Whatever happened to the pillow fights?
Kenwood July Fourth festivities evolved to overwhelm this tiny town
By Jay Gamel
Kenwood’s World Pillow Fighting Championships were a victim of success. Many people living in Kenwood today have only heard about the annual pillow-fighting blowout that attracted up to 20,000 people – and more – to the town’s annual Fourth of July festivities. What began as a simple holiday game for local kids in 1967 eventually took on a life of its own, pulling in more and more people each year as it was picked up by media and touted as a quirky event in small-town California, gaining international fame and attention.
It got so out of hand that the fire fighters pulled the plug after the 2006 event, after 40 years of provided the wildest entertainment Kenwood featured for just about the entire run.
When I saw my first July 4 pillow fight in Kenwood in 1974, it was a mildly raucous, exciting event, sponsored by the Kenwood Firefighters’ Association. The event had a few dozen entrants from as far away as exotic Sebastopol battling their way to a final soggy showdown between two men and two women for the title of World Champion Pillow Fighter.
I’d never seen anything like it.
The day was fairly old when I arrived about noon. A footrace had already begun, the Kenwood Community Church breakfast had wrapped up, and the 15-minute parade was over. I followed the noise to the middle of Kenwood Plaza Park, where a 30-foot well casing stretched over the seasonal creek. Dry in the summer, the creek was temporarily replenished with fresh dirt and water to mix up a perfect stew of mud for losers to land in.
Contestants scootched their way to the middle of a pole and were handed a thoroughly soaked pillow. They wrapped and gripped those pillows like bull riders ready to bolt the chute, tensely waiting the “Go!” signal to start swinging.
You could spot the amateurs easily. Half the time they knocked themselves off with the first backswing. Those who figured their balance out fast enough slogged it out, blow after blow, until the bitter end.
Joe Benguerel and Sue Strong earned the first bronze tag on the firehouse trophy plaque that shows winners through 1990. Most of the winners were local through the first 25 years, and taking a turn on the pole was a rite of passage for many who lived here or moved here.
Until it got big and rowdy.
As often as not, both contestants wound up in the mud, with the last one to hit the mud declared the winner of the round. Best two of three moved on to the next tier. As they climbed out of the pit, a firefighter was standing by to hose off the mud stuck crown to toe, a pretty grueling experience in itself. Barring any distinctive size or clothing difference, it was hard to tell one from the other before they were hosed off.
By 1990, would-be pillow fighting champions were showing up from Australia, Germany, the U.K. and other faraway places, mostly guys, but a lot of women showed up to take a shot at glory. So, how did it get started? Joe and Denise Benguerel have been integral to the pillow fights since the first event in 1967. Tom Rooney, Kenwood’s resident kangaroo rancher, managed the San Francisco Sports and Boat Show at the Cow Palace, and another in Chicago’s Mercantile Center. A born promoter, Rooney got the idea from one of his frequent visits to England.
“He showed me a picture from a newspaper or magazine and asked me if I thought this would be something that would work as a fund raiser.” Joe shared the idea at a drill session and his fellow firefighters were in.
“It wasn’t unanimous,” Joe recalled, “but they all got behind it.” The World Pillow Fighting Championship was born. Up to then, on July 4 “maybe somebody decided to have a picnic, somebody decided to sell hotdogs. It wasn’t the fire department, just neighbors in general. It was nothing like it came to be,” Joe remembered. The first few years were fought on a 20- to 30-foot cast iron well casing provided by McFarren Well Drilling. That pole was eventually replaced by a tad-short-of-30-foot shiny stainless steel pipe — dubbed the “Silver Shaft” — now tucked away with other retired equipment in an undisclosed location. The original pole was placed over the seasonal creek that runs through the park. Fresh dirt was brought in and watered to make the perfect mud.
“That section where the pole was thrown across was filled with brambles and berry bushes,” Denise Benguerel remembers. “We’d come out of the fights just wrecked.” A move downstream solved that problem a few years later. Just when isn’t clear. Many if not most of the pillow fight documents may have been thrown out a decade ago. At least, nobody seems to know where they are anymore.
By the late 1990s, costs were skyrocketing as the event had to hire more security, put up a fence, check coolers for forbidden alcohol (you had to buy from the beer trucks that paid a percentage to the firefighters). “It would take a month after the Fourth to close everything out,” Denise recalls. “We needed permits for the park. We had to go to bartender school,” Joe added. “We paid many thousands of dollars to the sheriff ’s department, up to $18,000 one year.” Profits, which were never as high as most people think, went to buying medical supplies and equipment when the fire department asked for help. New firefighters were not as keen to contribute so many extra hours to preparing the event, and the state Alcohol and Beverage Control agency threatened to shut it down, and the FFA voted to drop it, after no one offered to take it over.
“That was pretty sad, after 40 years,” Joe wrapped up.
Editor’s note: There is much more to this story which will be expanded in a future edition of the Kenwood Press. Maybe in next year’s July 1 issue. In the meantime, I’m sure you can find someone who was there in a local watering hole who will be happy to regale those who will listen with lore from Pillow Fight’s past.