Making a desert cool

D.J. WALDIE is the author of "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles."

This is one in an occasional series of summertime essays.

Summer came late to Southern California. Starting in the 1870s, it was a season specifically for outdoor leisure in the East, where the well-to-do fled to cool Adirondack lodges and the sweating urban masses subwayed to beach playgrounds such as Coney Island. But Southern California was solely a winter destination, an October to April place where the old or the tubercular could retreat from the damp and the cold. According to the best tourist guides of the time, Southern California was a semi-desert, a description that emphasized desert a little too much. Local hotels and resorts made money when the East shivered, but they languished in the summer.

Los Angeles businessmen -- among them Harry Chandler, publisher of The Times -- thought every season should show a profit. In 1920, Chandler helped spin off the All-Year Club from the city’s other booster associations and, with funding from the county Board of Supervisors, began the selling of summer.

It required a lot. Even in the dark middle of the Depression, the All-Year Club spent $167,000 annually on promoting year-round Southern California tourism, and it was only one of a dozen other such tourism organizations. The club hired the best ad men, beginning with Don Francisco, appreciatively noted by Time magazine as the man who had “organized the campaign that kept Upton Sinclair from becoming governor of California” in 1932. The ad campaign vilifying Sinclair, a socialist and popular novelist, seems like the flip side of selling leisure in the sun. The message was climate, not Sinclair’s “End Poverty in California” program. But boosterism was politics, too, and it could have a mean streak.


“Come ... for a glorious vacation,” urged the All-Year Club. “Advise anyone not to come seeking employment, lest he be disappointed, but for the tourist, attractions are unlimited.” In 1938, the Oklahoma City Times bitterly editorialized against some of the club’s ads, which explicitly told its state’s rural families not to sample the Southern California attractions, lest they decide to stay.

Despite the mixed messages, summertime tourism boomed. Thanks to better roads and cheaper train fares, it was easy for middle-class Midwesterners to vacation in the West. (Easterners headed to Florida for exotic sunshine and beaches.) By 1939, when more than 1.5 million tourists visited Southern California, summer visitors outnumbered those in winter by 30%.

What they came for had changed too. Climate was nearly a religion for the region’s first visitors, often men broken in health and sent to Southern California to recuperate or die. Chandler had been one, as had Charles Lummis (founder of the Southwest Museum, among many other Los Angeles institutions) and Abbott Kinney (builder of Venice). The new tourists wanted more than climate. When polled by the All-Year Club in the summer of 1938 and later in 1939, they listed movie studio tours, the Huntington Library, Forest Lawn Cemetery and nightlife as attractions equal to the good weather.

In fact, what the All-Year Club was selling had become harder for the admen to describe. Los Angeles was big and getting bigger; orange groves and chaparral were turning into tract houses. Hollywood was mostly honky-tonk. And there was smog, threatening the founding sales pitch of health and happiness in the sunshine.

In response, the club’s ad campaigns in the 1940s and 1950s tended to throw together every icon of Southern California -- from “Ramona”-inspired nostalgia to oil wells -- in hopes that one of them would be the lure that worked. (And the club told TV producers and comics not to make fun of the smog.)

Rescue ultimately came from a mouse. The opening of Disneyland in 1955 suburbanized summertime tourism and wrapped it in a superbly controlled environment, emulated, with varying degrees of success, by competitors such as Knott’s Berry Farm and Universal Studios. Southern California itself hardly mattered. Southern California wasn’t the place you visited. You passed through it on the way to the Magic Kingdom.

As the All-Year Club struggled to give Southern California a brand identity, it sometimes touted the big-city qualities of Los Angeles and sometimes ignored the city altogether. There was no decline in the visitor count, however.


Last year, Los Angeles welcomed 25 million tourists. Domestic travelers stayed an average of four nights; foreign visitors stayed for six. They stayed in their own private Southern California, a fantasia of images compounded from nearly 100 years of the most successful marketing campaign in history.

By 1968, the All-Year Club had morphed into the Greater Los Angeles Visitors and Convention Bureau, and it later merged with the Southern California Visitors Council. In 2003, it became LA Inc. Nothing of the air and light or landscape of Southern California remains in that odd new name, nothing of the All-Year Club’s selling of summer.