In the roaring ‘20s, its gleaming decks carried more than 80,000 passengers to an island hideaway 2,217 nautical miles distant, shuttling politicians, tourists and Hollywood’s elite to exotic Honolulu.
The fabled steamship City of Los Angeles is now but a memory of Southern California’s playful past. But it helped to establish Los Angeles as a major passenger-ship destination, while creating an ambience of glamour and adventure.
Through the 20th century, at least six other craft bore Los Angeles’ name: a 1916 oil tanker, a 1918 cargo ship, a 1924 Zeppelin airship, a 1945 heavy cruiser built with war-bond money, a 1948 Swedish motor ship and, finally, a 1976 nuclear submarine.
But it was the City of Los Angeles and its sister ship, the City of Honolulu, both launched in 1922, that inaugurated passenger service between Los Angeles and Hawaii. Before then, Hawaii-bound passengers had to depart from San Francisco.
The story of the Los Angeles Steamship Co.'s stylish vessels and celebrity passengers is documented in the exhibit “Hollywood to Honolulu” at the Los Angeles Maritime Museum in San Pedro. Steamship historians Martin Cox and Gordon R. Ghareeb are guest curators, contributing their personal collections of steamship company artifacts, photos with deck scenes and graphics. The exhibit runs through July.
Cox and Ghareeb’s research uncovered shipboard romances, both famous and obscure, and the names of star passengers who helped promote the ship. Legendary athlete-actor Johnny Weissmuller and fabled surfer Duke Kahanamoku entertained guests with their water skills, while future-Gen. George S. Patton Jr. watched shipboard antics in 1926 en route home to Los Angeles after being captain of the Army’s championship polo team. In 1920, the Los Angeles Steamship Co., known as LASSCO, was Southern California’s largest shipbuilder and repair facility. It bought two German liners, the Aeolus and the Huron, and refurbished them as state-of-the-art cruise ships.
The company’s owners included City Councilman Fred Baker and the Chandler family, which also owned the Los Angeles Times. They envisioned the L.A.-Hawaii route as an opportunity for city growth.
During Prohibition, travelers had a strong reason to board a ship that made a monthly voyage. Although liquor was supposedly banned from the ship, the City of Los Angeles held nightly cocktail parties in a library devoid of books.
Its inaugural voyage began on Sept. 10, 1922. The whistle sounded, the crew of 230 cast off with 264 passengers aboard, and the sleek white 580-foot vessel slipped between the battleships Connecticut and Tennessee, bound for Honolulu. Its sister ship, Honolulu, followed two weeks later.
The vessels had nearly 400 first-class cabins and 100 steerage accommodations, but the “cheap seats” were kept vacant at first. A first-class 20-day round trip cost $336, including six days at sea, a week around the islands and the return.
For the maiden voyage, the steamship company ponied up the dough for Mayor George Cryer and City Council President Boyle Workman to lead a city delegation to promote trade. They took along some of the Southland’s oranges, lemons and produce, as well as more than 100 Chamber of Commerce leaders and wealthy members.
The ship was greeted at the Honolulu pier by a band playing “Aloha Oe” in fast tempo. Boys dived for coins tossed by passengers as hula girls swayed, and every traveler was welcomed with kisses and leis.
The Los Angeles’ gala return voyage was uneventful. Not so the Honolulu, which caught fire and sank on Oct. 12, 1922, during its journey home.
This was a decade after the Titanic; everyone aboard must have remembered the tragedy. Yet they remained calm. As the ship’s band played “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” all 260 passengers and crew members boarded lifeboats in an orderly fashion. Even the ship’s cat and two canaries survived.
The freighter West Faralon picked everyone up and transferred them to the Army transport ship Thomas, which headed for San Francisco.
Times Publisher Harry Chandler didn’t like the sound of that. He didn’t want anyone else -- especially Hearst reporters -- to interview passengers: What if they blamed Chandler’s steamship line for the fire? So he pulled strings to divert the rescue ship to Los Angeles.
