“A Halo of Romance”: The Program for La Fiesta de Los Angeles, 20-24 April 1897

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As noted in this blog a year ago, the La Fiesta de Los Angeles was initiated as a spring festival in 1894, just a few years after the Tournament of Roses began in Pasadena to usher in the new year. In both cases, business interests were instrumental in the creation, organization and execution of these festivities and boosters were active in promotion the two cities and the region, as well.

Though it was ostensibly a “fiesta,” the Los Angeles offering has only the most superficial of references to pre-American California, with very limited participation of Latinx residents, while there were token appearances of indigenous people (or those purported to be native) and the city’s Chinese population with the ubiquitous dragon undulating through downtown streets for a parade.

Otherwise, this was an all-white (and, for that matter, middle and upper class) affair and remained that way until the festival, rechristened as La Fiesta de las Flores in the early 1900s, ran its course by the First World War, though there was a one-time revival for the city’s 150th birthday in 1931.

Tonight’s featured object from the Homestead’s collection is the program for the fourth edition of La Fiesta, held from 20-24 April 1897, and the artifact is filled with interesting photos, listings of daily events, and other material connected to the festival, whose “official programmer” was Lynden E. Behymer, a dominant figure in music and the arts in the Angel City for decades.

The event had a large group of organizers comprising an executive committee, a committee of thirty, and eighteen committees, including for athletic contests, a ball, publicity, a concert, a children’s day, street decorations, and floats, as well as for “secret societies,” the “Chinese Committee,” the “Indian Committee,” and the “Caballeros Committee.” The latter three were headed by John Alton, H. W. Patton, and J.C. Cline–Anglos all. The “grand marshall” was Major Madison T. Owens, who was the chief of the signal corps of the 7th Regiment of California Volunteers of the National Guard and who presided over the city’s Police Court, while the president was Ferdinand K. Rule, auditor of the Los Angeles Terminal Railway.

The Queen of the Fiesta, Francisca Alexander (1865-1901) was part-Latina as her mother was Feliciana Dominguez, of the prominent Californio family which once owned Rancho San Pedro, while her father Henry A. Alexander migrated to Los Angeles in the 1850s and was an express agent, farmer on the San Pedro ranch and, later, an attorney in Los Angeles, as well as in Yuma and Phoenix in Arizona. How much she identified with her Latinx background is not known and her three predecessors were Anglo as were all fifteen of the “Maids of Honor,” who included members of well-known families with names like Silent, Newmark, and Kurtz, as well as the wife of prominent architect Sumner P. Hunt.

One of the pages in the program is titled “Southern California” and epitomizes the breathless boosting of the region that was so common at the time. For example, the short essay began with the claim that “around none of the states of the American Union floats such a halo of romance as around California,” which, it was argued, “has created a new world, a new civilization, and developed more new phases of human nature than any other state.”

It was added that the Golden State was more like its own country with more climate types and a soil fertility that was “as extensive as those of the whole union” and yet “half-known and not one-tenth developed.” The unidentified writer observed that “Solomon was mistaken when he said ‘there is nothing new under the sun'” and went on to suggest that, as the 19th century came to a close

it is quite novel to see people give up the chase for another dollar to join the race for sunshine. It is also a novelty in this intensely practical age to see a land built up out of sunshine, to see a country pioneered by immigrants in palace cars; to see farming settlements like the suburban residence portions of large cities, with hedges of flowers instead of fences, and with electric lights, railroads, sprinkled roads and other modern improvements, instead of the sleepy monotony of the settled prairie with neighbors at the regulation distance of half a mile. And this in a land that but twenty years ago was considered worthless except for third rate stock range.

Obviously, there is much that is sheer fantasy and selective in its information in this extraordinary statement, as if people came to Los Angeles only for the sun and not to “chase for another dollar” and that immigrants only came by train to enjoy the fruits (literally and figuratively) of the Angel City and environs, while other migrants arrived in other ways to do the unheralded labor—whether in farms, factories or in other work not recognized in these platitude-filled paeans to white middle and upper class success. Finally, the Los Angeles of 1877 may have been, as much of the country was, mired in depression, but it was hardly “worthless” and that stock range, far from third-rate, once supplied much of California with its meat.

Nonetheless, the rhetoric ran rampant in its “halo of romance” by concluding that “the Goddess of Flowers sits here holding aloft a toch to light the way to those across the [Rocky] mountains who are weary of pulling against the stream of life and are able to rest, as well as to those who are still willing to ply the oar [or command the ship!]. For such Southern California is the ideal land.”

