by Paul R. Spitzzeri
This fall will mark the 150th (that’s sesquicentennial for those of you who can’t get enough of polysyllabic sobriquets or anachronistic words . . . like, sobriquet, or . . . anachronistic) anniversary of the founding of the first organization of fire fighters in Los Angeles. On 30 September 1871, the all-volunteer Engine Company #1 was established under the leadership of Common [City] Council member George M. Fall.
Within a month, however, Fall was accused of furnishing the hose from the company to Latinx and Anglo rioters attacking homes and businesses of Chinese residents during the horrific massacre of 24 October, which led to the deaths of a teenage boy and 18 men. This event has, in the light of rampant anti-Asian hate crimes, been highlighted as showing how far back such hatred goes in Los Angeles and a new podcast examines the massacre from the perspective of a Chinese woman at the center of an inter-Chinese incident that took place at the time.
A few years later, the 38s Fire Company, again comprised of citizen volunteers, including Elijah H. Workman, a nephew of Homestead owners William and Nicolasa Workman, was launched and other volunteer-run companies followed in succeeding years before, in 1886, on the cusp of the city’s famous Boom of the Eighties, a professionalized department was created.
As the city grew by trememdous leaps and bounds in succeeding years, the Los Angeles Fire Department developed rapidly, though it is always a challenge for public services of all kinds to keep up with the pace of development, especially as residents are always loath to pay taxes needed to raise revenue to support such vital services as schools, sewage management, water and power delivery and police and fire departments.
One way for departments, volunteer or professional, to make up for chronic shortfalls in revenue needed for supplies and materials, as well as to provide a provident fund for personnel and their families in the event of injury and death—which was all-too-common given the dangerous work involved at a time when building materials were easily consumable by fire and equipment not particularly protective—was to hold fundraisers. A mainstay was the “Firemen’s Ball,” usually comprised of a dance, although a dinner, costume contest and other elements were often included.
An early example was from July 1874 when a ball for the 38s was held at the Turn Verein Hall, a venue for German-Americans in the Angel City. Because, again, this organization was run by volunteers and had no city affiliation or support, this benefit was likely to provide whatever funding could be generated for the operations of the company. As typical for such events, no matter the organization or cause, there were committees for arrangements, reception and handling the floor at the event. Presumably, a hefty proportion of the $2 ticket price, a goodly sum for the era, went directly to the 38s for its valuable work.
Just months after the establishment of the professionalized department, the Los Angeles Herald reported that “one of the nicest balls that has been given this season took place Thanksgving night, at Mott’s Hall, a new venue built by prominent Angeleno Thomas D. Mott on Main Street between First and Second streets.
Held by the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, a mutual benefit society established in New York in 1873, the event was hailed as “a delightful affair” as “the friends of the brave lands of the scoop turned out in force.” The orchestra of Fred Dohs performed and the paper concluded “if there is any class of people which deserves encouragement is is the Firemen.”
In September 1889, the Los Angeles Times covered a department ball held in the same venue, then known as Armory Hall, and it was noted that “the receipts went to the firemen’s relief fund.” It was added that “the big hall was crowded to the door,” there were perhaps no fire codes regulating crowd sizes yet, “and a very jolly time was indulged in by the young people.” After listing the various committees and members of them, the paper ended its coverage by observing that “dancing was kept up until a late hour, when the guests departed for their various homes, well pleased with the evening’s entertainment.”
A ball was held in Santa Monica for the celebration of the New Year of 1894 and included a newer element of these events, an elaborate costume party and a contest. As winners were listed, it was notable that many of the entries were, however acceptable among whites at the time, blatantly racist or at least questionable in depiction.
For example, Hugh Walters came dressed as “a Turk,” John Summerfield showed up as Hawaii’s recently deposed Queen Liliu’okalani, Vic Hopf appeared as “a Zulu chief,” and Mrs. Grimes arrived as “a colored washerwoman.” Los Angeles’ fire corps had its own costume contest at a ball held in the Turn Verein Hall in April 1895, though details were not provided as to the depictions.
By the early 20th century, there was another variation of the ball, in which game was added—in other words, the rapidly rising popularity of baseball provided a way for firefighters to show off their athletic prowess and raise money for departments. In early October 1904, a contest was had between the men of the Los Angeles department against their counterparts from San Francisco at Chutes Park, formerly Washington Gardens and later Luna Park, and where a baseball diamond was a feature of the park, including it being the home field of the newly launched Pacific Coast League’s Los Angeles Angels.
Two years later, the police and fire departments squared off in a contest at a diamond in Long Beach to raise money for a joint orphans’ fund—the latter squad came out victorious in that matchup. In 1912, a ball game was held between Los Angeles police and fire squads at Washington (the former Chutes/Luna Park) Park to raise money for a patrol officer whose mother was an innocent bystander killed by a highway robber.
Another reason to hold a firemen’s ball was to raise money for equipment that we understand as being a necessary and essential part of a city or county budget. For example, in March 1906, the Los Angeles Express reported that, aside from taking out bonds to buy a “horseless fire fighter,” that is, an automobile engine, that fire department at Ocean Park, later incorporated as part of Santa Monica, held a ball at the auditorium in adjacent Venice “to purchase uniforms and pay incidental expenses.”
