Riding Shotgun for Santa at Hollywood Yule Parade
LAPD Sgt. Pinky Meredith may have retired from his beat, but he hasn’t left the Hollywood Christmas Parade.
When the 54th traditional holiday parade gets under way Sunday at 6 p.m., Meredith will be there, just as he has been since 1947.
Although he retired from LAPD three years ago after 36 years on the force, Meredith stayed on as security consultant for the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, which produces the annual Hollywood parade. He now coordinates parade and post-parade party security with the Police Department.
For 27 years, Meredith rode escort to Santa and the stars; nine years he served as LAPD’s special event coordinator in Hollywood.
“When I first started out, this and the Rose Parade were the choice assignments for officers,” said Meredith, 67, a former motorcycle officer who lives in Encino. “All motorcycles were assigned out of downtown then, but it was an honor to come here and ride escort to Santa Claus and all the celebrities.”
Meredith, it turns out, is almost as much of a Hollywood tradition as the parade. Born and raised in Los Angeles, Meredith is “Hollywood’s cop,” and is known to most people simply as Pinky (no last name). His given name is Herbert Clyde, but he has gone by the nickname Pinky since he was 5 years old.
“I used to have real bright red hair,” the white-haired officer explained. “And you know how kids are. Somebody started
calling me Pinky and I threw a tantrum about it. It stuck. I’ve been Pinky ever since. I even had Pinky on my driver’s license for awhile.
Meredith, in his long tenure with the parade, has seen the event slip from one of Hollywood’s biggest draws of box-office stars to such disfavor that few celebrities would appear in it. He also has stayed around long enough to see it come back to prominence in the past several years.
He believes that the real heydays of the Hollywood parade were the 1940s and ‘50s, but is pleased to see its recent comeback.
“Those were the golden years,” Meredith said last week. “But then the ‘60s came and they were a big lull for the parade. There were too many other attractions, too many other things happening. There was a lot of unrest and the Vietnam protestors. And TV. It was taking so much more leisure time from people. I don’t think Santa Claus lost his appeal for kids. But if parents didn’t want to see the parade, they weren’t going to take the kids. In those days it was so bad we didn’t have celebrities who would ride in it. We just got anybody who would be in it.”
Considered Disbanding Parade
Indeed, Hollywood’s once-famous parade was so deteriorated in status by the mid-1970s that the Chamber of Commerce seriously considered disbanding it.
“I think you’d have to credit Johnny Grant, with Gene Autry’s support, and John Golden for turning it around,” Meredith said. In 1978, Grant, vice president of public affairs of KTLA, and Golden, president of Western Costume Co., both chamber members, decided that they had to do something about the parade “because Hollywood needed a positive image.”
Bob Hope agreed to serve as grand marshal in 1978, and subsequently other film and television personalities began to sign up for parade appearances.
“Johnny (Grant) is really popular with the celebrities and personally knows them by sight and a lot are his personal friends,” Meredith said. “He kept after people and got a lot of financial support from Gene Autry.”
Returned as Grand Marshal
Autry, who had ridden in the parade many times during his career as Hollywood’s singing cowboy, returned as its grand marshal in 1980, two years after the name was officially changed from the Santa Claus Lane parade to the Hollywood Christmas Parade.
Autry, in fact, immortalized the parade in 1946 when he wrote the Christmas song, “Here Comes Santa Claus.” He said that he got the idea for the song when he was riding his horse, Champion, down Hollywood Boulevard during the parade and heard all the children shouting, “Here comes Santa Claus, here comes Santa Claus.”
Meredith remembers one year when Autry, Roy Rogers, Pat Buttram, Tex Ritter and Iron Eyes Cody appeared together in the parade.
“I wish now I could have had a picture taken with them,” he said. “I always liked the cowboys. When I was a kid, Tom Mix was my hero.
Santa Got Bombed
“I don’t recall there were ever any celebrities who played Santa Claus,” Meredith said. “But I do remember one year when they were giving out free booze at the Blossom Room (the former meeting place in the Roosevelt Hotel for celebrity participants before and after the parade; they now convene at KTLA) and Santa Claus got there early and had too much. By 8 o’clock he was bombed. I don’t know what he said when he got out on the float on the Boulevard.”
The parade originated on Hollywood Boulevard in 1928. As a promotional stunt to boost Christmas sales, the Hollywoodmerchants got a sleigh on wheels to tour up and down Hollywood Boulevard every night between Thanksgiving and Christmas. That first sleigh carried Santa and a starlet named Jeanette Loff.
Hollywood property owners, under the leadership of Col. Harry M. Baine, bought the team of reindeer to draw the sleigh each year. During the rest of the year the reindeer were stabled in a barn at Hollywood Boulevard and La Brea Avenue for the public to view.
The first Santa Claus float appeared in the parade in 1932, the same year that 16-foot high metal Christmas trees, each with 160 lights, were built to be installed along Hollywood Boulevard each year for the parade and Christmas season.
Because they were made of metal, those trees were donated to aid in the war effort, and the parade was discontinued from 1942 to ’44, during World War II.
