At Our Leisure: A Trio of Photos from the Hans Christian Andersen Festival, Elysian Park, Los Angeles, 24 April 1920

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The featured artifacts from the Museum’s holdings for this post are emblematic of several evolving trends in the early 20th century regarding children and play. This involved the increasing role of government in providing programs for youngsters in ways that simply did not exist before and also represented the importance of having wholesome outdoor activities for young people and their families.

The images were taken on 24 April 1920 at Elysian Park, north of downtown Los Angeles, for the Hans [Christian] Andersen Festival, an event held in the early spring each year from 1914 until at least 1927, though there were programs offered as late as 1941. The festival was a collaborative effort by several Los Angeles city departments and commissions, including for schools, libraries, parks, and playgrounds, as well as a drama league and the local chapter of the Boy Scouts of America, among others. Music and dance, storytelling, and games were generally core components.

Los Angeles Express, 30 March 1914.

The first edition of the program was on 4 April 1914 and Grace Fulmer, who ran a teacher education school in the Angel City, told the Los Angeles Express “that the festival will become one of the annual pageants of Southern California” and that “hundreds of children in the elementary schools of the city will participate in tableaus depicting famous fairy stories” befitting the naming of the event after famous Danish writer Hans Christensen Andersen (1805-1875), whose stories included “The Princess and the Pea;” “Thumbelina;” “The Little Mermaid;” “The Emperor’s New Clothes;” “The ugly Duckling;” “The Little Match Girl;” “The Snow Queen;” and other tales that were once commonly read by American children.

The morning began at 11 with some twenty-five storytellers regaling youngsters with tales out in the sylvan environment of the park. Following a lunch, the tableaus were given and there was also entertainment by the orchestras of the Normandie Avenue, located southwest of Exposition Park, and Monte Vista Street, situated in Highland Park schools—both still operate today. A photo in the Express showed that students from Gates Street Elementary in East Los Angeles, soon renamed Lincoln Heights, were having a practice session at the nearby Skyland Theater, for a performance of “The Elf King,” written by Ida Bonham, a teacher at Breed Street Elementary in Boyle Heights (both these schools are still going, as well.)

Los Angeles Times, 11 April 1915.

The following year, the Junior Department of the Los Angeles Drama League took on the role of overseeing the planning and execution of the festival in collaboration with the city entities and the event, which was held on 10 April, was expanded by several hours. For an hour from 10:30 a.m., thirty storytellers told tales, with an hour-and-a-half afterward dedicated to lunch and play time. The remaining time through 4 p.m. consisted of a procession of costumed children at the amphitheater, with those from schools or in playground programs taking on certain themes.

For example, the children of the Slauson Playground, now Mary M. Bethune Park, in South Los Angeles, portrayed characters from “Sleeping Beauty,” while students from Macy Street School, which is now closed though the newly constructed building from that era still stands just east of Union Station, played music in “The Flowers’ Ball” and those from Castelar Street School, now Castelar Elementary (the street no longer exists) in Chinatown just below the park, had a musical tableaux of “Hiawatha.”

Express, 23 April 1920.

Coverage in the Los Angeles Times began with the observation that “a day of play, story-telling and communion with fairies in their native out-door haunts among the trees and flowers has been arranged for the children of Los Angeles.” It was added that, in addition to having children were costumes, whether involved in the tableaux or not, families were asked to bring a picnic lunch, “under the cool shade of the spreading trees of Elysian Park” while it was noted “the woods were never more beautiful than right now, and the time seems ideal for such a glorious project.” Bessie Stoddart, chair of the arrangements committee, commented that:

With the exception of the “movies” there are few entertainments for children. Once every year or two a play like “Peter Pan” or “Little Women,” which children can appreciate comes along, but then the prices are usually so high as to be prohibitive. The festival was planned to give children the kind of entertainment that their hearts must desire.

The 1916 edition of the festival reportedly drew some 20,000 women and children (did no men join with their families?), who watched as a young king and queen of the fairies and thirty of their subjects walked down a winding trail to the amphitheater to the accompaniment of a John Phillip Sousa march played by the Custer Street Intermediate School (which no longer exists with most of that thoroughfare removed by the building of the 101 and 110 freeways interchange.)

Express, 24 April 1920.

Children were dressed in costumes representing such nations as Austria-Hungary (soon to be split because of the in-process world war), England, Italy, Japan, Spain and Sweden. Once the monarchs were seated and strewn with flowers, groups of “earth-children” were asked to come forward and perform for them. Students from Avenue 62 (now Garvanza) School in the northeast section of the city “danced a mountain march,” and a recreation center contingent danced Spain’s “La Mancha.”

The Times in its coverage added that twenty-five young persons from the Japanese Institute came “carrying cherry blossoms in their hands, [while] the children of the Flowery Kingdom danced to the strains of a Japanese guitar [that is, a koto,” the problem with this account being that the name “Flowery Kingdom” was usually a pejorative for China.

Times, 25 April 1920.

Students from the Normal Hill Center, which was recently converted from the Normal School for teacher education (it having moved to a new site on Vermont Avenue, now Los Angeles City College, before becoming part of the “Southern Branch” of the University of California, or U.C.L.A.) and a decade later became the site of the Central Public Library did an English “Milkmaid Dance.” Stories like “Cinderella,” “The Frog Prince,” and “Hansel and Gretel” were performed by elementary and middle school students from Boyle Heights, Echo Park and South Los Angeles.