Five years later, the Monrovia department held a ball at the Odd Fellows (the International Order of Odd Fellows, or I.O.O.F., is a fraternal society) Hall, at which 200 persons were in attendance, and $100 was raised to “go toward the purchasing of helmets and other necessary equipment not provided by the city.”
Tonight’s highlighted object from the museum’s holdings is a souvenir program for the “Firemen’s Fifth Annual Ball,” held on 25 March 1922 at the ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel, which was just over a year old but was already becoming a preeminent hostelry in the Angel City. The music was provided by an orchestra led by Benjamin Laietsky (1884-1955), a native of St. Louis and a professional violinist who came to Los Angeles in the mid-1910s.
He worked in downtown theaters and toured with the John Philip Sousa Band, while he also helmed his ensemble from at least 1916. The orchestra was well-known for its years at the Crescent Avenue Pavilion on Santa Catalina Island and, while Laietsky also served for two years from 1928-1930 as head of the first marching band at U.C.L.A., he continued his busy career, changing his name to Lasky during the Great Depression era, as both a soloist and band leader and, later, was a band director at Beverly Hills High School, where one of his students was Andre Previn, who became a famed composer and conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
The program lists the head of the event as chief engineer, this title was changed later to “fire chief,” Ralph J. Scott, long heralded for his innovations for the LAFD, and the executive committee composed of assistant chiefs F.C. McDowell and L.H. Davis and H.B. Hotaling, the president of the Firemen’s Relief Association. Also listed are general committee members, comprised of a dozen battalion chiefs, the officers and directors of the relief association, and members of sub-committees for tickets and finance, printing, publicity, music, and hall arrangements.
The inside of the program lists the two dozen scheduled dances along with space for four extras and is not surprising that most (15) of the pieces, given by title, were fox trots, as that was all the rage a little under a century ago, though there were also a fair number of waltzes (7) and a pair of one step pieces. Whoever originally owned the program was apparently not a dancer as this section was not filled out at all.
While the title suggests this was the fifth consecutive ball, there was actually a gap of three years since the fourth one and it is not clear when the first edition was held. The best known of the events during that era was the third ball, which was at the Shrine Auditorium in early April 1918. Because the United States was involved in the First World War, the event was for the benefit of the American Red Cross and it was reported by the Times that there were 12,000 people in attendance.
With dancing continuing until 1:30 a.m.; sales made of “Thrift Stamps,” a funding device for the war effort, so that, at a quarter each, they could be collected until sixteen were acquired and they could be exchanged for a tax-free, interest-bearing War Savings Certificate; a grand march of participants snaking around the theater; and other elements, the event was considered “the greatest success that has ever been managed by the firemen,” with nearly $10,000 raised.
The 1919 edition of the ball was attended by only a quarter of the count and the amount garnered was three-quarters of what was accumulated the prior year, but the money went toward the “fund for widows and orphans of firemen.” Then, there was the gap until the fifth version in 1922 and the Express “jazzed up” its coverage in the 23 March edition of the paper, which noted,
It is the annual firemen’s ball, and the boys who “eat the flames” and a whole room full of gas occasionally are going to lay aside the red flannel shirts, the steel helmets and the large hose for an evening and indulge in what is commonly known as jazz.
The article added that some 20,000 tickets were slated to be sold and proceeds, again, were to go to the widows and orphans fund. Scott was quoted as saying that “the necessity of such a benefit is caused by the inadequacy of the pension laws” because, when a fireman retired on a disability pension and then died, “there is no fund allowed to take care of his widow and orphans.” The chief added, “the firemen, naturally, feel they should look after the relatives of their deceased companions.
In its pre-event coverage, the Times reported that Mayor George Cryer, who was widely known for his appearance at a huge number of public events, and his wife were to lead the grand march around the venue. It was noted that the large attendance and ticket sales was “made possible by the hearty response of merchants and the public in general in the ticket-selling campaign.” It was reported that advance sales generated some $12,000 for the benefit of the fund.
Summarizing how the event went the day after, the paper went all out with its metaphors by stating that
The firemen’s fifth annual ball at the Ambassador last night was no “false alarm.” It was, according to witnesses, a real terpsichorean conflagration. And more than 2500 persons, it was estimated, helped “put it out.”
Another $1,000 was garnered that evening to add to the previously reported pre-sale total and the four-hour event was such that it was said that “it was the first time since 1918 [actually, 1919, as noted above] that the fire fighters of Los Angeles dropped their hose and ladders and gathered with their many friends upon the polished floor.”
Today, the Los Angeles Fire Department Foundation is the support arm of the department, which has 3,500 firefighters in 106 stations in 471 square miles of the massive city, and it provides “essential equipment, training and public outreach programs” as 97% of the LAFD’s budget is for personnel expenses. The Foundation was established in 2010 to provide those needed resources to the department, though it presumably doesn’t hold events like the “Firemen’s Annual Ball”!