by Paul R. Spitzzeri
The evolution of the celebration of the Christmas holiday in Los Angeles took a decidedly commercial turn with the presentation of a downtown parade, promoted by many of the city’s leading department stores, on Thanksgiving Day 1929. This followed other festive outdoor holiday events of note, including the inauguration of “Christmas Tree Lane,” along Santa Rosa Avenue, in Altadena beginning nine years prior, the holding of a “Christmas Preview” in Pomona in 1927, and the establishment of “Santa Claus Lane” in Hollywood the following year.
In the case of the 1929 parade, it was promoted as Santa’s arrival in the Angel City and, naturally, as one holiday ended, the Christmas shopping season was to begin in earnest (though long before the concept of Black Friday emerged, apparently in Philadelphia in the early 1950s). The Retail Dry Goods Merchants’ Association oversaw the planning and execution of the parade and had plenty of assistance from the Christie Studios, a major film production company that is hardly remembered today.
The 15 October edition of the Los Angeles Times reported that “active work on a huge scale began yesterday at the Christie Studio for the gigantic Chgristmas parade in the central business district on Thanksgiving Day.” James A. Biggam and his wife, who’d organized recent parades for the national conventions of the Shriners and Elks fraternal orders and worked on the Mardi Gras in New Orleans and many fairs, such as the World’s Fair at St. Louis in 1903, were hired to oversee the holiday one and a theme of children’s tales was chosen.
The paper added that, “the floats will depict characters such as the Wizard of Oz, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Cinderella, the Old Woman Who Live in a Show, Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White, Mother Goose and Santa Claus.” A large Christmas tree was also highlighted among the displays. Marching figures were to include “the Merry Workers, who are the helpers from Santa Claus’s domain in the North Pole, clowns, jesters, acrobats, midgets, giants and bands.”
Moreover, a half million mailers were sent out to apprise residents “of the plans which Santa Claus has made to outdo himself this year” and “his emissaries, the Merry Workers, are being sent in advance to prepare for his coming” starting by appearances in costume in early November.
On the 11th, celebrated then as Armistice Day to commemorate the end of the First World War and which became Veterans Day, “more than 100 stores will unveil their windows, revealing gift and toy displays. Santa, of course would wait to make his appearance until the holiday parade. The planning committee included representatives from stores like Bullock’s, Robinson’s, Barker Brothers, The Broadway, May Company and, the least known to us now, Parker’s.
In a Yuletide edition two days before Thanksgiving, the Los Angeles Express highlighted the parade in a big way, beginning its coverage with an effort to build excitement:
Nearer, ever nearer, he draws! Through wind and night, over rooftops and mountains, he speeds southward.
Heralded by the faint tinkle of distant sleigh bells, he guides his glistening team of reindeer toward Los Angeles—Santa Claus!
Dancer, Prancer, Dunder [yup, this was the original name for Donner] and Blitzen [whose moniker was initially Blixem] strain at their traces as they bring the children’s patron saint to Southern California for the spectacular parade with which Santa will be welcomed in Down Town Los Angeles on Thanksgiving Day.
It was added that Santa would participate in the parade in “a glitteri[n]g snow-and-ice float” and the paper proclaimed that “never before . . . has a community planned so lavishly and so enthusiastically for the arrival of a popular celebrity” while “never before have children shown such expectancy” which was manifested in “the nightly dreams of that vast army of childhood” longing forthe arrival of Christmas Day.
There were to be nine floats, as many bands, and some 250 marching characters along the roughly mile-and-a-half route and it was expressly stated that “children should be given [the prime] point of vantage” as “it is their parade.” Actor Mary Brian, who presided over the unveiling of shop windows, “was unanimously chosen by the committee as being the motion picture star best typifying the spirit of Christmas” and therefore the proper representative of filmdom at the parade. It was added she was selected because of her star turn as Wendy in 1924’s Peter Pan.
The procession was to begin at Broadway and 12th Street and move north to 10th Street where it moved a block east to Main. Another block north the parade reached the southern terminus of Spring Street which was followed all the way to 1st where the recently completed City Hall (opened in April 1928) was situated. After another short move west along 1st, the caravan headed south on Broadway to 9th, then west to Hill and up for a circuit around Pershing Square and back down Olive to 7th. Here was the center of the shopping district as the parade headed west to Flower and then south to 12th with a return to the start.
On the 27th, the Times, always business-minded, lauded the mercantile sponsors and organizers asserting that “supported by community-minded organizations and individuals representing a diversity of interest, the Christmas parade for children tomorrow morning is an outstanding expression of cooperative enterprise. Never before in the history of the downtown district has an event of such magnitude and magnificence ever been staged in a purely altruistic spirit.”
A parade of business leaders were quoted in praise of the parade with David W. Pontius of the Southern Pacific railroad and Pacific Electric Railway remarking that publicity “should again direct the attention of the country upon Los Angeles as a place where climate and attractions combine to make living thoroughly enjoyable.” Banker Joseph F. Sartori opined that “the great Christmas festival . . . gives a wealth of color to the celebration and will be a propitious stimulant to retail trade.” Most of the men cited focused on the effect of Santa’s arrival on children, while many pronounced the cooperative efforts of business leaders as “public-spirited citizens” in directing unselfish efforts towards the success of the parade.