Upon its return in 1945, the parade drew 300,000 spectators. Today, after its recent comeback, the Hollywood Christmas parade draws from 750,000 to 1 million spectators each year. It also is televised yearly.
In 1979, the parade route was changed and lengthed to include Sunset Boulevard, because 50,000 people had to be turned away from the 1978 event for lack of room on Hollywood Boulevard. Grandstand seating also was added that year in various locations.
The 3.2-mile parade now begins on Sunset Boulevard and Van Ness in front of KTLA, continues west on Sunset to Highland Avenue. It moves north on Highland to Hollywood Boulevard, east on Hollywood to Bronson Avenue.
“When I proposed the circle route that we have now, the Fire Department was not too happy about it,” Meredith said. “They try to eliminate any kind of a box parade. But as long as we agreed to keep access streets open, they said OK. That’s why we keep Selma, the east-west avenue open, and then Cahuenga and Gower that run north and south.
“As far as security goes, it’s been a pretty quiet parade,” Meredith added. “Oh, one year we had some trouble with some kids getting up on roofs and throwing things at the floats. So the next year, we put five high-ground observation places on buildings and had radio communications from the top to the street. We didn’t have any more trouble.
Horse Patrols Effective
“Another year, we had some problems with people getting in the parade route trying to get celebrities’ autographs, but the security along the route now controls that. There are about 400 police, some on duty, others working off duty. The horses (LAPD’s mounted unit) have helped a lot too. We started out with eight of them. Now there are 40. Horses are very effective in keeping the crowds back.”
“The basic plan that we use today is the one that Pinky formulated many years ago,” said Capt. Larry Fetters, LAPD commander of Hollywood area. “It’s been successful year after year. This is probably one of the most peaceful parades across America. It’s unlike a New Year’s parade. People are not staying out overnight and crawling into whiskey bottles. This is a Sunday afternoon crowd.”
But one continuing problem for the Hollywood chamber in organizing the parade each year has been the Christmas decorations for the streets.
In 1945, new lighted trees were made to decorate the Boulevard, but they disappeared in the late 1950s, and no one knows what happened to them. Other tinseled decorations have since replaced them.
“It’s too bad we don’t have those Christmas trees,” Meredith said. “They just made the Boulevard. This year they’re adding a lot more searchlights (for the parade), but I still wish we had the trees. They lit up the Boulevard just like it was daylight.”
Chamber president Bill Welsh wishes so, too, and hopes to do something about it. He is planning to start a campaign in January to buy new Christmas decorations for upcoming parades.
Long Time to Raise Money
“It’s a real problem trying to raise the money,” Welsh said. “I am hoping to get the merchants to set up a fund for new decorations. I’d like to work at it all year long instead of waiting until the last three months like we usually do.”
This year, Welsh is not certain that any of the silvery decorations that line the route will be in place by parade time.
“It took so long to raise the money--$7,500--from the businesses along the Boulevard that we couldn’t give the company (American Decorating of Azusa) enough lead time to get them up,” he explained. “That’s unfortunate. They could not guarantee that the decorations would be up by Dec. 1. They could guarantee Dec. 3. But I hope some will be up by parade time. They’re trying.”
This year’s parade will feature 19 floats and 16 marching bands, along with equestrian units, antique cars and the Santa Claus float.
Actor William Shatner will serve as grand marshal, and plans to ride his own American Saddlebred, New Tune, rather than travel the route in an open car, as has become the custom for grand marshals. Shatner is the first grand marshal appear on horseback in 40 years.
Among other celebrities scheduled to appear are: Billie Dee Williams, Claude Akins, Debbie Allen, Kim Fields, Ernest Borgnine, Carol Lawrence, Rene Enriquez, Ricky Schroder, Soleil Moon Frey, William Devane, Marcy Lafferty, Dack Rambo, Sorrell Booke, Victor French, Jenilee Harrison, Jesse Borrego, Albert Hague, Adrian Zmed, Joey and Matthew Lawrence, Robert W. Morgan, Alex Cord, Nia Peeples, Rick Dees, Kevin Dobson, Ed Begley Jr., Debby Boone, Dean Jones.
Also Willie Aames, Joan Van Ark, John Marshall, Jack Jones, Denver Pyle, Heather O’Rourke, Jack Scalia, Cheryl Ladd, Talia Shire, Markie Post, Jean Bruce Scott, Danielle Green, Missy, Tracy and Brandy Gold, Telma Hopkins, Tracy Scoggins, Rip Taylor, Norm Crosby, Brian Berine and Jill Weylan.
“For the most part, it’s always gone well,” Meredith said of the parade. “There have been some minor problems. But nothing big. One year, we had a 1927 paddy wagon and nobody checked the gas in it. Halfway through, it ran out of gas. Another time, we left Darth Vader standing at the end of the parade route, with no ride back to the Roosevelt. Everybody just forgot him. Silly things like that happen. But in the end, I think all the work is worth it, because a parade like this is all-American, like apple pie. Santa Claus is a universal symbol and signifies a happy time. It puts everyone in a happy frame of mind. I guess, in a way, you’d say it promotes peace.”