“The Greatest Attraction in the Southwest This Year”: The Opening of the American Historical Review and Motion Picture Industrial Exposition, Los Angeles, 2 July 1923

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

It had all the aims and ambitions of the most lavish motion picture spectacle, but was also marred by the mismatched marriage of history and film, though the featured artifact from the Homestead’s collection for this post made it appear to be a harmonious commingling that was sure to be a rousing success on scale with the great world’s fairs. The American Historical Review and Motion Picture Industrial Exposition, held at the newly opened Los Angeles Coliseum from 2 July to 4 August 1923, promised to present both “the highlights of American history” as well as “every phase of the motion picture industry” as part of “the greatest attraction in the Southwest this year” and we’ll look at the opening of the event.

1923 was a notable year for the Angel City, it being the peak of the latest and greatest boom among many in the metropolis’ history. So many people were moving to the region and so much construction was going on, such at Walter P. Temple’s Town of Temple (renamed Temple City in 1928), which was announced just a little more than a month prior, that there was a cement shortage.

Los Angeles Record, 4 June 1923.

In Los Angeles, there was a major election just prior to the exposition’s debut, with city council seats decided and the presidency, voted on by the members, again given to Boyle Workman, whose father, William H., was mayor during the great boom of the 1880s and then city treasurer during the next big development explosion from 1901 to 1907. Also decided upon at that election was the passage of bonds for electric power generation from the Boulder Dam project, then in the planning stages, to the Angel City, which was touted as critical to future growth.

Among the projects which Boyle Workman was most proud of during his tenure on the council, which lasted from 1919 to 1927, were the building of the Coliseum, the inauguration of the City Hall project (completed in April 1928 after he’d stepped down), and the early stages of what much later became Union Station. The day prior to the exposition’s opening, the Los Angeles Times devoted some space to the proposed plan that would have stripped away the historic Plaza, around which Los Angeles developed in the Spanish and Mexican periods, and such landmarks as the Pico House hotel and what became the Olvera Street tourist destination, for a particularly far-reaching Civic Center plan (which, of course, did not come anywhere near to fruition as envisioned with the concept—but check out the rendering here!)

Venice Vanguard, 26 June 1923.

As for the exposition, an incorporated company was established a year prior to plan and execute it, and it became increasingly obvious that while, ostensibly the driver for the event was the centennial of the Monroe Doctrine, which asserted the supremacy of the United States over the Americas, the focus was going to firmly be on the motion picture industry. Known colloquially as Hollywood (though studios had been expanding into the San Fernando Valley and Culver City), the film empire was growing by leaps and bounds in terms of the scale and budgets of movies, the lavishness of the motion picture “palaces” or theaters in which they were shown, and, naturally, in the burgeoning box office receipts realized as the American economy came out of the First World War and a resulting recession and then into the boom years of the Roaring Twenties.

While there was plenty of press coverage from newspapers throughout the county, none would surpass that of the Los Angeles Times, which never missed an opportunity to promote and boost the region and gave extra attention to the exposition. Its rival, the Los Angeles Express, did offer an editorial on the last day of June that actually focused exclusively on the centennial of the Monroe Doctrine and made no reference, save in the title, to the movie business. In the piece, the paper asserted that:

There is about the Exposition such an aspect of structural solidity, its extent is so vast and the cost obviously so great that it seems inconceivable that the result could have been achieved so quickly . . . Measured by any standard the work done has been done remarkably well . . . It stands a monument to human skill and ingenuity, linked in their service to the cause with fine esthetic sense and artistic skill.

It is natural that our country should celebrate this centennial in formal fashion, and Los Angeles has played a patriotic part in undertaking the labor inevitably attaching to such an enterprise.

The paper added that representatives from most of the republics of Central and South America would be present at the event, which purported to commemorate the “free states of this hemisphere [who] were able to solidify their foundations and build in security” absent of European interference and thanks to American protection—obviously, however, the reality of a century of the history of the Americas showed a far more mixed record of “free” states. Still, the Express claimed that, with these dignitaries present, “it needed but their presence to give to the event that official sanction and recognition it so thoroughly merits.”

Los Angeles Times, 27 June 1923.

It was, though, quite telling that one of the major pieces of exposition news on its eve was the attention given to the fact that a statue of Monroe, erected in the village constructed adjacent to the Coliseum, was sculpted in record time by Cecil Erwin, who worked for Metro Pictures (soon to be part of the Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer, or MGM, agglomeration). The 10-foot high imitation bronze piece was not necessarily lauded for its artistic skill so much as for the ability of Erwin to finish it in just two weeks, which drew the admiration of some of his colleagues in the studios.