As to the events, the afternoon of the first day, the 20th, constituted “A Grand Educational Event” through “An Afternoon with the Mission Indians” asserted to be “an accurate portrayal of their manners, customs, dress, home life, dances and songs” through the leadership of Major Harry W. Patton, a former federal Indian agent. It was added that there were “over a hundred of these interesting people from the different reservations in the mountains and the desert” and that “none them have ever been in a city before, so the excitement among the Indians themselves will far exceed that of the spectators,” though how that was manifested was, of course, not stated.

The accuracy was purportedly buttressed by the fact that “Ramona’s daughter and the slayer of Alessandro will both be there,” although these legendary characters from Helen Hunt Jackson’s famous Ramona, published in 1884, were entire fictional. On offer were a spirit dance by these indigenous people “in native costume;” the “Ta-Ta-Weela” or wheel dance by “Sylvestre Po-pa-chunk,” said to be “ex-captain,” or chief, of the Cahuilla tribe; trival songs “by a large chorus of Indian maidens;” a rain dance by a man described as “achesero of the La Peeches,” whatever that was supposed to mean, and fifty natives; and “the game of Pioun” possibly, peon, a native gambling game.

That night was “An Evening with the Aborigines” which included native songs and tales and a series of dances, including one for drought; a variety of ceremonial ones; another by women from the “San Luiserinos,” presumably the Luiseños from the area near the San Luis Rey Mission in northern San Diego County; a fire dance with a note that “this is the most wonderful dance ever seen by civilized eyes” and which involved natives “rolling over the burning coals with their almost nude bodies” so that “nothing in modern times is half so realistic”; “medicine men dances,” that were “wild and wierd [sic]”, and the “Dance of the Balloon Man.” This latter was said to involve an native man who “inflates himself with air until he is distended to many times his natural size” and it was averred that “this is a phenomenon which physicians are unable to explain.”

These first two events were held at what was called the “La Fiesta Tribunes,” also known as La Fiesta Park, an area bounded by Grand Avenue, Hope Street, Pico Street and Twelfth Street. That night, a “Grand Masquerade Ball” was “given in honor of Her Majesty, the Queen of La Fiesta” at Hazard’s Pavilion, a theater across from Central Park (renamed Pershing Square after the conclusion of World War I for American Expeditionary Force commander General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing) later replaced by the Temple Auditorium.

There were opening ceremonies at 8 p.m. with the grand entrance of Queen Francisca and her court, a welcome address, the key to the city given by the mayor, Meredith P. Snyder, the knighting of “Knights of La Fiesta,” including the Mt. Lowe Railway founder, Thaddeus S.C. Lowe, and other elements. At 9 p.m., there was “general dancing,” with main floor tickets costing a cool five bucks, while the balcony and gallery could be accessed for seventy-five cents and $1.50, respectively.

On Wednesday afternoon, a “Day Parade” was conducted through downtown streets and consisting of seven divisions, including the 7th Regiment band and other military personnel; a mixture of the “Catalina Band,” presumably from the island owned by the Banning family, and fraternal orders, a signal and drill corps and high school cadets; the Los Angeles Military Band, the Los Angeles Military Academy mounted troops, a “pony nattalion,” and a sister team of trick horse riders; the caballeros and Indians; the “Chinese with the Great Dragon;” the fire department; and the Queen and her court in carriages.

Of the “marshalls,” two were Latinx including Ralph [Rafael] Dominguez, a federal court interpreter and bailiff who may have been a relative of Francisca Alexander’s mother, and Alfred Solano, the son of Costa Rican immigrants and namesake of the canyon in the Elysian Hills north of downtown and who was head surveyor for the city and county. Solano was denoted as a captain as he was, the prior year, given a commission in the state national guard.

In the evening, a “Grand Fiesta Concert” was held at Hazard’s Pavilion and which was planned by the musical committee headed by Charles Modini-Wood, a well-known opera singer, whose wife Mamie was also a concert singer and the daughter of Los Angeles lumber magnate William H. Perry. The two performed along with other local notables (a grandson of theirs was actor Robert Stack) and the director of the “Grand Fiesta Chorus and Orchestra” and composer of the “’97 Fiesta March” which inaugurated the performance was Louis F. Gottschalk, whose great-uncle was the widely-known composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk. Other pieces includd works from Haydn, Gounod, Massenet, Donizetti, Weber and Meyerbeer, while the “Star Spangled Banner” capped off the performance.

