‘She won’t walk away,” Lady Gaga sings in her song “Dance in the Dark,” and it’s clear that the pop star’s scarecrow stand-in didn’t walk away from in front of a Cambria residence recently. She was driven away from Michele Costa’s home on the 600 block of Randall Drive.
A neighbor even saw the vehicle, describing it as a bronze mid-’90s square-type Volkswagen van.
Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon in many places for people to steal decorations lovingly created for the fall and winter season. In my hometown of Fresno, residents of one pine-tree-lined street have been stringing up lights and putting up displays for nearly a century on what they call Christmas Tree Lane. Periodically, something is reported stolen or toppled over.
In 2009, one resident created a cardboard cutout of the “Sesame Street” Muppet character Elmo. An hour after Elmo made his debut, someone made off with him, right in broad daylight.
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Thankfully, however, it’s been rare that anyone has pilfered one of Cambria’s scarecrows. Even as the festival has become more popular, drawing admirers from across the county and beyond, there hasn’t been a rash of thefts. People appreciate the scarecrows and respect their creators, which is as it should be.
Occasionally, something turns up missing, but it’s not common, said Cambria Scarecrow Festival founder and board member Taylor Hilden: “Usually, it’s a necklace here or a ring there, and sometimes it’s returned.”
The Lady Gaga scarecrow was away from the center of town and wasn’t a formal part of the festival, Hilden said. But the fact that residents from all over town and beyond are getting into the act only serves to demonstrate how fully the community has embraced the event.
Those scarecrows that are formally part of the fest are watched like hawks. Festival organizers send out a crew of eight to 10 people every day, which Hilden calls “the scarecrow patrol,” to make sure all the scarecrows are present and accounted for. There’s also a rain patrol to ensure they aren’t damaged during wet weather. (Now if we could only get some of that!)
Occasionally, a scarecrow does appear to go AWOL.
“Sometimes, people take them home to repair them overnight and forget to tell us, and we panic,” Hilden said. “Someone took Olive Oyl recently, and it turns out it was the creator.”
Some might be inclined to blame teenage mischief for the disappearance of displays from yards and curbsides elsewhere, but Hilden has a theory about why it
doesn’t happen much in Cambria. Students here, she said, are invested in the festival and the community. Twenty-five members of an art class at Coast Union High School contributed entries to the festival, and teens from an after-school YMCA program also participated.
“It’s a big deal for the kids,” she said. “It’s the first time a lot of them are doing something that’s outside of themselves and part of the community. It’s a point of pride and belonging to something.”
The festival, which Hilden conceived in 2009 after seeing similar displays in Nova Scotia, Canada, has grown in popularity during its existence, from 30 scarecrows in its first year to more than 400 now. Hilden said Cambria has inspired about 10 other communities to start their own festivals, including Exeter in the San Joaquin Valley. It’s rapidly becoming as great a tradition in Cambria as Christmas Tree Lane is in Fresno.
Speaking of which, the Elmo story has a happy ending: Two years after he was taken, his creator found him returned to his porch, as though he’d never left.
Here’s hoping for the same sort of happy ending with Lady Gaga.