“A Most Gorgeous Pageant”: A Photo from La Fiesta de Los Angeles, April 1894

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Four years after Pasadena launched its Tournament of Roses, business figures in Los Angeles ushered in their own carnival and pageant, La Fiesta de Los Angeles.  It was held over four days between 10-13 April 1894, the year after a national depression erupted, and so it was timely enough in the effort to promote the city and regional economy as well as provide a pleasant diversion for residents of greater Los Angeles.

There was a special irony in the fact that, though the carnival was touted as a “fiesta,” the gradual transformation of the pueblo to a burgeoning city meant the physical removal of much of the Spanish and Mexican landscape and, increasingly, the confinement of most Spanish-speaking residents into districts like Sonoratown, north of the Plaza.

Los Angeles Express, 2 April 1894.

Moreover, the Merchants’ Association formed to organize the event and almost all of those who participated in the various events were Anglos, though the grand marshal was Nicolás Covarrubias (1839-1924), who came from early families settling in Spanish California, including his mother’s Carrillo ancestors.  Covarrubias, a long-time stable owner, was among those Californios renowned for superb horse-riding skills and served several terms as sheriff of Santa Barbara County, where he was born and lived for most of his early life.

Chosen as the first queen of La Fiesta was Suzanne Childs, whose nursery owner and real estate developer father, Ozro, has been featured several times in this blog, including a photo of the family estate, and, most recently, his Grand Opera House.  A great deal of attention was given to her and the pageantry associated with her “holding court” on the first day of the festivities.

Los Angeles Times, 3 April 1894.

In the run-up to the festivities, a rather remarkable full-page advertisement in the Los Angeles Times was taken out by merchant J.T. Sheward, whose store was on Main Street north of 1st Street about where the Civic Center is now.  While keen to broadcast his goods, Sheward also spent much of the space on promoting the fiesta, including the observation that “the Merchants’ Association is about five months old, yet we have accomplished more within the past five months than older cities have in five years.”

Working up quite a booster’s lather, Sheward added

Born of enterprise, with faith in the most attractive city on earth, we present to you festivities of the highest character.  Every dollar will be honestly spent and honestly accounted for.  Los Angeles is the giant city of the Far West; what Chicago is to the East, Los Angeles is to the West.  A word of explanation.  Heretofore the merchants of Los Angeles have been ignored—not by the elements that make up the better part of the community, but by politicians and the rougher element.  We believe that the time has arrived when the better element should be consulted on all matters of the greatest importance that pertains to the welfare of the whole people, not from a political standpoint but from a point of interest for the welfare of the entire community.  La Fiesta will be a success—a success of the highest character.

This may have been about as pointed a mission statement for the festival from the point of view of a reformist attitude among the city’s merchant class and its growing power economically, politically and socially.

Los Angeles Herald, 7 April 1894.

Sheward even took the opportunity to proclaim that the City of Angels should draw inspiration from its merchants and “start a new era of prosperity upon a broader plane” that the typical comparisons with San Francisco, which “must shoulder her own responsibilities” for her own “rottenness.”  Los Angeles, he announced, “is a new world formed with higher motives—broader principles and greater ambitions” as the “Chicago of the West—the ambitious, prosperous city of the western hemisphere.”

It was quite an agenda, both Sheward’s and the program for the event.  The first day, the 10th, was “Historical Day” with a parade at 1 p.m. starting from Hill and Ninth streets and moving north on Hill to a reviewing stand, where Queen Suzanne awaited with her court.  It then wended its way through downtown to the Plaza, circled the historic center of the city, and then went south on Main to Sixth Street where the procession ended.

Express, 7 April 1894.

There were some Latinos among the fiesta staff who formed the main procession group, with surnames like Estudillo, Aguirre, Avila, Sepulveda, and Lopez among the nearly three dozen names.  There were “visiting aides” as well and, of thirty names, five were Latino.  There were six divisions of marchers with floats representing such concepts as “Prehistoric California” but with an escort of “Aztec Indians;” “Landing of Cabrillo;” “The Old Missions;” “Prairie Schooner;” “Early Mining Days;” “Irrigation;” “Solid Prosperity;” and so on.

Other floats and procession elements represented local cities like Pomona and Santa Monica.  There were some for fraternal organizations such as the Italian Benevolent Society, the Knights of Pythias, the Maccabees, the Turnverein Germania and the Legion Francaise.  Still others represented businesses including Los Angeles Business College, brewers Maier and Zobelein, and the store of prominent organizer Max Meyberg.  Finally, there were the “Colored People’s Float” and the “Oriental Float (Chinese)” as a gesture to two ethnic groups who were generally despised or largely ignored.


Herald, 11 April 1894.

In its breathless coverage of the first day, the Los Angeles Herald spared no amount of purple prose of praise, proclaiming that “joy is the thought, mirth the deed, and gala the day” as “pleasure’s magic wand has been waved o’er the city, and arrayed in magnificent garments” with music, dancing, the parade, feasting and other revels.  As “the sun was highest in the heavens, the queen came from her palace in the land of mystery . . . [and] came to rule over the city of the angels whilst the carnival shall last.”