Thursday afternoon constituted the “La Fiesta Carnival, or Sport” held at Athletic Park, situated at Alameda and Seventh streets and where the earliest Pacific Coast League baseball teams im the Angel City played and where the first night baseball game was held four years earlier. The Athletic Committee established a diverse program including a first part comprised of the “appearance of the midget policemen;” “the little Brownie German Band on wheels; “Indian Races, Sports and Games;” and the Los Angeles Athletic Club “in brilliant Athletic, Acrobatic and Humorous Feats.”

A second part consisted of bicycle races, which were all the rage at the time; and running races, including 50 and 100 yard dashes and 220 and 440 yard runs. The last section under the heading of “Gymhanka Races” included events you’d see at picnics, such as the 3-legged race, a blind race, a sack race and one for newspaper carriers. A “Bellamy Race” in which runners had to look backward rather than forward for 100 yards and a “Japanese Race” in which contestants ran 100 yards while opening and closing a wagasa ten times were also featured.

That night was the “Grand Illuminated Night Parade,” with sixteen “magnificently decorated floats, brilliantly illuminated, manned by handomely costumed ladies and gentlemen, and drawn by gaily, caparisoned horses” made its way from the “Tribunes” or park, up to Broadway and First, just past City Hall; across to Spring and down to 5th; then to Main and the Baker Block (where U.S. 101 runs through now); and past the Temple Block down Spring to 1st and back to Broadway and then returning to the start.

The floats were decorated with themes of history, nursery rhymes, folk tales, the drama and opera and included ones connected to Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, the House of York, Cleopatra, the Mikado, Faust, Mexico and cactus (!), and, finally, a very rare spring appearance of none other than Santa Claus. A particularly strange one was called “Gold of Ophir—She” and was from an immensely popular 1887 novel by H. Rider Haggard of two white travelers to the Africa interior where they encountered a lost kingdom and its white queen Ayesha, the titular character. The float showed a scene of Ayesha on a rock formation, while “the float itself is the Ethiopian head with thick lips, terrifying eyes, and heavy cheeks,” though it was added that “the hideous head is not malignant, but full of hopefulness in its expression.”

Friday afternoon featured a floral parade, which included Queen Francisca and her court’s arrival on a floral float, with an escort of a “Guard of Honor” of 130 men and their band, as well as military personnel constituting the “Queen’s Guard.” A reception of the royal court and a fifteen-minute drill preceded the parade, which included bands; a “hay ride by society people;” several floats and decorated coaches and cards; equestrians; children on ponies or burros; decorated bicycles; and more.

At night at Westlake Park was a “water carnival” with a 21-gun salute as the queen and court arrived and then climbed into a Venetian-style gondola for a ceremonial ride in the lake, which had a half-dozen floats on anchored rafts as well as a dragon emitting fire. A band concert was performed by the Catalina ensemble, followed by a “magnificent display of fireworks” which was “a reproduction of the celebrated Wooded Island” show from the world’s fair in Chicago four years before. There were six balloons 30 feet in the air; aquatic set pieces; a cascade of “liquid, golden fire;” 400 pieces of water fireworks; and a grand finale of 140 colored rockets “fired from several points simultaneously producing a perfect canopy of jewels.”

Finally, Saturday morning was “Children’s Day” with a 10 a.m. program at the Tribunes including a parade of schoolchildren “formed into companies of 52 each, officered by cadets selected from their numbers, marching eight abreast.” They passed in review in front of the queen and her court before presenting flowers at the Queen’s Pavilion. The students then were to sing “Hail California,” the state song by Josephine Gro the previous year.

Afterward, the Fiesta Queen delivered a message to the youngsters; a chorus sang “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean;” the state superintendent of public instruction, Samuel T. Black, gave an address; the salute and flag pledge was given; and a group sing of “America” ended the program. It was added that each school had an American flag carried before it by a color sergeant.

It was quite a week and, befitting an event carried out business interests, the program contains a wealth of advertisements, including by Maier & Zobelein Brewery (which even had its own poem) promoting its “Fiesta Bock Beer;” electric streetcar companies; Burke Brothers cyclery; restaurants, including the New Vienna Buffet and its Fiesta Week entertainment lineup and Señora E.S. de Gutierrez’ “Spanish Dinner” establishment; the Mount Lowe Railway; Bartlett’s Music House; the studio of John G. Schumacher, official Fiesta photographer; realtors; the Banning family’s Santa Catalina Island; clothiers; theatres; and much more.

A very popular event for about two decades, La Fiesta de Los Angeles (and its successor, La Fiesta de las Flores) played superficially on pre-American Los Angeles, while its merchants and manufacturers boosted the city in a myriad of ways, though by and for a middle and upper class Anglo community that really consolidated its economic, political and social power by the Boom of the 1880s and the following decade when the festival was launched.

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