by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As we celebrate our nation’s declaration of independence and the ideas that were promised in that movement enshrined in the document, here’s a look back to an Independence Day celebration a century ago at Lincoln Park in the Lincoln Heights (recently changed from East Los Angeles) neighborhood of Los Angeles.
The featured artifact from the Homestead’s collection for this post is a program produced for the mammoth celebration that came a little under eight months since the end of World War I. So, there was a particular emphasis on peace that was part of the celebrations held for Independence Day 1919.
It was a full day and a full slate of activities on offer at the park, starting with athletic events and races from 10:30 to Noon, followed by a “family picnic hour” at which there would be the “cutting of the largest cake in the world” with it comprising a staggering 10,000 slices handed out free to those in attendance.
From 1 to 2:30 p.m., Gregory’s Concert Band performed and there was a community sing, as well. At 2:30, Meredith P. Snyder, who was to soon begin his third term as mayor of Los Angeles, was to give a “patriotic address,” as would Lorin A. Handley, a former city clerk and current president of the Board of Public Works.
The Gregory ensemble returned to play more music at 3 p.m. after the speeches and then came one of the more interesting elements of the event, an “aeroplane fight” that reflected the wartime prominence of flight with what was still a relatively new and evolving technology in transportation.
The late afternoon also featured a “monster free open air vaudeville show, organized and planned by the Pearl S. Keller School of Dancing in Glendale. Following this, visitors were encouraged to take “a strip around the park to visit amusements.” Another concert was held at 7 p.m., after which was “Borton’s Galaxy of Stars” and free public dancing.
The Borton program, also denoted as a “Grand Open-Air Vaudeville Show,” included dancing (including “shimmie” dancing and others), music, a juggler, “Hawaiian singers” Vera and Wilson, an X-ray demonstration, and Bessie McCullom, a baby acrobat. This element of the evening went for two hours.
Finally, there was a “wonderful night fireworks display,” though it is hard to image a daylight fireworks show! The program also noted that there would be “many special features . . . introduced during the day and night.”
To pay for the cost of printing and distributing the program, advertisements from several dozen local businesses were included, with merchants, banks, markets, grocers, undertakers, tailors and many others. It was added that there was “moonlight boating” at Lincoln, Echo and Westlake parks, with “music on the lake” offered each evening and on Sunday afternoons. This latter, as well as the holiday celebrations (with major ones at Echo and Hollenbeck parks, as well as the Hazard Playground not far from Lincoln,) is an indication of the investment the Los Angeles Parks department made in its facilities for the public a century ago.
In its coverage of Independence Day celebration, the Los Angeles Times reported that there were “conservative estimates” of between 65,000 and 80,000 people who came to the Lincoln Park event, a huge number considering the size of the park. The paper claimed that “a bigger, better, happier celebration of the Fourth of July than yesterday’s was never seen in this city.”
With the basic theme of peace animating the day, “it was the joy of being out of doors, in the city’s beautiful parks, at the beaches or in the hills” that led to participants feeling that “the thought that the dark clouds of war have rolled away, and a new era is here, a birthday for the nation, bigger and brighter even than the grand day of independence itself.”
As for Lincoln Park, the Times called the day’s events “a kaleidoscopic picture” with the throngs of visitors “resembling giant beds of various colors.” It went on to rhapsodize that:
Patriotic citizens, their wives and daughters, the swain and his maid, grouped themselves on the grass, they rowed on the lake, they wound their way along the paths and massed themselves on the new pavilion.
Recognizing the ongoing problems with firecrackers, the paper asserted that these were only occasionally heard and that, instead,
the thing that impressed the mind yesterday was the peaceful, restful, happy throng of people; a people that bridged that days of Washington and his triumph with the tremendous victory over the Huns and the good results flowing from the bloody battlefields of France.
As mentioned in the program, a central feature of interest was the massive cake, around which, it was reported, some 20,000 persons eagerly awaited the cutting. Previous articles in the paper noted that it was reputedly the largest such in the world and was displayed at Hamburger’s Department Store (the business was mentioned in last Saturday’s post about my talk at the Phillips Mansion) before being brought to the park.
Officially titled “The War Camp Community Service Cake,” it was donated by Edward L. Doheny, Jr., son of the immensely wealthy and powerful oil magnate who, with Charles Canfield, developed the Los Angeles Oil Field in the early 1890s and followed this with Orange County’s first field, at Olinda, at the end of the decade, and many others in the U.S. and Mexico since.
Doheny, Jr. served as a lieutenant in the Navy during the war and offered the cake, baked by the H[ans] Jevne Company and L.J. Christopher Company, as a birthday gift for the country. The cake was six feet high and eight feet wide with a miniature Statue of Liberty atop it and was to be cut into 20,000 slices (double the number printed in the program.) The Hamburger chorus was to accompany the cake as it traveled up Broadway to the park and a film company was to record the proceeding.
