HAYWARD -- The city's homegrown Zucchini Festival returns to Kennedy Park this weekend for its 32nd year.

Although the fest's vegetable theme started out as a bit of a joke, the annual event has raised more than $2 million for local charities, said Rich Essi, festival general manager.

The celebration of the humble gourd came literally from a former mayor's garden, according to Essi's tale of the event's origin.

"In 1983, the economy was bad, and nonprofits were hurting. Mayor Alex Giuliani had council members over to his house and said, 'Let's come up with a festival to help out the nonprofits.'

Tine Cunha, of Castro Valley, checks out the entrants in the zucchini contest during the Hayward Zucchini Festival at Kennedy Park in Hayward, Calif., on
Tine Cunha, of Castro Valley, checks out the entrants in the zucchini contest during the Hayward Zucchini Festival at Kennedy Park in Hayward, Calif., on Saturday, Aug. 20, 2011. The annual festival, now in its 29th year, is expected to attract 20,000 people over the weekend. (Anda Chu/Staff)

"They were trying to figure out a theme when the mayor's wife walks in and asks him what he was going to serve with the steaks he was cooking. He told her to grab some zucchini from the garden. One of the council members said, 'Let's call it the Zucchini Festival,' and everybody laughed," Essi said.

They're still having a good time with the idea: More than 20,000 people are expected at this year's festival Saturday and Sunday. Attendance has been climbing the past few years after dropping off during the recession, Essi said.

Seven bands will perform each day, playing boogie-woogie, Latin music, rock 'n' roll, rhythm and blues, oldies and pop.


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Saturday's headline is Rick Stevens, formerly of Tower of Power, and his band Love Power. Headlining the show Sunday will be Frankie Moreno, twice named Las Vegas Entertainer of the Year.

"Frankie Moreno plays country and old style rock 'n' roll. He's faster than Jerry Lee Lewis on the piano," Essi said.

Zucchini lovers will be able to get their fix of dishes featuring the green gourd, including zucchini fries, bread, sweets, quiche and pizza toppings.

Hand-dipped deep-fried zucchini is one of the foods available during the Hayward Zucchini Festival at Kennedy Park in Hayward, Calif., on Saturday, Aug.
Hand-dipped deep-fried zucchini is one of the foods available during the Hayward Zucchini Festival at Kennedy Park in Hayward, Calif., on Saturday, Aug. 20, 2011. The annual festival, now in its 29th year, is expected to attract 20,000 people over the weekend. (Anda Chu/Staff)

"There's even a guy who puts a hot dog in a zucchini and roasts it like you would an ear of corn," Essi said.

Entries in the zucchini growing contest will be judged on most unusual shape, color and weight. The record zucchini weighed in at 37 pounds.

Young people will perform on the Bohannon Stage, and the festival will have rides for 5- to 12-year-olds. More than 150 artists, businesses and nonprofit groups will set up booths at the festival.

Money is donated to local charities based on the number of hours their volunteers work at the festival. The 15 to 20 nonprofit groups whose volunteers help out at the fest receive a total of $12,000 to $15,000 every year, Essi said. Nonprofit groups also run some booths. Vendors and festival visitors spend an estimated $300,000 to $450,000 locally, he said.

While the festival is far from a one-man show, Essi has been in charge since the beginning, though he first worked with a co-manager. He has stuck with it, he said, because nonprofit groups need the financial help.

"Their funding keeps getting cut. What are these nonprofits going to do?" he asked.

Contact Rebecca Parr at 510-293-2473 or follow her at Twitter.com/rdparr1.

Hayward Zucchini Festival
When: 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Where: Kennedy Park, 19501 Hesperian Blvd., Hayward
Tickets: $8 adults; $4 seniors, students; disabled; free for children under age 5
Details: www.zucchinifest.org