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L.A. THEN AND NOW

Downtown's Fiesta Began as a Multicultural Celebration

April 27, 2003|Cecilia Rasmussen | Times Staff Writer

What began in 1894 as a four-day-long "La Fiesta de Los Angeles," a celebration of its many cultures, isn't as venerable as New Orleans' Mardi Gras, but it has played an enduring if off-and-on role in the city's cultural life.

And it endures now as Fiesta Broadway, which begins today, the 14th annual prelude to Cinco de Mayo celebrations of Latino culture.

Inspired by the carnivals at Nice and Monte Carlo, La Fiesta was the inspiration of business leader Max Meyberg, who realized that late-19th century L.A. needed a springtime event to pump enthusiasm into the veins of the city's economy -- and attract tourist business. This was at a time when the nation's 1893 depression had closed four local banks and was sending unemployment soaring.

Pasadena had launched its Tournament of Roses parade a few years earlier, in 1889, and Los Angeles was determined to compete with or even outdo the New Year's celebration with an electric light parade and a four-day festival of its own.

Meyberg's plan turned out to be a brilliant stroke -- the first of many by the influential and inventive Jewish merchant who would go on to organize the nation's first international air meet, in Dominguez Hills, in 1910.

Angelenos were quick to help organize the April event. Victor Ponet, a Belgian undertaker who founded the German American Savings Bank, helped start the Evergreen Cemetery and established his country's consulate here, offered the use of his vacant land, a block bounded by Pico Boulevard, Grand Avenue and 12th and Hope streets. Grandstand seats went up there, where judges would take their places to scrutinize horse-drawn floats that circled the block.

(The spot is now a downtown redevelopment area, and was once proposed as the site for a new football stadium. It remained a public space for years. Early in the 20th century, it was known as Fiesta Park, one of the many places where USC played its football games.)

The first Fiesta parade began on a Tuesday morning, April 10, 1894. The Times started the festivities by firing a ceremonial cannon from the roof of its building. Bells, train whistles and guns joined in the clamor. Horse-drawn buggies, wagons and chariots, decorated with roses and spring flowers, were paraded up and down Hill, Broadway, Spring and Main streets. Marching bands serenaded the crowd along the streets with John Philip Sousa's patriotic marches.

The queen of La Fiesta was Suzanne Bate Childs, the wife of civic leader Ozro W. Childs Jr. She was crowned at Central Park (now Pershing Square) and held court with grand marshal Nick Covarrubias, a prosperous stable owner. They judged the "flower wars" -- merrymakers who dueled jokingly with "swords" of long-stemmed flowers.

Along the route, parade-goers were treated to what is now a familiar fixture of Chinese New Year's celebrations: a colorful dancing dragon snaking through the streets. A hundred Chinese Americans danced beneath the mock dragon, described as 200 feet long by parade chroniclers. American Indians, escorted to L.A. from the Ft. Yuma Indian reservation in a boxcar -- to the Indians' annoyance -- were treated handsomely when they arrived. They showed off their horsemanship in the parade, riding bareback and performing traditional dances atop a horse-drawn float. In years to come, the Japanese and other ethnic communities joined the parade with floats and participants of their own.

Newspaper accounts detailed Los Angeles' movers and shakers parading in "weird and terrible costumes" on mule-back, then staging a mock takeover of the city, arresting Mayor Thomas E. Rowan and Police Chief John M. Glass.

During the daylight hours of the four-day festival, every lamppost and telegraph pole along the downtown streets was wrapped in palm leaves and ornamented with pepper tree boughs. At twilight on April 11, for three blocks along Spring Street, hundreds of oil torches were attached to poles and posts and lighted. The floats were illuminated with Chinese lanterns.

The official colors for the four-day event were red for Los Angeles' thriving vineyards, green for its olive trees and orange for its orange groves. The colors would later be incorporated into the city's official banner and city seal.

Succeeding days were filled with fireworks, flower exhibitions, a public masked ball at Hazard's Pavilion and performances at local theaters by Shakespearean actors Helena Modjeska, Otis Skinner and Edwin Booth -- brother of Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth.

Presidential Visit

The festival was usually an April affair except in 1901, when the imminent visit of President William McKinley so excited the City Council that it postponed La Fiesta until May 9 to coincide with his visit.

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