In its Thanksgiving Day edition, the Times added that Los Angeles Police Department Chief James E. Davis that parking was to be prohibited along the streets on the route “so that children might have every opportunity to view the spectacle.” The previous day decorating was finished and a rehearsal of the floats moving through the route was held and “one of the unique features of the parade installed yesterday is a system of loud-speakers along the line of march, which will carry the starting bugle call and provide music for the crowds before the arrival of the marchers.”
That day’s issue of the Express included a note that, being eminently an event for the youngster, “one hotel manager reported that a parlor facing in [on] Spring street was rented by a woman who wished to assure a number of crippled children of comfortable reviewing seats.” Though the official promised there would be no charge, “the fairy godmother” insisted on maing a deposit to make sure the space would be theirs. Among the more notable dcorations on city streets were snow castles at corners, snow-dusted wreaths and bells on lamp posts, massive wreats hung over intersections, and miles of greens strung throughout downtown.
In its coverage, the Los Angeles Record recorded
Amid the cheers of thousands of small boys and girls, Santa Claus arrived today.
His arrival was heralded with bugle calls, music from a score of orchestras and a number of storybook characters from Fairytale land.
The patron saint of the holiday season was wearing his red suit and red boots, and his ruddy face shown in the sunshine as the children cheered.
There were no doubters watching as Santa Claus himself waved a greeting.
In what it claimed was an exclusive interview, the paper quoted St. Nick as saying, “”I have take a areful surveys of all the fireplaces and chimneys here. Of course, I saw them last year, but some of the boys and girls have moved since then and new buildings have gone up.” He was quick to tell the Record, though, that “the boys and girls who live in apartments without fireplaces” were not to worry “as long as there is a door or a window where I may enter.”
Only one problem was mentioned, which was that Chief Davis’s order about parking was too well honored in the breach and “many cars blocked the view of children.” Yet, there were other issues, including the release of ammonia from a pipe at Sixth and Hill sickened a number of observers including four who fainted and were carried to Pershing Square to be revived with oxygen by a fire department squad, while a 63-year old man who brought his granddaughter to the parade suffered a fatal heart attack.
Some reports suggested that the five-year old was smitten with the parade “led by Santa Claus and his reindeer” and which “was the most thrilling sight she had ever seen.” Purportedly, the girl turned to her grandfather and cried “Oh, grand-daddy, it’s wonderful. Thank you so much for taking me.” As he looked down and smiled “he clutched at his breast, swayed and fell.” Yet, the Times reported that he died on the way to the parade.
At St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church the following Sunday, Pastor Gustav A. Griegleb railed in a sermon that “Police Ruin Thanksgiving Day Parade by Lack of Supervision” as well as purportedly not having a single office downtown that night, while “Officers Blackjack U.C.L.A. Students in Heartless Manner” after the Bruin football team defeated the University of Montana and fans rushed the field at the Coliseum to tear down the goal posts (which were needed for a game the following day).
As for the featured Associated Press photo, dated the 28th, from the museum’s holdngs, it shows the icicle-covered float on four wheels and with a central wreath reading “Merry Xmas 29” on the side stopped along the route. On top is Santa in his sleigh with a trio of reindeer harnessed to it—perhaps the other five creatures were given some time off since the animals weren’t doing any work as they were being driven though town!
On the reverse the pasted-down caption reads “Santa Claus Arrives In State—The Snow On Old St. Nicholas’ Chariot Was Synthetic, But His Welcome In Los Angeles Was All The Warmer Therefore. Thousands Of Children, And Thousand of Parents, Lined Los Angeles’ Downtown Streets On Thanksgiving Morning To Witness A Mile-Long Parade Of Holiday Floats and Allegorical Mummers.” The photo, as can be seen in one of the illustrations shown here, was reproduced in a collage of images published by the Times th day after the festivities.
The photo, as representative of the parade, which looks to have been the first of its kind in the Angel City, can also be compared in its innovation with an ad from a principal sponsor, Bullock’s, located on 7th between Broadway and Hill, which showed St. Nick hanging with one hand off a ladder attached to the Graf Zeppelin, which made a heavily attended landing in the city three months earlier. A comment proclaimed, “By Zimminee Zim Zander! He’s Right Up to Date! Modern as Bullock’s!”
This was followed by Santa stating, as he was “swinging down from his brand new Zeppelin, with his pack of toys bulging with toys in the same old way, “Modern! Of course I am! Everything I bring is as new as next year and as up to the minute as Bullock’s!” He added that “This Steel Zeppelin Brought Me Spring Zang Here for the Big Parade” and the 30-inch long toy cost just $2.75. Finally, Santa was quoted as telling readers,
Why, I’ve been hearing and watching Los Angeles’ Christmas plans for weeks. I’m more excited over being here than you are. I coudn’t wait for my reindeer. So I just hopped on my Zep and here I am. Happy Thanksgiving everybody!
Just a month prior to the parade, the stock market crashed in New York, ushering in the Great Depression, though, while there was plenty of concern about the state of the nation’s economy, the dire fiscal condition worsened considerably over the next few years and local lavish parades and celebrations like this receded.
Meanwhile, as we welcome December, this is the first of a series of “The Evolution of Christmas” posts as we launch our celebration of the Christmas and holiday season, so please check back for further installments.