The Big 2-3-5

Do birthdays make you feel old? Well, imagine turning 235—like Tucson is this week.

History lesson: On Aug. 20, 1775, the Spanish established a walled fortress, El Presidio San Agustín del Tucsón, near the site of what's now the Pima County Courthouse. That presidio came to be known simply as "Tucson," and became part of Mexico after the country gained independence from Spain in 1821. The area officially became part of the United States with the 1853 Gadsden Purchase. From 1867 to 1877, Tucson was the capital of the Arizona Territory. Our population was at 7,531 in 1900; now, the Tucson metro population is home to more than a million people.

If that little historical tutorial made you want to yawn (sorry), you might not be that excited about the 235th anniversary of Tucson's establishment—but that just means you're not celebrating it right.

Businesses throughout Tucson definitely are, and the Downtown Tucson Partnership, the Fourth Avenue Merchants Association and Main Gate Square have joined forces to create a massive party this Saturday—a party that will bring the tropics to you.

They call it the Big Kahuna.

"The tropical theme is a new idea for this year," said Cara Rene, the Downtown Tucson Partnership's vice president of community development, in an e-mail. "We know many Tucsonans crave the beach this time of year, but can't get to one."

One of the hubs will appropriately be the historic Hotel Congress, in the heart of Tucson's downtown birthplace. Congress is going all out, with a 22-foot waterslide in the parking lot, live Caribbean music and (for the 21-and-older crowd) a tropical party boat with margaritas and $2.35 tequila shots. Tucson's official birthday cake—this year, a humongous sandcastle cake (don't worry; it's not real sand)—will be cut in a ceremony across the street at Maynards Market and Kitchen.

Though all the Big Kahuna events are family-friendly, several are geared specifically toward children—because who loves birthday parties more than kids? Their epicenter is the Tucson Children's Museum, which will stay open late for a luau-like party with "aloha" sack races, hula-hoop games, a coconut toss and crafts activities, like making hula-girl paper dolls and paper-flower leis. Meanwhile, Richard Noel from local band Sticks and Fingers will play steel-drum music.

"The Children's Museum thrives on hands-on learning, so this is a good way to celebrate Tucson's birthday in a fun and interesting way," says the museum's Brooke Sanders-Silverman. "I think the children are really excited. I mean, who doesn't want to make a paper lei?"

One block over at the Scottish Rite Cathedral, in one of the most touted Big Kahuna activities, "Hawaii's Suntanned Irishman" Ernie Menehune will play an elaborate Polynesian revue accompanied by a gaggle of dancers. A member of the Tucson Music Hall of Fame, Menehune has been a professional entertainer for more than 50 years—and he definitely knows how to celebrate a birthday right, since he's had 87 of them.

"We're thrilled to have Hawaiian music legend Ernie Menehune play for the event," declared Cara Rene. "Truly, he is the Big Kahuna in town."

There are lots of other great activities downtown, which include a Gilligan's Island lookalike contest at the Riverpark Inn; a $2.35 screening of Road to Rio at the Fox Tucson Theatre; and a beach-themed art activity at The Drawing Studio. Up and down Fourth Avenue, restaurants and stages will host live music, a hula-hoop performance, a hot-rod show, a city-leader dunk tank and a tiki party at the Hut (whose giant tiki head is celebrating its own one-year birthday). Main Gate Square will feature nostalgic music by the Retro Rockets; a giant sand box; face-painting and balloon art; and numerous other activities.

"We encourage Tucsonans to embrace their history and come out and celebrate," says Rene. "(It's) important, because we're talking about a connection to the generations of families who have called this town home ... and a tropical bash is being held downtown, where Tucson was born. That connection makes this celebration unique and special."

Steve Dunn, of Hotel Congress, notes that Tucson is actually one of the country's older cities. "And despite all the bad press Arizona's had, Tucson has always been one of those places where we embrace everybody's culture," Dunn says. "That's one of the unique things about Tucson, and that's what drew me to stay here. It's our birthday, and we're proud to live here, and let's celebrate that fact."