by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As several past posts on this blog have discussed, an annual spring pageant was held at Los Angeles by its powerful business interests and which promoted of the city’s growing economic might through a highly stylized and romantic appropriation of the pre-American city’s past that was largely overrun and then resurrected in a shallow and superficial way.
Launched as La Fiesta de Los Angeles and recast as La Fiesta de los Flores, the festival, held at intervals from 1894 through 1916, was promoted by The Merchants and Manufacturers’ Association of Los Angeles, and today’s highlighted object from the Homestead’s holdings, a souvenir pamphlet published for the 1902 edition, includes an essay by the organization’s long-time secretary, Felix J. Zeehandelaar, that is redolent with the romanticism that animated those who ran the event.
A generous sampling of Zeehandelaar’s purple prose paints the picture:
The Los Angeles Fiesta is to Southern California what the Mardi Gras is to New Orleans or the ceremonies of the Veiled Prophet to St. Louis. It was inaugurated in 1894, supposedly to mark the passing of winter and to hail the advent of spring; for in this tropic clime, where Flora twines rose garlands through all the winterless year, there is only the calendar to remind one of the changing seasons.
It was in April, the June-time of California, when the days are golden with sunshine, glad with the song of birds, and odorous with the perfume of roses, that the first Queen of Fiesta received from the Mayor the keys of the city, and issued her proclamation.
In this proclamation it was made known to all loyal subjects that the sovereign Queen-elect of La Fiesta de Los Angeles most earnestly desired that pernicious care, and even the wisdom of sages, be banished utterly from the realm for the space of many days following; and that, during her reign, joy, unwisdom and folly should have full sway.
After describing that inaugural year’s festivities, Zeehandleaar (who later was unsuccessfully targeted by the radical McNamara brothers when they bombed the Times building in 1910) concluded by observing that “The Fiesta of 1902 is conceded to be the most successful ever held” and noted that it was held in conjunction with two national conventions, events that were becoming more common in Los Angeles: that of the fraternal organization, the Independent Order of Foresters, formed by a Mohawk Indian doctor in Canada in 1874 and which is now Foresters Financial, specializing in life insurance, and of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, established in New York in 1890 as women’s clubs were becoming a more prominent fixture of American society.
Tourism was becoming a major force in the greater Los Angeles economy and the Fiesta looked to tap into that market for its efforts, including encouraging visitors to consider resettling in the city and region, thereby adding to and strengthening the area’s diversifying industries through business ownership and labor.
The Los Angeles Times, whose owner and publisher, Harrison Gray Otis, was a powerful pro-business figure in the region, provided extensive coverage to the Fiesta because of the ties of Otis to The Merchants and Manufacturers’ Association, and its 1 May edition included an article that employed a heightened form of rhetoric to promote the event.
Titled “Like a Dream, But It’s Real,” the piece noted that the three-day events began with a day devoted to another fraternal order, the Elks, including “a grotesque parade,” this probably meaning comical and fanciful and a minstrel show put on by the organization at the Los Angeles Theatre, while the third day was focused on horses, including races. The middle day included the centerpiece of the Fiesta, the floral parade through downtown.
The opening paragraphs were of a tenor of Zeehandelaar’s essay:
It was the dreamy, tawny dusk of a brief, but perfect twilight; the time, yesterday. It was in a country where the drama of the seasons is unknown, where the four acts of the perpetual play are always one, and that a gauzy summer. It was in a city whose pulsing life throbs with a passion of new-world growth. There the purpling, artificial dawn came down. It was the blossom of the Fiesta’s glory that in the next three days will ripen into luscious fruit.
It was a dream that man, the alchemist, had stored within the carbon’s subtle coil and loosed to snare the splendor of the starry night. It was born with a gentle murmur and came upon the town by stealth. The streets were charmed with light and flame, and every passer was lured by color’s wondrous robes. The chancel of the evening’s worship was new lighted for a festival.
An accounting of which businesses had how many lights was given as the evening before the opening ceremony brought the illumination of the city’s streets with three different companies (Los Angeles Lighting, Edison and San Gabriel) responsible for varying areas within downtown. The article described the decorative effects building by building, whether with lights, bunting, sashes, streamers, lanterns, bows, flags, colored paper and other materials.
The Los Angeles Express wasn’t quite as exuberant, reporting that “Los Angeles has fairly plunged into the joys of Fiesta. Business and dull care have been sidetracked and citizens are rendering all the aid in their power in creating general frivolity throughout the city.” In describing the reveal of downtown lighting the previous evening, the paper’s poetics was limited to such utterings as “last evening the modern magician waved his hand and the business district was transformed into a kaleidoscope of scintillating colors” in “a grand and bewildering display” visited by some 20,000 persons.
Despite the use of the word “frivolity” and the claim by the Times that the Fiesta was like the Mardi Gras of New Orleans, the Express observed that “the beauty of scene seemed to shame and keep in the background the riotous carnival spirit” found at other like events, though it was noted that “Young America cannot be suppressed at such times, and nerve-racking horns, pesky ‘squeelers,’ resined ‘scrapers,’ and kindred instruments of auricular torture, secured the center of the stage at times.” The paper allowed that the decorations were superior to those of the past eight festivals and, while a “surprise” to residents, was “a vision of beauty that caused the awe of bewilderment” to visitors.
