by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As Los Angeles exploded, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, from a remote, frontier town to a major American metropolis, there were many ways in which this was manifested, including its business and industrial base, the film industry, educational development, its transportation system, and many others.
Another important reflection of the city’s dynamic transformation, from the mid-1890s up through World War I, was the phenomenon of the spring festival, starting with a floral-themed one, developing into La Fiesta de Los Angeles and, towards the end, morphing into La Fiesta de las Flores.
In any case, the general concept was to promote the beauty and vitality of the region through parades and other events, usually held in the course of a week. There was, however, an important and central subtext: these fiestas were also a golden opportunity for the city’s business leaders to promote themselves. After all, if the fiesta was a net drain monetarily, there would have absolutely no incentive to continue holding them.
So, while the beauty of flower-covered vehicles, enhanced by the mid-1910s with evening electrical versions, the inclusion of “exotic” components such as Chinese residents marching with their massive paper dragon, the presence of marching bands, and other components were the overt selling point, the goal for organizers and community leaders was to market and publicize the City of Angels.
Tonight’s post highlights several photographs from the Homestead’s collection of the pageant held on this day for the 1915 edition of La Fiesta de las Flores. According to the Los Angeles Times, a booster par excellence of the city and region, there were 200,000 spectators lining downtown streets to watch the spectacle and another 50,000 who wanted to observe, but could not find space.
The Times lavished considerable coverage on the parade as well as other events during “Fiesta Week,” which was from Monday the 3rd through Friday the 7th. In the run-up to the parade, some of the attention given was by merchants in their advertising. For example, the Hotel Hayward’s restaurant at Spring and Sixth streets promoted their Fiesta Night on the 1st, with “entertainment de luxe” from 6:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. Among the performers were singers and dancers, including those playing “Hawaiian songs in their native languages,” a ragtime pianist, Russian ballet dancers, and two “prima donnas.”
The Ville de Paris, a department store that occupied part of a block between Broadway and Hill Street between 3rd and 4th streets offered two “floral events” and a “great sale of beautiful millinery flowers” in honor of the La Fiesta. The store also encouraged its patrons to “use the ‘Ville’s’ rest room as headquarters for meeting friends Monday, before and after the parade.” If those partaking happened to spend a few dollars at the store, then it was obviously well worth the advertising.
The night before the parade, Christopher’s, on Broadway near Sixth, encouraged patrons to enjoy a 50-cent dinner with tomato and okra soup, prime rib, peas, roast turkey with cranberry sauce and mashed potatoes, cake, pie, ice cream, and beverages. After that, guests were implored to “take home a ‘Fiesta’ brick” of ice cream with a choice of four flavors of a quart brick for just a half dollar.
Despite recent rains, the parade was scheduled to begin at 10 a.m., though a rain delay was built into the planning. Still, parade director A.J. Bertonneau, a Pasadena resident, had a message for participants: “Don’t be scared out, but turn out.” It was reported that the event would be the largest of its kind ever held in the city and that nearly twenty local cities had flower-bedecked floats entered in the highest class of vehicles for the parade. Over thirty floats were entered in a smaller business class and it was estimated that the entrants would line two miles of city streets.
Marching bands, drum corps, the grand marshal and his several marshals, civic leaders and politicians, police and fire squads, many members of the film community and others also formed substantial portions of the parade participants. Notably, there was a significant contingent of singing societies, veterans groups, and other organizations from the large German-American population of the city—this despite the fact that Germany was a main aggressor against American allies in the First World War, then approaching the end of its first year. Two years later, German attacks on American ships led to the U.S. entry into the war, which mercifully ended in November 1918.
The breathless headlines in the Times the day after the parade gushed that “Wondrous Rolling Altars Enshrine Fair Goddess of All the Flowers” and “Two Hundred Thousand Persons Marvel as Greatest and Most Beautiful of Southern California Fiestas Unfolds in Barbaric Magnificence Before Their Eyes.” Why the parade was considered “barbaric” isn’t really explained in the text, which took versifying to a rarefied level of excessive praise.
For example, it was claimed that the event was “the most entrancing spectacle that the Southland has ever seen into a progress that seemed lifted bodily from some old book of high romance.” Later, it was stated that “such another outpouring of eager humanity the city has seldom seen. A fine point needle, followed by a No. 3 silk thread, couldn’t have made progress across Broadway.”
Not content with these verbose statements, the uncredited writer went on (and on): “As for the floats, they were indescribable, unless one manipulates a pen dipped into the same fount of sunshine and gentle-falling rains from which a master hand drew his colors for the painting of the roses and other flowers which were used, with Croesus-like prodigality in this parade.”
In an editorial comment, the paper offered more unstinting praise concerning the event:
Los Angeles shows at her best when the spirit of carnival is in the air, and yesterday’s wonder pageant, described by many foreign visitors as the very highest achievement in beauty, construction, design and organization that could be seen anywhere in the world, found our city of the Angels in gala attire, gala mood, gala charm.
It was an exquisite pageant, and every Southern Californian heart must have felt a proud thrill as those wondrous blossom-laden floats and equipages passed up and down our busy streets, an exposition of so many sides of our wealth, its brains, its organizing ability, the beauty of its women and luxurious abundance of its flowers and foliage in such perfection and variety that no other part of the world could surpass.
There have been floral pageants from time immemorial, as long as history can record, but it has remained for California to bring them to so fine an excellence, so radiant a zenith of perfection. Each one that we hold excels the last in luxury, in originality, in beauty, where further perfection seemed impossible.
It was claimed that visitors to the city were stunned “in charmed wonder” at “the supreme miracle” of La Fiesta, which was “a veritable fairy transformation scene.” The editorial concluded with an address to the event saying that it was “without blemish, superb, glorious, a feast for the eyes, the heart, the mind, yes, and the soul!”
Despite the exuberant praise, this would turn out to be one of the last of the La Fiesta events held in Los Angeles. By the outbreak of World War I, the spring festival ran its course, though there was a one-off revival of sorts when the city celebrated its 150th anniversary in 1931 as the Great Depression worsened (Thomas W. Temple II, a budding historian, was a major contributor to the claim that the city’s birthday was 4 September 1781, which remains the day of celebration despite critiques that the date is off by a few days or so.)
In the 1970s, there was an attempt at a “Festival of Lights” and at the end of that decade and for about half the Eighties there was a “L.A. Street Scene” event. Come the 1990s and early 2000s, a Fiesta Broadway was held as something of a less-than- lineal descendant of the earlier fiestas and as a kind of lead-in to Cinco de Mayo celebrations. None of these could yield the kind of civic, business and resident enthusiasm, however, of the old fiestas, even as these did not include many Latinos and, aside from a token presence of Chinese, other ethnic groups.
As emblematic of a rapidly growing Los Angeles that was once described as more Midwestern than the Midwest and which displayed growing confidence as an exemplar for American might and greatness at a time of rising national power, the La Fiesta events are particular striking and worth remembering for their place in the history of the city and region.