As a further guarantee against negative publicity, and to buy some time, Chandler made sure that the ship weighed anchor just outside the harbor when it arrived around midnight. Then he ensured that the passengers were kept aboard all night while he spared no expense, supplying them with cigarettes, cigars, food, clothing and underwear. Not until they were all happy campers were they allowed to leave. A film crew recorded their smiling faces as they disembarked and climbed into automobiles waiting to whisk them home. The fire’s cause was never found.
Days after the Honolulu sank, two temporary ships took its place. Five years later, in 1927, a newer and faster ship was renamed the City of Honolulu. It proved ill-fated, however, burning and sinking in 1930 after a fire started in the ship’s barbershop while it was docked in Honolulu. No one died in that incident either, but some folks started to quote an old sailing adage: “It’s bad luck to change the name of a ship.”
In September 1925, San Francisco threw a huge party to celebrate California’s 75th anniversary of statehood. The parade covered 17 miles and lasted five hours. As it passed the Port of San Francisco, 25 LAPD motorcycle cops rode off the City of Los Angeles in formation. They were followed by Mack Sennett’s Bathing Beauties in daringly modern one-piece bathing suits, dancing to a tune by the Los Angeles Fire Department’s marching band. The crowd roared.
LASSCO was always looking for new ways to promote itself, especially through Hollywood events, such as the opening of the Shrine Auditorium in 1926. “Harry Chandler, exploiting the event to the fullest, saw to it that Captain Hamma, attired in his formal dress uniform, was there,” Ghareeb said. So were LASSCO Vice President and General Manager Ralph J. Chandler -- Harry’s nephew -- and his wife, Lenore.
On Nov. 28, 1926, Chandler used another advertising ploy, a broadcast at KHJ Studio atop the Times-Mirror Building. Ralph Chandler and radio personality “Uncle John” Dagget presided over the show, which honored the ship’s officers “for the fine job they had done in taking the ‘Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce Sociability Tour’ to Hawaii the previous month,” Ghareeb said. One of the performers was an 18-year-old named Fred MacMurray.
In 1927, the steamship company boasted four ships, with the City of Los Angeles the largest and most luxurious.
In 1928 and ’29, the ship changed directions, heading for the Panama Canal on two three-month junkets -- trade missions. These voyages appealed to an influential band of well-heeled city folk, led by the chamber’s field secretary, Charlie Bayer. A jovial businessman who had a penchant for hard liquor and good times, Bayer organized the ship’s masquerade ball, where he dressed in drag.
But the trip wasn’t all fun and games. Three days into the voyage, Frank Olds, a prominent Los Angeles businessman, died of a heart attack while working out in the ship’s gym. He was buried at sea.
Soon, the Great Depression did what treacherous waves could not, sinking LASSCO and forcing its merger with its San Francisco-based rival, the Matson Line, in 1930.
The Los Angeles retained its Hollywood cachet, however. On March 28, 1931, 20th Century Fox transported a crew of 40, including Charlie Chan, Bela Lugosi (famous for his role as Dracula) and Robert Young, then 24, to film “The Black Camel” aboard ship and at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Honolulu.
That same year, William Powell and Carole Lombard tied the knot in Hollywood, honeymooned at the Royal Hawaiian and caught the ship back to L.A.
As casinos in Baja California began to attract a galaxy of Hollywood stars, big-name athletes and gangsters, the Los Angeles turned southward for its “Cruise to Nowhere,” which started at $45 a ticket. For those who didn’t want to get off, the ship rented gambling equipment and purchased cases of Mexico’s legal booze.
The ship made its final voyages to Ensenada and Honolulu in 1932 and the South Pacific in 1934. Outperformed by newer, more modern, vessels, the 35-year-old ship was sold to a San Diego firm, which turned it into a nightclub and hotel called the Show Boat.
Finally, in 1937, the timeworn City of Los Angeles was sent to Japan for scrap. Its salvaged materials helped to build Japanese fighter planes in World War II.