“The Creation of a Superspectacle”: A Press Photo of the Shriners National Convention Electrical Pageant, Los Angeles Coliseum, 6 June 1929

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As noted in a previous post here, the Masonic fraternity that we know as Shriners International, but which was founded as the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine (A.A.O.N.M.S.), was created in 1870 as a more social order than its fellow Masonic organizations. In 1888, in the midst of the famous Boom of the Eighties, the Al Malaikah Temple was established in Los Angeles.

By the early 1920s, the Shriners established the first of its renowned hospitals for disabled children, including one, opened in the early 1950s, in what is now the Koreatown neighborhood, and which moved just several years ago to Pasadena. In spring 1926, six years after a fire razed its first temple, a palatial Shrine Auditorium opened near the University of Southern California and remains both the Al Malaikah Temple and an events venue.

Los Angeles Express, 6 June 1929.

Three years later, the crowning achievement of the temple was the hosting of the 55th national convention, known as the Imperial Session, in the Angel City in early June 1929. The capstone to the confab was a remarkable evening electrical pageant consisting of a parade from Washington Boulevard and Figueroa Street and culminating in a review in the massive Coliseum.

Tonight’s featured object from the Homestead’s holdings is a press photograph from Wide World Photos of the extravaganza showing the venue packed to the gills with about 100,000 people watching as electrical floats ride around the dirt track and platforms and people are on the grass field. Meanwhile an array of 120 arc lights illuminated the venue providing what must have been a truly novel and stunning atmosphere for that substantial crowd.

Los Angeles Times, 6 June 1929.

In its 6 June edition, the Los Angeles Record waxed somewhat poetic as it observed that:

As the dark sky goes wild with flashing colors tonight, and hundreds of tinted rays sweep the sky—when the coliseum becomes a great volcanic bowl heaving up rainbow shades to the very base of the clouds themselves—that will be the motion picture industry’s gift to the Shriners, the electrical pageant, last and most resplendent event of the three-day convention program.

The paper reported that the floats “are elaborately decorated with the great artificial flowers designed by Mrs. J.A. Biggam, wife of the general director of construction” for the event, while “electrical arrangements have been under the direction of Frank Murphy.” As stars rode on their respective vehicles, they “broadcast their greetings to the Coliseum crowds over the great public address system.” It added that “the entire motion picture industry is closing down at 4 p.m. this afternoon, not to open until tomorrow morning—$2,000,000 could not buy such a suspension of work.”

Los Angeles Record, 7 June 1929.

As was often the case, the paper’s contemporaries, the Express and the Times, invested more ink in describing the extensive program. The former reported that the total expenditure was $2 million, making the event “one of the most marvelous exhibitions ever staged.” It followed this with the observation that “the Los Angeles motion picture industry is the power that has created the greatest of all spectacles ever produced at a Shrine convention.”

The Express also gushed that “a man-made aurora borealis outshining in glory and magnificence of color the natural wonder of the Arctic is to be presented before spectators” and went on to note that “never before . . . has so much light been concentrated in some small a space for the creation of a superspectacle.” In all, there were 14 trillion units of candlepower employed, including with the arc lights “making the skies above the bowl as brilliantly lighted as during mid-afternoon.”

Monrovia News Post, 7 June 1929.

Leading the procession on the first float were Shriner leaders and Jack L. Warner, a member of the order and Warner Brothers executive, who was general manager for the spectacle. Another prominent film industry Shriner was the grand marshal, the very popular comedian Harold Lloyd and he was joined on his float by a host of prominent movie actors, including Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford; Fairbanks’ son and Joan Crawford; Al Jolson and Ruby Keeler; Gary Cooper and Lupe Velez; Buddy Rogers (later Pickford’s husband) and Clara Bow; and Charles Farrell and Janet Gaynor.

Following these were themed entries from studios and production companies, including Paramount, Fox, MGM, Universal (which had two), Lloyd’s corporation, Warner Brothers, United Artists, First National and some lesser-known ones like Christie, Tiffany Stahl and Pathé. Other floats were under the auspices of Texas Shriners, the Elks, and the Al Malaikah Temple (also having two). The Homestead has a set of 21 photos of floats from the procession and a few are shown here as representative samples.

