On the Sunday night after Thanksgiving, a parade ran down Hollywood Boulevard, as it had many Thanksgiving weekends before that. This year, and in some other years past, it was called the Hollywood Christmas Parade, but growing up here I knew it as the Santa Claus Lane Parade. Gene Autry, the singing cowboy and media mini-magnate, wrote a song about it: "Here Comes Santa Claus (Right Down Santa Claus Lane)."
You can see it, time-shifted on television tonight, and again on Christmas Eve, in an edited program with additional musical performances -- shot pre-parade and at the Grove's Christmas tree lighting -- airing nationally on MyNetwork as “The 2009 Hollywood Christmas Parade/Live Positively Presented by Coca-Cola.” (Coke had six floats in the parade, spaced like commercials.) Soap star Susan Lucci was the grand marshal.
There is a certain magic in turning a street from its usual traffic. It promises something special, a departure from daily business: a holiday, a party. On that Sunday night, floodlights shone from high upon the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel down to where a boulevard-wide red carpet ran the long block west from Highland Avenue, past Grauman's Chinese Theatre to the north and the El Capitan on the south. For $35 you could buy a grandstand seat there; otherwise there were 2 1/2 miles of free curbside along the route, which ran east to Vine Street, south to Sunset Boulevard and back west and north to approximately where it started. The evening was unseasonably warm and pleasant; it was a nice night to be outside with people.
Although the parade did have something of a star-studded golden age, when Hollywood the place and Hollywood the industry were more congruent than they are now, among big-name holiday parades it has for a while been something of an underachiever. Apart from sitting city officials, it relies on second- and third-tier celebrities to fill the slowly driven classic convertibles that alternate with the marching bands, big balloons, equestrian troops and floats. It nearly died in 2007, when the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, its longtime producer, decided it was too much of a money-losing proposition to continue; City Hall stepped in to keep it afloat. But its modesty is part of its charm: It remains fundamentally a local, community event; indeed, its appeal is rooted in the romantic notion of Hollywood as an extraordinary ordinary place just going about its business.
I sat in the bleachers for a while, but it was hard to get into the spirit of things there, with the distracting patter of the hosts coming through the loudspeakers -- "These toys soldiers are often made of wood," co-host Erik Estrada said of a Macy's-style balloon, "but obviously not in this case" -- even while the bands played. And so I left the stands and went back around to the street.
Crowded only in spots, the pavement was easy to navigate, and Hollywood went about its business, wearing a Santa hat and snap-on elf ears. Paradoxically, the decline in the Christmas Parade's fortunes inversely mirrors the area's ongoing makeover into a Times Square-style retail theme park. But the sanitizing aspirations of the burghers have not yet conquered the random bumptiousness of the boulevard, with its smoke shops, tattoo parlors and flashy underwear stores; if you turned your eyes from the street to the sidewalk, there was a parade there too.
A tall man dressed as Jesus, drinking coffee from a takeout cup, posed for pictures with passersby, like the Johnny Depp and Robert Pattinson clones who gather with the Elmos and Spidermen in front of the Chinese Theatre. Portable grills served Mexican food; cotton candy vendors worked the crowd. The Scientologists, who have made their Winter Wonderland diorama a holiday fixture, set up loudspeakers and, before the parade, presented singing children and peppered the vicinity with quotations from Chairman Ron's "nonreligious" "The Way to Happiness." (Galaxy Press, which publishes Hubbard's pulp fiction, had a float in the parade as well.) Shaggy-haired buskers played guitars in front of a smoke shop; teenagers passed cigarettes.
As time passed, and I walked farther from the grandstand, the parade grew increasingly diffuse -- I suppose because of the start-and-stop around the grandstand for TV interviews, the space between floats and bands and celebrity-carrying antique cars became greater and greater down the road. Minutes passed when there would be nothing on the street at all -- you might have popped in to have a tattoo between floats. If you had stumbled upon the boulevard then, you might easily have thought that people on one side had gathered expressly to stare at people staring back from the other, as across a river.