For the 1920 edition, the festival lasted from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and it was reported by the Times that, for the first portion, “the Public Library is sending thirty-five crackajack [sic] story-tellers, each to be under a numbered tree and each to tell a different kind of yarn. Moreover, stated the paper, “each child attending will decide whether he or she wants to hear a pirate story, or a soldier story, or an Indian story, or a fairy story, or a folk story, or what, and will go to the tree designated.”

Express, 5 May 1923.

A half-hour of games was followed by lunch and then music from the Central Intermediate School (possibly the antecedent to the middle school near Wilshire and Vermont. From 1:30 to 3:00, there was a costume parade with the last hour dedicated to plays and drills. The Express of that evening reported “large crowds were in attendance” and that “weather conditions [were] ideal” as “the tots were on hand in great numbers and in crisp and refreshing attire to participate in the opening features of story telling and games.”

The paper opined that “perhaps the most fascinating parts of the program were the classic fairy plays and drills that were carefully planned by those in charge.” These components were determined to be those “that have endeared the annual event so much to the younger children and attracted wide attention from the spectator’s standpoint.” Not only that, but “moving pictures of this and other features” were to be shown at the California Theatre as part of the “Los Angeles Express Animated Events” component of the program.

Los Angeles Record, 7 May 1926.

In a Boy Scouts column in the paper, it was noted that a fife, drum and bugle corps performed at the festival, while first-aid and life saving, tent-pitching, signaling and lighting by friction were to be demonstrated, as well. The Highland Park Herald, serving that northeast section of the city, proudly reported that youngsters from Garvanza and Highland Park, including a couple with the time-honored Californio surnames of Yorba and Vejar, who gave a tumbling exhibition acquitted themselves well.

As for the Times, it began its coverage by observing that

Fairies of many lands frolicked in Elysian Park yesterday in honor of Hans Christian Andersen of Denmark, creator of fairy stories that are loved throughout the world. The Pied Piper of Hameln [sic] and Shakespeare’s fairies from “[A] Midsummer Night’s Dream” were there to rom and play with Indian, English and French fairies and dance the maypole dance as prettily as ever it was danced in the historic court of Sainte Chapelle.

The paper added that 300 children participated in the program while thousands more watched, as “did their cousins and their sisters and their aunts.” Also noted were the story-telling groups, games, costume procession, presentations, and the Boy Scouts demonstrations. C.B. Raut of the Normal Hill Center was recognized as stage manager, while Maude Coble of Jefferson High School was the arrangements committee chair.

The festival continued until at least until 1927 and included, in 1921, the commemoration of the 300th anniversary of the arrival of the Pilgrims in 1621, complete with “an attack by diminutive Indians [who] descended upon the Liliputian [sic] Pilgrims. In the 1 October 1921 issue of the Library Journal, organizer Jasmine Britton, of the elementary school library system, wrote of the festival:

Its simple, wholesome characteristics savor of the folk-spirit of other lands . . . In new America, where there has not been time for customs to be handed on nor for atmosphere to be created in the complicated modern life of a large city, the community play spirit of children is seldom allowed expression.

In 1922, the Times reported that almost 10,000 children were in attendance, with large numbers arriving up to two hours early and stated “one of the strangest groups on the grounds” during the storytelling portion were Japanese children, who “took just as much interest in hearing the American tales as did any of the others.” Another storyteller presented “The White Horse of General Lu Bing,” which appears to have had a Chinese theme, while one school offered a parade of costumed students, including “a Japanese maiden in her kimono.” Five hundred students from various schools gave a rendition of “Peter Pan” that was a highlight.

By 1923, with another enormous boom in population in the Angel City, the number of storytellers leapt to fifty, including from what became U.C.L.A., U.S.C. and the Cumnock School of Expression, to accommodate the thousands of children joining in the festivities, and one, a Russian woman, Madame Zulanko, used puppets in her rendering of Andersen’s “The Princess and the Pea.” Also offered were “Chautauqua Chinese folk tales” and Mrs. Titian Coffey presented her own original stories using animal toys. Brightly-colored umbrellas were used to enliven the scene and make it easier to find a storyteller, while Campfire Girls were employed as guides.

The Los Angeles School Journal of 3 May 1926 included the statement that:

The Hans Andersen Festival is becoming a Los Angeles tradition. It is a revival of the good old-world folk custom of celebrating al fresco, in dance and song, the birthday of a contributor to the gaiety of nations.

In 1927, under the auspices of city schools, the playground department and the library system, the 13th annual festival took place in mid-May, later than usual. It was noted by the Times that “this year the celebration will be on a much greater scale than ever before” with the procession including children dressed as candy, as well as fairies, elves, gnomes, goblins, a witch, and famous characters like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Mother Goose, Red Riding Hood, Humpty Dumpty, Cinderella, Heidi, Alice in Wonderland, Robin Hood, and “groups from ‘Stores of Early America.'”

No record of any further festivals could be found until 1939, with the ravages of the Great Depression on the budgets of schools, parks and libraries perhaps being part of the issue. In 1939, however, the revived event was operated by the Filippa Pollia Foundation, established by Dr. Joseph Pollia in honor of his daughter, who died at just age nine, and which sponsored educational programs for underprivileged children. One of these, in 1938, featured Black writers Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps speaking to high schoolers. Another Andersen festival was held in May 1941 for 800 children, though the American entry into World War II may have prevented future events.

The snapshots show the maypole dance and two storytelling groups and are great visual documents for a major Los Angeles festival for children that took place, on and off, for more than a quarter of a century.

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