Downtown's Fiesta Began as a Multicultural Celebration

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.

McKinley was feted with the traditional flower parade, as well as speeches, toasts and galas. But at one point on the parade route, the crowd surged so close that one of his carriage horses reared. "Women screamed, and an accident seemed imminent," The Times reported, "when Chief of Police Charles Elton dashed through the shouting crowd and seized the nervous animal's bridle."

La Fiesta over time was known by many names, including Fiesta de las Flores, L.A. Scene and, since 1990, Fiesta Broadway. As La Fiesta, it stayed on the calendar until the beginning of World War I, when it got too expensive to stage and drunken rowdyism spoiled the atmosphere.

The event had a one-year revival in September 1931, when more than 300,000 celebrated Los Angeles' 150th anniversary in a 10-day gala. That birthday party, which some said would be "La Fiasco" because of the Depression, cost $500,000, but took in $3 million. The sesquicentennial event, held in cities such as Long Beach and Santa Monica that joined in L.A.'s birthday party, featured an air show at the city's Municipal Airport, the predecessor of Los Angeles International Airport.

The only real dust-up was a royal-sized controversy over who would be crowned queen. There was an uproar between the old Spanish and Mexican families and the city's Yankee population.

The Latino families thought one of their ladies should be queen, but Isidore B. Dockweiler, the Dean of Lawyers and judge of the field of more than two dozen candidates, fretted for weeks over the choice before deciding on a non-Latina.

Controversial Queen

Elizabeth Hicks Gross, 38, whose aunt, Suzanne Bate Childs, had been the fiesta's first queen, was chosen to reign over the event, wearing a crown of pearls and rhinestones. One of her 29 princesses, Mary Dockweiler Sooy -- daughter of the judge of the competition -- recalled in a 1981 interview that as a concession, "We tried to look as Spanish as we could with our high combs and beautiful mantillas."

After the big 1931 event, the lavish downtown festivals all but disappeared.

Then, in the early 1970s, city promoters revived the idea when they tried to brighten downtown at Christmastime with a "Festival of Lights" during the 1972 energy crisis. The next year, they tried to recreate "La Fiesta" with a horse-and-buggy parade. Neither caught on, and the event was dropped for a few years.

In the late 1970s, it was revived as the L.A. Street Scene, an outdoor food and music festival, which became a regular late summer event. It was canceled in 1986 because of financial troubles and violence after one man was fatally shot and four others were stabbed.

Four years later, half a million people squeezed onto Broadway to launch the festival's latest incarnation, "L.A. Fiesta Broadway," celebrating Cinco de Mayo, a uniquely Mexican American holiday marking Mexico's 1862 victory over French forces at the Battle of Puebla. After this fiesta's smooth inaugural run, city officials, newspaper editorials and community leaders called the restored Fiesta a gran exito -- a big success.

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