The Times stated that “beneath the multicolored rays of a man-made aurora borealis,” the convention closed “in a burst of splendor.” It noted that Lloyd’s vehicle was a tan-colored car “banked with ‘electric flowers'” while “roses a foot across and Canterbury bells two feet long” were also employed. The two Al Malaikah floats had a futuristic and a desert design.

For the film studios, United Artists decorated its as a garden of water lilies with a young woman in the middle of each, while Pathe’s had a “futuristic rooster” (which it, undoubtedly, crowed about) amid a passel of ladies and floral bouquets. Fox played off its newsreeel programs with a large globe and Universal’s two entries included a paddleboat for its film “Show Boat” and an Art Deco one for “Burlesque.” Paramount’s float was comprised of a giant wedding cake garnished with flowers with Al Christie’s having “a unique design” which “carries out the idea of talkies.”

The following day’s press accounts included the Record’s assertion that “all that man-made light and the rainbow’s own colors can do” was achieved and “it exceeded all past displays of the sort and set a dizzy mark to shoot for in the future,” adding that “when the amazing flood of color broke loose over the Coliseum, the crown held its breath.”

As the vehicles circled the venue, “from the float tops smiled and nodded and stared gorgeous beauties of Hollywood, in breath taking costumes” as “applause echoed back and forth in the great bowl.” It declaired the top three floats were those of Lloyd’s company, then Warner Brothers and, finally, R.K.O.

The Pasadena Post praised the procession proclaiming “the pageant was a veritable riot of electrical wizardry transformed by man into one of the most glorious nights Los Angeles has ever experienced.” It continued to marvel that

The floats presented every theme imaginable ncluding floating worlds, desert caravans, camels, flowers, futuristic pictures of angels and demons, showboats and weird caravans all illuminated in a fantastic and magnificent style that defied all description.

A United Press account published in both the Pomona Progress Bulletin and the Monrovia News Post added that “the dazzling spectacle completely filled the coliseum and the crowd outside was almost as great as that inside.” In its editorial section, the Express observed that “Los Angeles has entertained the Shriners, but you gotta admit that the Shriners [known for their playful antics] also have entertained Los Angeles.” It highlighted that the festivities included “the most colorful pageant ever staged in the history of the city,” but joked, “gosh, how those Shriners do eat!”

Of the sampling of photographs from the parade, the “Show Boat” float from Universal was a pretty impressive replica of a paddlewheel steamer. Lloyd’s entry included massive floral bouquets and some intricately detailed skirting. First National’s float has what may be a representation of a rainbow that also bears a resemblance to the bandshell at the Hollywood Bowl and various sized balloons or bubbles. A bevy of women in skimpy outfits and feathered headdresses are displayed.

The Warner Brothers vehicle was a modernist rendering with the studio trumpeting its “Vitaphone” system for talking pictures with a women who appears to be a monarch on a throne attended by two female assistants amid a wild array of flowers, what looks to be a fountain, and some fantastic rock formations, if that’s what are on the vehicle’s ends.

A striking modernist representation was that of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer consisting of a futuristic vehicle with massive wings with sharp lightning-like elements, presaging the fins of some of those enormous cars of the Fifties like the Chevy Bel-Air, but with a decidedly Art Deco-flair. The studio name is on a sign with the letters angled and flared out to complement the design and the lion mascot is also prominent as is a huge bunch of balloon figures at the rear.

The event’s scope, scale and grandeur is evocative of the burgeoning film industry and the rapidly growing metropolis of Los Angeles and its environs and it also is emblematic of the excess that marked the Roaring Twenties in general. No one, however, among the 100,000 or so who crowded into the Coliseum could know that, just a little over four months later, would come the crash of the stock market in New York that ushered in the Great Depression.

A seemingly boundless optimism, at least for many, that marked much of that era was abruptly and starkly confronted with the cold reality that a reckoning had come for a nation that pursued wealth and good times generally heedless of restraint and reason. That “dizzy mark to shoot for in the future” in terms of such grandiose displays as those exhibited at the electrical pageant would not be aimed for any time soon given the dire situation during the Great Depression and the necessary sacrifices of the Second World War, though some of those epic musicals of the Thirties did provide a similar approach for escapist entertainment that large numbers of Americans sought.

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