The Santa Maria Elks Lodge 1538 will celebrate its 75th Elks Rodeo and Parade this year, and organizers are pulling out all the stops.
Though the marquee event is still a few months away, the Elks Lodge was abuzz Wednesday morning with talk of the rodeo, which kicks off May 31.
Tina Tonascia, chief operating officer of Elks Recreation Inc., and Johnna Clark, the rodeo's official spokeswoman, spent Wednesday morning discussing Denim and Diamonds, the theme for the historic rodeo, launched in 1943.
Clark said the rodeo has grown considerably over 75 years, but that growth has taken off particularly in the last five years.
"The community has really drawn together and made Elks Rodeo be one of the premier rodeos in the nation," Clark said. "Coming off five years of record-breaking attendance and success, 75 years is really a culmination of everything that makes this community and rodeo great."
This year's rodeo will feature the usual fare, such as the annual Beard-A-Reno contest, media clown school and Minetti Mini Rodeo.
But there's also new attractions in the works — on and off the rodeo grounds.
The Elks will organize a diamond dig, where contestants will literally dig through the dirt at the Elks Unocal Events Center in search of an oversized engagement ring. The winner of the dig will be rewarded with an actual wedding ring.
The Elks and the Santa Maria Times have teamed up to organize the rodeo's first cornhole competition, with proceeds going to the rodeo's mission to help children who are battling cancer.
The purse prizes for each rodeo event have gone up to $7,500.
This year, the Elks Rodeo Barn Party will be held in Joni Gray's honor. Gray, who died in November, was an Elks Club member and longtime supporter of the rodeo. She served as the parade's grand marshal in 2016.
The Elks Recreation Inc. is also making sure to celebrate its 75th annual rodeo in style.
Organizers displayed custom 75th anniversary belt buckles, baseball caps and cowboy hats at Wednesday's ceremony. Custom-made Yeti coolers emblazoned with the special 75th anniversary logo will also be given out as prizes to event winners.
The organization also announced some news within its committee. Peter Sterling has taken over as the Elks Recreation Inc. president after Phil Harwick, who held the position since 2012, died earlier this month after a yearlong battle with cancer.
"Phil had a great vision for what he wanted from this rodeo," Clark said. "One, he wanted to rebuild this rodeo and, two, the rodeo should just be a vehicle to give back to the community. Five years ago, we knew we didn't have enough rodeo fans on the Central Coast to fill our stands. So we had to go out and create rodeo fans. We have really tried to be innovative and creative.
"Now it's not about whether you're a rodeo fan or not, or whether you're a cowboy. Now it's a question of 'are you a member of this community?' Because this is the best family entertainment value. That's what this community is built on: families and traditions."
The Elks Rodeo will also host its Golden Circle of Champions dinner on opening night, May 31. The dinner honors 25 children who are battling cancer, with each child and family receiving a sizable donation.
Santa Maria Mayor Alice Patino, who attended Wedneday's press conference, said the rodeo has always had a philanthropic vision.
"The Elks have always been there for our youth," Patino said. "That's what they do. We've been proud of them for years."
The 75th annual Elks Rodeo Parade is scheduled for Saturday, June 2. The parade typically fields 125 entries and registration will open March 23.
Also, for the second year in a row, the rodeo performances will be broadcast live online at WranglerNetwork.com June 2 to 3. Entries for the team-roping events open on March 26 and close April 27.
The 2018 Elks Rodeo queen candidates will make their debut Saturday, April 14, at the Queen Kickoff and Auction Dinner, held at the Elks Lodge. The Queen Contest has raised and distributed nearly $12 million to local community youth recreation programs since its inception, according to organizers.
Entries for the Mutton Bustin' competition open March 19 and will close April 13. Entries for the Beard-A-Reno contest run from Monday through April 6.
Applications to enter various contests and competitions can be completed at the new rodeo offices, located at 113 S. College Drive in Santa Maria.