Also notable was that some of the advertising made almost no mention of the historical element or the Monroe Doctrine centennial, but focused virtually exclusively on the motion picture component, which, clearly, was going to be by far the bigger draw. One ad shown here, from the 26 June edition of the Venice Vanguard openly called the event the “World’s First Motion Picture Exposition” and excised the “American Historical Review” aspect.

Los Angeles Express, 30 June 1923.

While there was reference to historical pageants, it was in connection to having “hundreds of famous actors take part,” while a fireworks extravaganza was based on “The Fall of the Aztecs,” and rodeo riders were linked tenuously to the “Wild West.” Added attractions included a beauty contest with a prize being an opportunity to win a one-month film contract with the Goldwyn Studios and another contest in which any exposition attendee—man, woman, or child, of star quality or a character actor type—could also receive a limited-term contract with Famous Players-Lasky. Some attention was given to the fact that a great-granddaughter of Monroe would attend and bring “relics” of our fifth president, but, again, the bigger promotion was for the movie elements.

The opening day, 2 July, was for what were called “patrons,” holding special certificates, along with those who were dignitaries and invited guests and the Times reported that there were some 20,000 persons who were classified thusly. The 15 representatives from other countries in the Americas were arriving on a special train that afternoon from Washington and were greeted by Mayor George E. Cryer, film industry representatives, officials from the exposition company and a delegation from the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce.

Times, 1 July 1923.

With respect to entertainment, the Times mentioned the “historical pageants” directed by Emile De Recat, who had some film screenwriting and directing credits; ballets choreographed by Theodore Kosloff, also a violinist and painter as well as a ballet dancer who appeared in motion pictures; and “hippodrome acts,” which were essentially circus-type performances with clowns, trained horses, cowboys and Indians, and the like.

For the special guests, there was a dedication of a “Little Church on the Corner,” also the title of a 1923 Warner Brothers film starring Claire Windsor as well as the name of a well-known Manhattan church, where services were offered with an organ and musical performances; the unveiling of the Monroe statue; a banquet at the Brandstatter’s Montmartre Garden Café on site (Eddie Brandstatter opened the Café Montmartre in Hollywood earlier in the year and it became a popular place for film stars until it closed after a bankruptcy in 1932, after which he opened Sardi’s); and a presentation of the pageants, ballets, hippodrome acts and others, following an elaborate arrival and seating of film stars. After the performances, a ball was held and, at midnight, the exposition’s queen pressed a button “setting off a bomb,” that is, almost certainly fireworks to open the centennial event as Tuesday dawned. Lastly, a fiesta was to end the first day’s events with 300 film folk attired in the dress of countries around the world, while troubadours and Spanish dancers performed.

Express, 2 July 1923.

On the 2nd, the Times went all out, or all in, with an eight-page “Special Monroe Doctrine Centennial Section,” featuring photos and drawings (a large one by the paper’s Charles Owens was said to be faithful to the appearance and layout) of the Coliseum area and exposition grounds; many articles on aspects of the event; and advertisements from those exhibiting or congratulating the organizers for what was presumed to be a successful endeavor. H.B.K. Willis laid out the real purpose for the event quite simply and clearly:

The cinema lays its tribute in the lap of Los Angeles and the world today. The Monroe Doctrine Centennial, the American Historical Revue and Motion Picture Exposition, the shadow world’s first gift to its universe of patrons, the first of event of its kind in the history of the industry, today will be solemnized with pomp and pageantry.

The “Pueblo” that was constructed, not unlike sets on a studio lot, contained “alluring colonnades, buildings of striking beauty, graceful porticoes and byways of enchanting picturesqueness [which] bespeak a solidity which is as seeming as the industry of their donors is sound.” Willis repeated that the purpose was for the film industry to reach its “photoplay patrons,” but he added that “it is indeed happy that Southern California commercial and civic interests are co-operating with the magnates of the silver screen in this their $800,000 gesture of entente cordiale.”

Express, 2 July 1923.

Burton L. Smith’s contribution covered the Monroe Doctrine, lionizing that policy by which “the strongest government on the Western Continent” offers its benevolent protection to its “weaker sisters.” He asserted that more recently the doctrine evolved into a system of a “national rules of ethics” from which there were created “foundation stones upon which to build numerous governments out of the wrecks of war-torn European nations,” though, obviously, it took another era of fascism and world-wide war to test whether this idea had the merit assigned to it.

