, and we said ‘no,’” chuckled Larry, relaxing in an armchair inside his Miller Avenue home.

All eight of the festival’s collectable “Herbie” bobblehead figurines grinned from their place of display on a brick mantel just above his head.

More than three decades later, Larry and his wife, Sally, belong to a shrinking pool of locals who experienced firsthand that fated August weekend in 1978 when history was made.

“That opening day was magic,” said Larry, a 1952 Gilroy High School graduate who moved back to Gilroy with his wife in 1969.

The couple was one of roughly 100 volunteers who got together at what is now McCloud’s Bloomfield Ranch along U.S. 101, where garlic bread, calamari, scampi, pepper steak sandwiches, pasta con pesto and beer were served to an unforeseen 15,000 visitors (as opposed to the predicted 5,000). Volunteers had to start recycling tickets because they ran out.

Sally still remembers Sam Bozzo – one of the event’s founding fathers and a past festival president – “standing up on the hill, looking up and saying, ‘they’re still coming!’” she laughed, referring to the unexpected turnout of people.

It was the start of something epic for Gilroy, and the beginning of a solid festival relationship that’s grown strong through three generations of the Connell family.

From chopping onions, to peeling shrimp, to selling cookbooks, to pouring wine, to delivering meals to volunteers, to working in Gourmet Alley, Larry and Sally have dabbled in just about everything there is to do behind the scenes at what is now the nation’s premiere garlicky extravaganza.

“I didn’t realize you could get your wrist hurting from chopping onions,” said Larry, who one year helped power through a four-by-four foot bin of onions.

He easily recalls one comical encounter with a non-garlic-loving festivalgoer.

While working in the pasta con pesto tent, Larry remembers a woman who stood in line for 10 minutes, which, “in the heat and the sun is a long time,” he pointed out.

When the woman got to the front of the line, she asked, “What do you have?”

“That surprised me,” he laughed. “I thought by then, she would have noticed the sign.”

After the woman got her plate of pasta, Larry watched as she “took a big mouthful,” then exclaimed disappointedly, “that’s garlic!” – and spit the food out. She threw the rest of her pasta into the garbage can.

“And I thought, ‘why are you here?’” laughed Larry.

Sally isn’t without her share of colorful tales, either.

The 78-year-old is alive with memories of a tree-fire in Gourmet Alley, visits from the Budweiser mascot horses and a frozen calamari crisis.

“They had everybody sitting on the floor of Gourmet Alley trying to get the frozen calamari out of the buckets,” said Sally, recalling one year when the festival ran out of calamari. “Remember that, Larry?”

“I try to forget about some of those things,” he quipped.

Even during their adventures outside of Gilroy, the Garlic Festival seemed to follow the Connells in spirit.

One year, while traveling with Rotary International to Munich, Germany, the Connells stayed with a Rotarian host family. When of their hosts learned where the Connells hailed from, he exclaimed “Gilroy!” and ran upstairs. He returned a second later with a German-translated Garlic Festival cookbook.

“And that was in the ’80s,” mused Larry.

Just down the street from the Connells, ironically, another volunteer who stuck with the festival since its inception is gearing up to do what she does best: Helping oversee the mass production of three different types of sauces for the calamari, scampi and garlic bread.

After 15-plus years spent manning the crop of 20-ton metal pots filled to the brim with bubbling concoctions, Judy Filice’s “Sauce Boss” title is rightfully earned.

“We were on top of it. Our section was always on top of it,” said the lively festival veteran, who came to Gilroy in 1937 but playfully declined to give her age.

Under her watch, “Sauce City” always ran like a well-oiled machine … except when it wasn’t under her watch.

After asking one of her helpers to “watch this butter sauce” while she ran to the restroom, “I came back, and it was on fire,” chuckled Filice, recalling how the sauce had boiled over, hit the stove and sent flames crawling up a nearby wooden pole.

After deciding last year she’s had enough of waking up at 5 a.m. to assume her duties as lead Sauce Boss during the festival weekend, Filice relinquished the title to longtime Sauce City volunteer Alfred Alciati. The 63-year-old Morgan Hill resident has been with the sauce group for 11 years, and volunteering at the festival for 19 years.

Ensuring that Gourmet Alley’s signature sauces are made “the same way we did it 34 years ago” is Alciati’s modus operandi.

When asked if her successor is living up to her expectations, Filice grinned and shot a feisty glance in Alfred’s direction.

“Don’t ask me that in front of him,” she quipped, jokingly.

As the distant cousin of festival co-founder Val Filice, Judy – whose husband was Joe Filice – lives up to her family’s legacy as person whose blood runs strong with the scent of the stinkin’ rose.

Similar to the Connells, Filice also boasts the entire collection of Herbie bobbleheads. The figurines sit arranged on a small marble table inside the foyer.

“As long as I can walk out there,” Filice replied, when asked how much longer she’ll continue to volunteer, “I will probably do this as long as I can do it.”

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