Weekend Celebration : MacArthur Park Aglow for 100th Birthday Party

Times Staff Writer

MacArthur Park is once again aglow in the dark, with 90 rewired and refurbished lamps along park walkways and a neon hotel sign that were switched on Friday evening to kick off a celebration of the park’s 100th birthday.

The celebration included a variety of weekend events--free music concerts, street performers, a 5K run, a children’s carnival and a savory selection of ethnic foods--all part of a continuing three-year effort to restore the park as an anchor of serenity for the surrounding neighborhood.

Friday’s lighting ceremony was part of the MacArthur Park Public Art Program sponsored by the Otis Art Institute of Parsons School of Design, located on the park’s western border. Relighting the park and its surrounding neon signs began as a brainstorm of Los Angeles artist Alexis Smith, who noticed that the signs above hotels and theaters had deteriorated since many had not been lit for more than 30 years.

A Return to Splendor


“I’m very thrilled that MacArthur Park is going to be returned to its splendor, surrounded by all of these wonderful new signs,” Smith said before flipping a switch to turn on the red and blue Westlake Theater sign overlooking the park at Alvarado Street and Wilshire Boulevard.

“The idea is to bring back some of the history of the neighborhood . . . and some light,” said Al Nodal, director of Otis/Parsons public art project. Work on four additional signs is nearly completed, he said, and they will be turned on over the next month.

Los Angeles County Federation of Labor head William Robertson and Steve Harrington, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers’ Local 11, had earlier thrown the switch to turn on the walkway lamps.

Earned Bad Reputation


Over the last few years, the once elegant 32-acre park two miles west of City Hall, has earned a reputation as a site of violence as drug dealers expropriated the turf at dusk, creating such a menacing atmosphere that many community residents simply stopped going there.

In 1983, however, Otis/Parsons hired Nodal to head its public art program, and he looked past the mounting police statistics of assaults, rapes and robberies to see the park’s beauty.

Otis/Parsons organized a community council of business owners and residents to support park restoration, and the project has attracted nearly $200,000 in federal and city grants to complete a mural at the bandstand and place several sculptures in the park.

“Al came to me and took me to the Parsons gallery,” Robertson said Friday. “I was very impressed. I told him that if there was anything the labor movement could do, just call.”


Labor Pitches In

There was quite a bit the labor movement could do, and Nodal soon called. Robertson, who also serves on Los Angeles’ Recreation and Parks commission, persuaded the commission to supply materials for the lighting project and enlisted the aid of Local 11’s Harrington, whose offices are also adjacent to the park, to donate labor.

“Three electricians, five laborers and an operating engineer worked five-day weeks for three months on the project,” said Local 11’s Dick Sprague. “Had the job been bid, it would have cost $200,000.”

Friday’s festivities came complete with a birthday cake with green icing, and a vocal trio who sang a version of Jimmy Webb’s hit 1968 tune, “MacArthur Park.” Unlike Webb’s lyrics, though, the park is no longer “melting in the dark,” and not a drop of the “sweet green icing” was flowing down.