by Paul R. Spitzzeri
In the first three decades of the twentieth century, comprising the end of the Homestead’s interpretive era of 1830 to 1930, Los Angeles and its environs were increasingly popular for conferences, conventions, and other large-scale events drawing attendees from all over the United States.
A signal reason for this was the incomparable climate of our region, especially for those in midwestern and eastern states looking for a respite from cold winters or hot, humid summers. The weather in greater Los Angeles was also a primary factor in the rapid development of the aviation industry up to 1930 in all manner of ways.
One was that the area hosted some important events related to flying, including the seminal January 1910 air meet at the Dominguez Rancho near Long Beach that was the first of its kind in America; the 1928 National Air Races at Mines Field (later renamed Los Angeles International Airport); and the subject of today’s post, the Western Aircraft Show, held in Los Angeles from 9-17 November 1929.
Highlighted artifacts from the museum’s collection connected to the event include a fantastic Art Deco decal, a four-page pamphlet that doubled as a letter from the show’s general manager, and a missive from the first letter’s recipient. They are important memorabilia from a significant event in early Los Angeles-area aviation history.
The Western Aircraft Show, sanctioned by the Aeronautical Chamber of Commerce of America and sponsored by it along with the California Aircraft Exposition Association with management by the Aeronautical Expositions Corporation, was held on a large undeveloped property at the northwest corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue. This is a very busy and prominent intersection today, with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures and the La Brea Tar Pits on the northeastern corner; and the Petersen Automotive Museum on the southeast corner.
Among the officers of the show were representatives from Douglas Aircraft Company, Metropolitan Airport (now Van Nuys Airport), the Axelson Aircraft Engine Company, and Moreland Aircraft Company. More than two dozen directors represented those and other aviation-related firms, such as Lockheed, Western Air Express, Kinner, Emsco, Boeing, Maddux and Pickwick, as well as William G. Bonelli, an aviation enthusiast, former member of the Los Angeles City Council, and unsuccessful candidate for mayor in 1929.
In a matter of five weeks, the show site was quickly put together with a massive temporary structure, parking and other elements that would accommodate tens of thousands of people during the nine-day run of the show. A little more than week prior to the event’s opening, managing director Clifford Henderson gave a talk at the Biltmore Hotel in downtown to the Los Angeles Junior Chamber of Commerce, formed in 1924 as an affiliate of the powerful Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce and comprised of young professionals (it is now known as NextLA and, in 2016, returned to an association with the Los Angeles Area Chamber).
In his address, Henderson stated the broad aim for the show as getting regional residents better familiarized with the phenomenal growth of aviation and, especially, to promote the importance of the airplane in modern American society. He added:
Air patronage must supplement air mindedness, active support must follow and prove our admiration of aeronautical genius and achievements if aerial navigation in Southern California is to advance as swiftly as our climate, facilities, and expert flyers give us a right to expect.
A paramount example of the dramatic growth in aviation cited by Henderson was with air mail service and he observed that, a year prior, 12,000 air miles were logged each day for this purpose. At the time of his 31 October speech, however, 40,000 miles were traveled daily. He also noted that, while there was one automobile for every four persons in the country, there was just one airplane for each 110,000 people.
Henderson went on to predict that “the divergence of the popularity and ownership of these two types of carriers will diminish with the passing years, but all of us must help to make more numerous ‘those that go up to the air in ships.'” The latter quote was a recasting of one from Psalm 107 in the Bible about “they that go down to the sea in ships.”
An accompanying photo from the 1 November article in the Los Angeles Times covering Henderson’s talk showed two female aviators (such women were consistently labeled “girl flyers”) wearing their suits, headgear, and goggles and holding an event poster. Two days prior to the opening, the paper reported that it was expected that 10,000 visitors would throng the show on that first day.
Moreover, noted aviator Art Goebel was to take off from Metropolitan Airport, traverse the Santa Monica Mountains and fly over the show site at night, lighting rockets from his craft. An electrical display, a common feature of many large-scale events in the city, was to be held and small craft suspended from the roof of the structure to emulate flight.
Celebrities from the worlds of film and flight were expected including Eddie Rickenbacker, who was mentioned in yesterday’s post about the Army Balloon School at Arcadia during World War I and who was a famed flying ace during that conflict, and four female aviators in the women’s race component of the National Air Races held at Cleveland.
Another highlighted “run-up” to the show was an “All-California Good-Will Air Tour”, which was to include fifty aircraft leaving Los Angeles on 4 November and visiting Santa Maria, Salinas (spelled “Salines” in the flyer), San Francisco, Oakland and Sacramento. It was anticipated that the tour would generate “tremendous publicity” and that the show “will benefit tremendously from the interest so aroused.”
The pamphlet also pointed out to potential vendors and exhibitors that “to miss active participation in the Western Aircraft Show is to overlook the one and only opportunity to display your product in America’s greatest all year market,” this being the western United States.
To highlight the importance of greater Los Angeles in the aviation industry, it was added that there were eighty-three airports in the region; more craft per capita than anywhere in the nation; over 1,500 licensed pilots; more than 2,500 flying school students; almost fifty dealers and distributors; thirty-three manufacturers of planes; and from 320-355 flying days per year.
Further enticing industry professionals, the document noted that “massed batteries of giant lights from Hollywood studios will sweep the skies, attracting attention and drawing crowds into the beautifully decorated interior.” Admission was just fifty cents to maximize attendance and “non-competitive entertainment will be provided.” To “build winter business, and develop increased sales for 1930,” exhibitors were encouraged to participate by mailing or wiring a reservation immediately.
