Big City Entertainment Strolls Through Albany 

This year's Solano Stroll for Health turns a small town into the hot spot of the East Bay.

There's not a lot of glory in being the sleepy little town that's wedged between Gilman Street and the El Cerrito Plaza, whose biggest celebrities fronted punk bands or moderately successful rap groups — and usually lied about their city of origin. Not that there's anything shameful about Albany. Roughly a square-mile large, it's home to pushy PTA parents, a theater that plays underpublicized art films in perpetuity, and a dive bar that's managed to fend off modernity for decades and still keep its doors open — with the embarrassingly outdated name Hotsy Totsy, no less. Albany has the advantage of being relatively well-heeled and close to a metropolitan area, so it gets some arts exposure but still preserves the small-town character that it will forever be known for. No matter how many high-end restaurateurs come in, it's still little old Albany. And in little old Albany, the quintessential coming-of-age story begins the morning you put on your Girl Scout sash or your color guard uniform, and line up to march in the annual Solano Stroll.

I should know: As a failed Girl Scout who appeared in no fewer than three Strolls, I can assure you that this event was perhaps the best thing about growing up in Albany. And that was two decades ago, when the high point of the Solano Stroll was the dunking machine at the corner of Santa Fe Avenue, where a buck would buy you three chances to launch some poor teenage girl into a tank of brackish water. Now the Stroll is celebrating its 34th birthday with a definitive theme (health), to be interpreted by more than five hundred vendors, nonprofits, community organizations, artisans, chefs, and entertainers. As a whole, the event's gotten a lot more contemporary and exponentially more exciting; big enough to hold its own against Oakland's Art & Soul Festival or Taste of Bay Street. It's the one day of the year when the town becomes the hot spot of the East Bay.

Sunday, September 14's 2008 Stroll for Health will feature art cars, aikido demonstrations, the Berkeley High School Jazz Ensemble, the infectious R&B band Dynamic, Stymie & the Pimp Jones Love Orchestra, Scottish country dancing, steel drum bands, stilt walkers, the Oaklandish Mobile Operations Unit, Ellis Island Old World Folk Band, and roughly seventy other performers, plus culinary treats from every part of the globe (whether you've got a taste for Spanish tapas for a fat Polish sausage, it's all there). As always, the event kicks off with an 8 a.m. pancake breakfast at Veterans' Memorial Park (405 Kains Ave., Albany), followed by the parade at 10 a.m. The dunk tank may or may not be available for those who favor provincial forms of entertainment. SolanoAvenueAssn.org

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