VEVEY, Switzerland -- Every quarter-century or so, this quiet resort town on the shores of Lake Geneva comes alive with an 18-day pageant that attracts thousands of people and turns the local population into a troupe of performers.

It is the Wine Growers Festival, a traditional celebration that will next be held July 29 to Aug. 15, 1999.

On a recent visit, tourism officials outlined some of the plans for the 1999 festival, without giving away the mystery that makes the event special.

The highlight of each festival is a live show of about two- and-a-half hours, scheduled this time to be performed three times a day by up to 4,600 elaborately costumed actors and singers. The last time it was held, in 1977, the shows attracted 200,000 spectators, and 4,250 people participated. Officials expect the 1999 performances to draw more than double that number of spectators.

The music for and the content of the shows are a closely guarded secret, but this much is known: Performances are traditionally themed on the four seasons, the work of wine growers and gods and goddesses from Greek and Roman mythology.

The festival was founded and continues to be sponsored by the Fraternity of Wine Growers, an ancient guild established at the beginning in the 17th century. The guild's headquarters are in a 15th century chateau in Vevey, a charming lakeside town that is better known in the 20th century as the home of Charlie Chaplin in his final years.

The pageant takes place in Vevey's market square, where a temporary, 18,000-seat theater is erected. A specially created character named Arlevin, based on Harlequin, the famous figure of Italian comedy, will be a mascot of the 1999 event. One of the special highlights of the events will be on Aug. 11 when an eclipse of the sun takes place during a performance.

Hotels in Vevey and nearby Montreaux are expected to sell out soon for the event; spectators can also stay in hotels all over the Lake Geneva area, including Lausanne, and take advantage of Switzerland's network of trains and buses for day trips into Vevey.

For information, agents can contact the Swiss National Tourist Offices in New York, Chicago or Los Angeles. Vevey has a Web site at www.vevey.ch.

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