There was good coverage in the Times during the run. A full-page promotion in the paper on opening day, the 9th, observed that sixty-five craft with a value of about a million dollars would be displayed, with about an equal amount of related equipment also exhibited in 100,000 square feet of space. It was stated that doors were open from Noon to 11 p.m. and there were about a dozen photos of the exhibition hall, a variety of craft, including the interior of one, and other scenes related to the show.
More lengthy articles followed during the ten-day event and there was speculation that Charles Lindbergh, whose solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927 made him one of the most famous Americans of the day and brought much attention to aviation, would attend, though it is not known if the “Long Eagle” made it.
A notable tie-in to the show was a talk given on the 14th at the Women’s University Club by Dr. Ford Carpenter, who headed the Chamber of Commerce’s meteorology and aeronautics department (yes, that’s how big the chamber was, to have so specialized a department!). Titled “The World’s Oldest Dream and America’s Youngest Industry,” the address highlighted “the initiative and enterprise of the air-minded citizens of Southern California” as demonstrated by the success of the show.
Carpenter added “that ideal weather conditions in this State, especially in the Southland, largely are responsible for the extraordinary activities in aeronautics throughout this region.” He noted that, while speed was always a prime advantage of aircraft, “for comfort the airship will become popular as a means of transportation over the ocean and between continental terminals.”
In particular, he poined to the Graf Zeppelin and its circumnavigation of the planet in 21 days in August 1929, including a stop at Mines Field in Los Angeles (a future post will cover that event.) Carpenter stated that the dirigible’s landmark trip “is a remarkable example of the safety and satisfaction in lighter than air transportation,” though much larger airships were in the process of being developed and he averred that future craft of the type would exceed 100 miles per hour.
The 1937 Hindenburg disaster quickly ended the hydrogen-filled dirigible concept and it would remain for jet travel to achieve the international aims Carpenter alluded to in his remarks.
By the end of the show, Henderson expressed deep satisfaction at the attendance numbers, which he pegged at about 115,000 in an article published in the Times on the 17th, the last day of the event. Three days later, a piece in that paper claimed that “public interest manifested in the Western Aircraft Show here last week leads the manufacturers of airplaces and aero engines in the Los Angeles territory to expect shortly after the first of the year a marked improvement in the industry.”
The paper queried local aviation executives and stated that there was “unanimous opinion . . . that both the direct and indirect benefits of the show would provide a great stimulus to the industry” and that some observed that the event was the best yet held in the country.
Comments were made about “the high class attendance at the show” and interest of professionals in aircraft purchases, while it was reported that Aero Corporation had some 400 interested potential flying students, including many women, and that a good many wanted to own aircraft. Naturally, the better off were interested in larger trimotor planes while “college men and women” gravitated towards smaller craft.
The 18 November letter on the flyer was from Henderson to Reed Landis, head of a Chicago advertising firm. Landis, a distinguished colonel in the Army Air Service during World War I and son of major league baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, was the first chair of the newly formed American Legion after the war and served in the Army Air Corps during World War II.
Henderson wrote Landis that “the Show closed yesterday evening in what I am pleased to say, was a blaze of glory, with a total attendance in excess of 75,000 people,” though this was 40,000 fewer than claimed in press accounts. He added, though, that “the show will return a substantial profit and the exhibitors feel it was a worth while and constructive merchandising medium, and this is even more important than the financial success of the show itself.”
Landis and others were able to secure Chicago as the location of the 1930 National Air Races and Henderson hastened to congratulate him on the achievement. Having been the promoter of the 1928 races at Los Angeles, Henderson gave Landis the benefit of his experience in the missive and added “frankly, I hope I may be associated with you and your associates in the enterprise.”
Not only was Henderson hired, but he remained the promoter of all future races, which ended in 1939 with the onset of World War II, and were all in Cleveland, excepting 1930 in Chicago and the 1933 and 1936 events at Los Angeles. Landis’ letter to a Chicago banker, transmitted Henderson’s missive, praised him as having done outstanding work with air races and shows, and suggested a meeting between the three of them in anticipation of the 1930 races.
As noted in a post from a couple of days ago concerning regional real estate listings, the stock market crash of late October 1929 ushered in the beginnings of the Great Depression. Naturally, the full effects could hardly be expected to have been discernible as early as the holding of the Western Aircraft Show.
The excited expectations of industry figures for a post-show bounce in 1930 were severely limited by the worsening effects of the economic downturn. The massive wave of bank failures in 1932 brought the worst years of the crisis. World War II, however, represented another unexpected phase for the industry—in this case, an important boon as military development and research pushed the aviation world faster toward the Jet Age.
It is interesting to look at these documents and newspaper articles from the Western Aircraft Show and see the existing state and expected future of the aviation industry. As for Clifford Henderson, who was a 1917 graduate of U.S.C. and an ambulance driver and Air Corps member during the First World War, he managed his first aviation show in 1924 when the first Army Air Service flight around the world took off from Santa Monica.
Henderson ran other notable shows during the 1930s, but also, along with his brother Phil, built the Pan-Pacific Civic Auditorium, an Streamline Moderne landmark completed in 1935 just northeast of the Western Aircraft Show site. The facility was the main indoor venue for major events in the city until the opening in 1972 of the convention center, upon which the auditorium was shuttered. Though declared a city historic-cultural landmark and placed on the National Register of Historic Places, the abandoned wooden structure was destroyed by fire in 1989. Disneyland’s California Adventure park has entrance gates in emulation of the facility’s facade.
Also the builder of one of the few ice rinks in the region, the Pasadena Winter Garden (1940), Henderson returned to military service in World War II with the Army Air Corps, serving at post in north Africa. After war’s end, he and a syndicate of family members and other investors developed the community of Palm Desert near Palm Springs. He died in 1984 and left an important photo collection to the San Diego Air and Space Museum, a remarkable institution in that city’s Balboa Park.