Then, there was a strange accounting of another aspect of the day’s events:

At 10 o’clock the most animated spot in the city was on Los Angeles street where Chinatown faces the plaza.  It was like bedlam on a rampage.  The Chinese display was then forming.  Around the plaza, where the great Chinese float, representing the amalgamation of the six nations, stood, the scene presented might have been mistaken for a war between six nations of Chinamen.  Two Chinese bands were hard at work upon the Two Little Girls in Blue and Annie Rooney [two popular songs of the day], with Chinese variations.  It was an overdone imitation of a boiler factory in full operation.  And all the inhabitants of Chinatown, with la fiesta colors entwined in their pigtails curiosity sticking out of their oblong eyes and a grin relaxing their features, were there.  They jostled and jammed each other at a furious rate, all anxious to do something, and no one doing it.

As for the parade, the paper’s representative claimed to hear exclamations “from every spectator” like “Magnificent!” “Gorgeous!” “Bewildering!” and “Immense” and added the vernacular of a “street urchin” who was said to burst out with “Golly! but hain’t she a dazzler?  Bet yer life, she’s a hun.”

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Herald, 11 April 1894.

With all that took place on that opening day, the Herald asserted, “perhaps the most exhilarating thought the merchants of Los Angeles can get out of this first day of the carnival comes from the sight of the crowds that have gathered to see it.”  It averred that the fiesta “will be a tremendous, overwhelming success” and alleged that “there has never been such an attendance upon any public entertainment in this city in all its history before.”  Moreover, “it was as orderly a gathering as could well be, without a disgraceful or unsightly feature.”

The Times, too, gave extensive coverage of the first day with its own plaudits about the event that animated “streets resplendent with flying bunting and alive with the noise and bustle of celebration.”  The paper felt that “never before, since the days when the city was numbered among the sleepy Mexican pueblos, have its inhabitants joined so thoroughly into the spirit of the occasion . . . and will continue to do so throughout the remaining days of the carnival.”

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Herald, 11 April 1894.

By noon, crowds from the suburbs poured in on trains and the throngs crowded downtown streets.  The Times stated that there were those “who looked upon the idea [of holding a festival] as unfeasible and utterly impracticable” but with the success of the day’s events, “the hope was voiced on every side that the future of ‘La Fiesta,’ as an annual event” might be assured.

The paper reported, as did the Herald, on the singing of songs at the opening ceremony, including one to the tune of “America” and which included as lyrics:

Welcome, thou Angel Queen,

Never before here seen

To thee we sing

Give us of love and life,

Keep us from war and strife.

Help, Comus [Greek god of festivals], please us all

Help him, oh Queen!

Mayor Thomas E. Rowan bestowed a golden key to Suzanne Childs and uttered a short speech, including the statement that “I hand to thee the golden key of the Angel City which no less power could wrest from me that that of La Reina de la Fiesta.”  To this, a member of a chorus responded, “At her angelic Majesty’s bidding, I take from you this golden key of your city’s portals to the end that you, as the city’s highest representative, bow in subjection to her royal power.”  A herald then cried out, “Let care and strife be banished.  Let my good and faithful subjects abandon all material pursuits.  Let them devote themselves to the delight of my benign reign.”

Times, 11 April 1894.

The parade with its historical allegorical floats then commenced, including Indians in tepees, Cabrillo’s ship, the California missions, and so on.  One not mentioned above was the “Busted Boom” including a “dismantled boom real-estate office” and a man drowning his sorrows at a bar while a carriage of “boomers” were “fishing for suckers.”  This was followed by “Solid Prosperity” which included a chariot filled with an enormous money bag.

Notably, the Times referred to the Chinese float as an example of how “all the skill and all the art of the Orient had been turned loose” and made the entry “one of the most gorgeous ever witnessed.”  One of the colorful costumes was said to cost $2,300 and the several vehicles were described in some detail, including one representing “six kings who reigned [in China] some 2000 years ago.”

Express, 11 April 1894.

Whereas the Herald and Times declined to say much about the economic impact of the fiesta and the crowds attending it, the Express did report that “conservative business men estimate that this festival will bring in over $500,000 into the city.”  Balancing that with the cost of putting the event on, it was “acknowledged that the affair is a most profitable one to the city.”

Stating that visitors to the city from the east were generally the most impressed, the paper echoed what the Times said and a New York judge told a reporter that seeing the Chinese entry in the parade “was well worth the trouble and expense of coming to Southern California.”  Moreover, the paper gushed that “the fact is that the magnificent display made by the Chinese was a source of general comment everywhere.”  Generally, however, the Express was far less comprehensive and lyrical in its coverage.

This cabinet photo from the museum’s holdings shows one of the floats in the daytime parade held either on the first or fourth day of the festival.

The highlighted photograph here from the Homestead’s collection is of one of the floats from the daytime parades that were held on Tuesday and Friday, although it is difficult to discern which of the two days it was or which entry, based on the detailed lists provided by the press.  There appears to be a lighthouse on the float, which is led by men in metal helmets and wearing knee-length tunics with large triangular tassels.

Although this post is confined to the first day’s activities, the success of the four-day event allowed for the continuation of the event, later known as La Fiesta de las Flores, to for over twenty years.  World War One brought the end of the festival, though there was a one-time revival in 1931 for the sesquicentennial of the founding of Los Angeles.  The museum has more photographs in its collection of La Fiesta events and a few other items, including sheet music, pins, stationery, souvenir programs and others, so there will be future posts to feature these items.


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