by Paul R. Spitzzeri
A recent post here highlighted the 1928 Whittier Avocado Show, the fifth edition of a multi-day exposition to promote what was still considered a novelty fruit (and often derided as an “alligator pear”), though its importance was growing rapidly during the late 1920s. Just several days later, the eighth annual California Valencia Orange Show was launched at Anaheim, lasting eleven days from 24 May to 4 June.
Unlike the avocado, the orange was anything but a novelty in the 1920s, though it did have that status decades before for many Americans. The fruit was brought to California by the priests who established the missions, but the earliest commercial orange grove was developed by William Wolfskill, who lived in the same area of Missouri, then in New Mexico and finally in greater Los Angeles as William Workman, over the course of more than four decades.
Wolfskill planted his golden fruit on a large property off Alameda Street south of the pueblo in 1841 and it was renowned for its fertility and quality, though the grove was razed as the tract was subdivided during the Boom of the 1880s. By then, however, oranges were being raised by growers throughout the region, with a heavy emphasis in the San Gabriel Valley, such as in the Puente area; the foothill communities of what later was known as the Inland Empire; in Riverside; and, after 1889, in Orange County, including Anaheim.
The development of the refrigerated box car by the end of the century was enormously important for exports and the widespread use of oranges throughout the country and internationally made it a symbol of Southern California. The decision of the fruit-growing cooperative, the Southern California Fruit Exchange, to develop the brand name of Sunkist, was an enormously successful one and, by 1926, the Sunkist name was being stamped on fruit sent out by the co-op.
Yet, as greater Los Angeles continued its relentless growth, including in the city and its outlying suburbs and hinterlands, the value of agricultural production, including the high-value orange, was lessened with the increase in property values for residential, industrial and commercial development.
In the San Gabriel Valley, for example, this was especially true in its “west end” in such places as Alhambra and Pasadena, while much less so, for the time being, in the eastern extremity, such as in the Puente Valley where the Homestead was still an agricultural property, devoted to walnuts, while North Whittier (Hacienda) Heights had plenty of citrus, as well as avocados.
Anaheim and much of Orange County, however, was still very dependent on agricultural, especially oranges, for its economic livelihood and that wouldn’t change, as in most of the region, until the post-World War II boom. So, the onset of the California Valencia Orange Show in 1921 and its steady growth in scale and attendance reflected how important the industry was there and elsewhere in greater Los Angeles.
Part of the expansion of the show’s offerings is the focus of today’s post and the featuring of a historic artifact from the Homestead’s collection: a program for “Movie Night” at the 1928 edition of the show, held off what is now Interstate 5, west of downtown Anaheim. The event, including six weeks of on-site preparation with large tents and the construction of booths, exhibits and the like, was held “under auspices of Hollywood Magazine, one of many publications that fed the growing demand for news, gossip and other material for the rapidly growing film industry.
A brief essay titled “Action! Lights! Camera!” (tellingly out of order!) awkwardly invoked the show’s theme in stating that:
When Aladdin gained his reputation as a lamp rubber a few years ago, he may not have had either the California Valencia Orange Show at Anaheim or the motion picture industry in mind but if he had, he would have called the turn to an exact nicety with his genii performances.
The principal difference between Orange County and the movies is, the former grows gold on trees and the latter on animated screens. Both are just as magical as anything Aladdin ever attempted . . .
And, thus tonight . . . the movies, with their background of mysticism, glamour, beauty and art, join hands with the California Valencia Orange Show in a tribute to the state’s most famous sun-kissed [get it?] product that is perhaps unique in the history of any exposition every held in the United States.
The piece concluded that there would be more talent, beauty and celebrities from “Shadowland” than would be found at “any show, regardless of its nature, ever held before.” Of course, in scanning the list of the “Who’s Who” who were slated to attend, we don’t quite see some of the biggest names in filmdom, such as Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Clara Bow, or Dolores del Rio, much less any number of other “big names.”
Still, there was some impressive talent on the 22-person roster, including Richard Arlen, whose turn in 1927’s Wings propelled [!] him to stardom; Madge Bellamy, who was an established name at Fox; Betty Compson, another popular veteran; Patsy Ruth Miller, well-known for her romantic comedy work; and Alice White, a Paramount star of renown.
One name that stands out is Lupino Lane, a veteran British theater performer who was a cousin of the famed actress Ida Lupino, and another is former heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey, who retired from the ring the previous September and who was looking to break into film based on his boxing career. His wife, the popular actress Estelle Taylor (they were married from 1925 to 1930), also was to appear at the event.
There is one other actor to point out because, in 1928, she was just starting to make a name for herself in the highly competitive film world, but went on to the heights of film stardom later. Jean Arthur made her movie debut in 1923, but struggled to find her footing until around the time of the orange show event.
She was quoted in 1928, however, as saying “I’ve had to learn to be a different person since I’ve been out here. Anybody that sticks it out in Hollywood for four years is bound to change in self-defense.” She added that she’d developed a thick skin and not to get up false hopes, proclaiming, “that the worst of this business, everyone is such a good promisor.”
Initially struggling with talkies, Arthur developed a signature sound and hit the big time at Columbia Pictures in the latter half of the Thirties, especially in 1936’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town in which she co-starred with Gary Cooper, who was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar, though Arthur rocketed to stardom, as well. She, Capra and James Stewart hit gold with 1938’s You Can’t Take It With You, which won the Oscar for Best Picture. A finalist for the role of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind, Arthur teamed up again with Capra and Stewart for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, one of the many great films of 1939.
Arthur continued to be a major star for Columbia through the World War II years, including an Oscar-nominated turn in The More the Merrier (1943), but was ecstatic when her contract ended the following year. Always reticent and prone to stage fright, she made just two more films, though one was the classic Western Shane (1953). She occasionally did theater and television work and taught drama, with one of her Vassar College students being Meryl Streep. Stage fright ended another theatrical project in 1975 and she retired to a virtually reclusive life, dying in 1991 at age 90.
It is not known how many of those listed and “definitely have promised to be present” followed through. A newspaper article added the name of June Collyer, whose film career was launched in 1927 and who transitioned into talkies, though she stopped making movies after about a decade.
The show, however, was proclaimed a great success, with its larger and more complex exhibits (examples for among a dozen featured displays are shown from newspaper photos, with the Los Angeles County one costing $3,000 and taking up 800 square feet), fancy decorating, the “World Orange Packing Championship” with participants from the region’s packing houses as well as from Texas and México, band concerts, vaudeville performances, the crowning of “Queen Valencia,” and more. On American Legion Day towards the end of the run, Governor C.C. (Clement Calhoun) Young arrived and gave an oration.
What began with a modest $15,000 budget in 1921 grew to over $100,000 and some 15,000 attendees, visiting between 11 a.m. and midnight daily, were expected to what one account, playing off the theme, termed “the mecca of a vast hegira of motorists.” The final day included a Mardi Gras-type carnival and musical pageant and it was reported that the largest one-day attendance in the history of the exposition was recorded. Plans were for an even more expansive exposition in 1929 before the stock market crash took place that ushered in the Great Depression.
A little over ninety years later, commercial orange groves in our region are largely a thing of the past and Anaheim, once a flourishing citrus community, has its own fantasy land, with Aladdin part of the Disney franchise, as its economic centerpiece. This program is an interesting document of what was once an important publicity-generating event for the Orange County city and the broader “orange empire.”