Joseph M. Schenck, the prominent movie producer, offered a piece called “Centennial to Boost City” in which he averred that the event “is of vital importance to Los Angeles and every Angeleno should give it his whole-hearted support.” Moreover, he claimed that “Los Angeles motion-picture folk are generally conceded to be the most loyal supporters any public occasion or movement can have” adding that “once ‘the picture people’ line up behind a movement it is assured of success.”

Times, 2 July 1923.

Schenck continued that “the advantages of living in Southern California will be spread before the world by means of the screen, the press and by word of mouth as a result of the exposition and thousands of new residents will be attracted to the Southland both by the exposition itself and the resultant publicity attending it.” Moreover, closer ties were assured between those in the United States and those elsewhere in the Americas, including the idea that “through motion-pictures our Latin friends have come to realize that, after all, we have much in common.”

Finally, he promoted the idea that the exposition was a natural follow-up to the opening of the Panama Canal in bringing countries in the Americas close together. In a shorter article, Jesse Lasky reiterated that “the Motion Picture Exposition will be the first great opportunity for the public and those engaged in the motion picture industry to get personally acquainted” outside of the somewhat detached relationship via the movie theater. He concluded that the event would serve to “put our future relationship on a much more enduring and sympathetic basis.”

Times, 2 July 1923.

On what was proclaimed the largest stage ever built in the United States, at some 130 feet in length at the east end of the Coliseum and well-lighted, were the presentation of the ballets, pageants, spectacles and tableaux vivants. With respect to the historical components, it was stated that

Hundreds of highly trained dancers and scores of operatic stars have been engaged to participate in the programs. The highlights of American history from 1492 to the present year will be recounted in a series of pageants.

The visit of Columbus, for example, was described as being one of good will and peace, along with an exchange of Europeans goods and an appreciative dance by the indigenous Americans—exactly as that history unfolded! Another scene showed Spanish soldiers and others at a mission with news brought of approaching hostile natives, though Gaspar de Portolá (whose trek through California predated the founding of the mission, but never mind this factual inconvenience) calms the worried Spaniards by stating that the “red men are on a peaceful mission.”

Times, 2 July 1923.

A third strange one involved Russians in northern California (where Fort Ross was a Russian colony from 1821 to 1841) who were visited by the apparition of Monroe and the spirits of Liberty and Peace alongside him as reminders of the president’s doctrine. The other two tableaux concerned George Washington assuming command of the Continental Army during the early stages of the American Revolution and a Virginia plantation scene, in which “the darkies” were singing and playing music as “The Spirit of Lincoln” approached as a herald to the freeing of the slaves.

An article focused on the work of architect Charles H. Kyson (1883-1954), who worked extensively with studio set design. He told the Times, “I utilized cinema principles” through “an irregular massing of the buildings, which gives the quaintness similar to the twisting streets of the picturesque cities of Spain and Central America.” He also stated that “the Pueblo Indians were out first cubists” who “unconsciously achieved the picturesque element” in the Pueblo architecture he adapted for the exposition.

Express, 3 July 1923.

Kyson asserted that he could not have designed the “pueblo” in the way that he did without his experience in the film industry and he applied principles of light and shade for effect as he did on studio lots. Referring to the use of color and the avoidance of pure white, along with the need for the use of landscaping to enhance the aesthetics of the environment, the architect concluded, “it is my hope that this exposition will point the way toward a permanent group of exposition buildings, which can be utilized for trade expositions of all kinds, to show the world the industrial and artistic growth of Southern California.”

Notably, Kyson was the son of the first trained architect to practice in Los Angeles. Ezra F. Kysor (1835-1907) came to Los Angeles in the late 1860s after a period in northern California and designed some of the most prominent buildings of the following decade, including the Pico House hotel, Merced Theater and St. Vibiana’s Cathedral, while he is attributed as the architect who designed the extensive remodeling of the Workman House, completed in 1870. Kyson wasn’t as prominent as his father, though he is best known for his work on the Bryson Apartments on Wilshire Boulevard. He changed his surname during the First World War for a reason which should be quite obvious!

We’ll follow up in a month with a second post covering the exposition and featuring a event program that is in the Museum, so check back with us for that on or about 4 August.

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