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There goes Santa Claus; the Hollywood parade is a wrap

With revenue and audience shrinking, the Chamber of Commerce cancels its annual holiday event.

March 22, 2007|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

A 75-year Los Angeles tradition came to an end Wednesday as officials disclosed that last year's Hollywood Christmas Parade was the final one.

Rising costs and shrinking revenues are to blame for the cancellation, leaders of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce said.

"This is a very difficult thing for us to have to do," said Jeff Briggs, chairman of the chamber's board of directors. "We're disappointed and sad. But we're out of the parade business."

The business group, supported by member merchants' dues, lost about $100,000 in staging the 2006 parade. Losses were expected to double this year, Briggs said.

Begun in 1928 to draw Los Angeles residents into Hollywood shops and stores, the parade had struggled in recent years to attract celebrity participants and a national TV audience. Fees from broadcast advertising helped finance the $1 million event.

The parade had been on the verge of being canceled several times in the past, officials revealed Wednesday.

"We struggled for 10 years to keep it alive. We were always holding out hope," said chamber President Leron Gubler.

Starting in 1998, the chamber labored to hammer out annual television contracts that would promise celebrities the exposure they were seeking while producing advertising dollars to cover parade and telecast costs.

For the last three years KTLA-TV Channel 5 was the only station willing to pay the chamber a broadcast fee. The station, which -- like the Los Angeles Times -- is owned by the Tribune Co., upgraded the parade telecast's production and distributed it to other company-owned stations, including "superstation" WGN-TV of Chicago. The parade was accessible to about 80% of the country's viewers.

The parade telecast won a local Emmy for best live event of 2005. "KTLA was going to televise it again this year, but they were going to have to cut their production costs" by using fewer cameras and less nighttime lighting," Briggs said.

Such changes would have discouraged actors and other entertainers from participating in subsequent parades, he said. "You can't get celebrities without TV. You can't get TV without celebrities."

Longtime parade producer Johnny Grant, a former radio personality who now serves as Hollywood's honorary mayor and the head of its Walk of Fame, said he was heartbroken.

"When that last float went down the street last year, half my life went with it," he said. "But L.A.'s changing. America's changing. The public has many more entertainment platforms now."

Initially, when the event was known as the Santa Claus Lane Parade, "people were happy with Sheriff (Eugene) Biscailuz and the police chief in the parade," and movie studios were happy to send actors and actresses under contract to ride in it, said Grant -- who rode in the parade in the 1950s as a radio personality and produced it between 1978 and 1998.

The parade was the focus of cowboy actor Gene Autry's hit song "Here Comes Santa Claus," and it annually drew the likes of such stars as Bob Hope and Jimmy Stewart.

That changed when old-guard stars began fading away and Hollywood's new breed of celebrity took hold.

They were shielded by handlers and more inclined to jet away to Aspen or Hawaii during the Thanksgiving break, when the parade was staged, than ride in it.

In 2004 Grant even issued a public appeal in The Times for show business support.

"If you'd gotten the big people like we used to, the parade would still be doable," he said Wednesday.

Chamber officials said they tried various ploys to pump up interest in the parade, including a "Desert Storm" military theme in 1991 and a variety show-type production in 2002.

In 2006 KTLA pressed stars of its CW Network shows to participate, and the chamber hired what officials described as "celebrity wranglers" to line up such entertainers as grand marshal George Lopez, honorary grand marshal Regis Philbin and entertainers Brooke Hogan, Michael Bolton and Shawn Wayans.

The parade was staged annually except for 1930 and during World War II.

Loss of the parade was bemoaned Wednesday by Los Angeles political leaders.

"I'm heartbroken," said City Councilman Tom Labonge, who represents the Hollywood area. "I saw it as a child and as a teenager. I went as a young father, and now as an official I've ridden in that parade. It's a very sad day. Hopefully we can regroup with another kind of event."

LaBonge said the Christmas parade added color and character to Los Angeles. "All of that is what a city is about. We could sterilize our lives and never do a parade, but do we want to do that?"

City Council President Eric Garcetti, who also represents a portion of Hollywood and has ridden in the parade, held out hope that an alternative event could be planned for Hollywood.

"The Hollywood Chamber of Commerce has had a spectacular run with its annual Christmas Parade. I'm sorry to see it draw to a close. Hollywood's a pretty inventive town; I think it won't be long before we learn what Tinseltown's next version of holiday cheer looks like," Garcetti said Wednesday.

bob.pool@latimes.com

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