It was claimed that “the suburbs are denuded of their inhabitants” so that “the country cousin, uncle from the orange orchards, and auntie from the apiary” flocked to Los Angeles to enjoy the spectacle, while “the tourist is present to divide the delightful spoils” and it was thought there may have been more of the latter, a majority claimed to be women, than the former in town. Hordes descended from trains and the hotels, apartment houses and other lodgings were overrun as part of “the unceasing bombardment” of “Mr. [or Mrs. if the gendered demographic assumption was true] Someone from Somewhere.”
As for copious use of floral decoration, it was asserted that “few buds will escape the keen sight of the gleaners and with tomorrow’s dawn gardens, fields and mountains will present destitute appearances.” The floral parade route ran from Main and Seventh up to the Temple Block, built by the brothers Jonathan and F.P.F. Temple between 1857 and 1871, and around it to Spring Street, which then met Main and Temple in a triple intersection [and was reconfigured when the City Hall project was undertaken in the 1920s]. The procession then followed Spring southward to Eighth Street, where F.P.F.’s son Walter Temple would two decades later be part of two building projects at that intersection and then west on Eighth to Broadway. The parade then headed north to First, just past the City Hall, to conclude.
Naturally, there were plenty of businesses advertising with the Fiesta in mind and a sample is reproduced here, including “Fiesta Vests” from the London Clothing Company and those “nerve racking horns” called “Fiesta Noise Makers” at A. Hamburger and Sons (later May Company). There were also some brief reports concerning “Fiesta Drunks” and “hoodlums” being too liberal in throwing confetti and horn blowing, causing a ban on such “rowdyism” by authorities.
An Express editorial from the 2nd proclaimed the Fiesta “a splendid success” and it was stated that this was so “partly owing to continuing Spanish traditions and somewhat to the glorious climate.” The pervasive use of the term “Spanish” which sounded more European and, therefore, more desirable than “Mexican” was characteristic, but there was more window dressing, to use a commercial allusion, to this as the participation of Latinos was limited to the appearance of “Spanish” caballeros. Another feature, albeit very popular if superficial, was the annual appearance of the Chinese dragon.
While making gestures to the “Spanish traditions” and climate, the Express added that the event’s impetus “in its present form and elaborateness [is] largely with the merchants and business men” and that this came, strangely expressed, “soon after the birth of the new city of Los Angeles, upon the coming of the railroads and the multitude of ‘tenderfoot’ settlers.”
The 1902 version dovetailing with the Foresters and women’s clubs conventions followed the previous year’s edition, which included the visit of President William McKinley, not long before he was assassinated, and the paper opined that the parade was the centerpiece of the successful festival. It was asserted that “another of the kind could not be organized in any city of America, nor could it be in more than two of three other cities of the world.”
Naturally, the Times was not to be outdone in its outpouring of profuse praise for the parade, offering more flights of literary ecstasy in its description:
The sun pierced the brow of morning, and out of its thrill came a California day—rare, delightful, perfect . . .
Mountain and hillside, meadow and park, town house and country house, had given up their floral treasures . . .
But flowers alone would not have made such a spectacle of splendor. Art was needed also. The carriages and floats . . . were studies in monotone and harmonious blends of Nature’s colors. . .
And there were more than flowers. The caballero and the vaquero of a phase of disappearing American life, rode with a distant, mightier vosta [?], ten centuries old: the lacquered, gaudy dragon of the Chinese and the sharp clang of the Celestial tom-tom vied with the clatter of the mustangs and their riders’ raucous cries . . . add the flags, the music, the blue sky and the clear air and the kaleidoscopic spectacle is complete.
Other recollections included a drunken dandy whose opera hat tumbled off his head and was crushed by a streetcar, the ubiquitous tossing of confetti that “blinded you, you choked, swallowed a little and rustled some more under your collar,” and a well-dressed couple who “put a quarter into the hands of the nearest Dago [Italian] for a supply of the hilarity,” meaning the confetti.
Amid the general uproar of laughter, the paper concluded, “grown men forgot their dignity; portly ladies lost their aplomb.” It was after midnight before “the shouts were less in number and more in volume” from “loud peaks of tipsy merriment” and the next morning left with the “ragged remnants of the celebration.” With this coda, the article concluded “Fiesta day was gone, with its beauteous colors and its clatter of events, its folly and its splendor, its riot and its magnificence.”
The souvenir pamphlet, aside from the Zeehandelaar essay is comprised of seven of the eight original colored photographs pasted down on pages with simple inscriptions. The cover is a colorful rendering of young male heralds blowing poppy trumpets to announce the Fiesta and the logos of the Foresters and women’s clubs federation are also present. The publication was issued by The Stert Photo-View Color Company, which had studios in Los Angeles and San Francisco and published “Stert’s Popular Views.”
Pageants and parades have long been a part of public celebrations and commemorations and La Fiesta de Los Angeles and La Fiesta de los Flores stand out for the surface-level allusions to a “Spanish” past that never existed and for the attempts of Los Angeles’ business and mercantile community to promote a “new-world city” that was rapidly rising in the ranks of major American metropolises.