Upon arrival, the cake was put in place and the cutting commenced at noon using “a specially designed cake cutter with a knife of League of Nations proportions.” It was reported that the decorator was J.M. Dupont, who was a soldier with a French infantry company and who was a recipient of the Croix des Guerre (Cross of War) after being wounded in the First Battle of the Marne. He then moved to the United States, was discharged from French service and immediately enlisted in the U.S. Army, working in a transport unit. Assisted by a fellow Frenchman in his work, Dupont was quoted as saying, “if it is as beautiful as you say, it is my thoughts that make it so.”
The cutting was overseen by Captain H.C. Stone and his two-year old daughter, Priscilla, dressed as Miss America, made the first cut, an image published in the paper and included here. As the slices were distributed airplanes from Rockwell Field in San Diego passed overhead and dropped leaflets about the War Camp Community Service program, which was something of a precursor to the U.S.O in that it hosted social events for civilians and soldiers and directed the latter to libraries, gyms and “better sources of entertainment” for those on leave, rather than “lesser” forms.
It turned out that Mayor Snyder, who did not yet officially take office, declined to make a speech out of modesty, so Handley was the sole speaker. He made a point of injecting politics (something debated for our own 4th of July event today in Washington) by criticizing “the mollycoddles in the United States Senate, who are opposing the League of Nations [the U.S., in fact, rejected membership in that body, which was a chief reason for its lack of influence subsequently].”
Allegedly, this broadside elicited general approval and hearty applause, so Handley added that, while the Fourth meant more to humanity than any date in world history, “the League of Nations needs no defense; to defend it is to defend the Constitution of the United States, which is as solid as the Rock of Gibraltar.”
The aerial dogfight (maybe a precursor to the Blue Angels demonstrations of later years) held by the Mercury Aviation Company, a short-lived aviation company founded by movie impresario Cecil B. DeMille and housed at his own westside airport, used fireworks to simulate machine gun bullets and the tracings of these ordnance could be seen. Two lieutenants, who were trained aerial fighters and were army flight instructors, performed the stunt battle. The pilots first demonstrated air acrobatics before staging their aerial conflict.
As a notable sidelight, it was to be announced by airplane what the results were of that day’s the much-hyped heavyweight championship boxing match in Toldeo, Ohio between defending champion Jess Willard, who held the title for four years after a legendary 26-round bout against Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion, and newcomer Jack Dempsey. Dempsey, who was five inches shorter and forty pounds lighter, was not taken seriously by Willard and made the champ pay dearly.
Dempsey floored Willard seven times in the first round (today, the fight would have been stopped then), but the defending title holder managed to make it through two more rounds, before being unable to leave his corner for the fourth. It was reported as the most brutal fight in history, with claims that Willard was left with permanent hearing loss, a broken jaw, a broken cheekbone, broken ribs the loss of six teeth, though this was disputed and Willard did not appear to have most of these injuries after the bout. Dempsey went on to hold the title for six years and was an international star.
After all the performances, of which Elenita Sepulveda (styled “the Spanish Galli-Curci” in reference to Italian opera star Amelita Galli-Curci) was applauded for her singing and dancing; Dorothea Bull was given kudos for her cornet playing; and “tot” Rose Malin was recognized for her singing though she “had to be elevated for the audience to see her,” there was the “grand display over the lake” of fireworks which “closed a very bright and patriotic day.”
By contrast to the massive crowds at Lincoln Park, the celebration at Hollenbeck Park, to the south at Boyle Heights, was relatively modest, attracting some 10,000 persons for canoe and boat races, high diving, land sports, music, and a “confetti battle” by the Music Hall. Other programs at Echo Park, Hazard Playground and Salt Lake Playground (in the flats of Boyle Heights) were also described.
Any Fourth of July holiday will include accidents and tragedies and one report in the Times noted that there was one fatality. Young Lionel Lloyd, only ten years of age and a resident of South Los Angeles, was with friends playing with a toy cannon loaded with power and pebbles and shot into a board when a charge hit him in the chest. The boy died in an ambulance on the way to a hospital.
The article also reported that a firecracker was tossed into a truck loaded with refuse and exploded, destroying the vehicle and serious burning its driver, N.K. Edwards, a Boyle Heights resident. Fireworks were said to have caused at least twenty-six fires in the city. A Jefferson Park home near Western Avenue and Jefferson Boulevard was hit by a fire cracker thrown by a little boy and nearly destroyed, with $1600 in damage. Two other houses were reported to have suffered smaller amounts of damage due to exploding fireworks. Several grass fires in empty lots from fireworks were also reported.
While these celebrations consisted of elements we might not experience these days, like vaudeville performances, community singing, band concerts, and the like, there is much that is familiar in them, such as games, food, and, of course, fireworks. Obviously, the 1919 celebrations, being the first after the horrors of the First World War, carried a particularly special meaning, especially because America turned inward and significantly disengaged from international politics during the 1920s.