Edna Aliewine says she once stood 5 feet 1, but has been steadily shrinking with age.
She still was the towering figure Saturday at the annual Watts/Willowbrook Christmas Parade, which she co-founded in 1964 and runs with the bearing of a general, albeit one who will turn 90 on Jan. 1 and who wears a bright red sweater sequined with a Christmas tree and a reindeer.
Aliewine prowled the sidelines of the reviewing stand, barking orders, hugging VIPs and handing out plaques as the parade wound its way up Central Avenue past 120th Street, a cacophony of revving motorcycles, vintage cars, high school bands and drum lines.
“My father used to take me to the Hollywood Christmas parade, and I used to say that I didn’t see anyone who looked like me,” said Aliewine, who is African American. “So we created one for the children here.”
Like most places, Watts has been hard hit by the recession. Still, the crowd Saturday was genial, even joyful, and there were no reports of violence or other problems. The parade offered innocent, old-fashioned escape from the rough edges of urban life.
“The economy’s bad, but we’re still here, so we’re able to enjoy this,” said Tequana Dunn, 37, who staked out a prime spot opposite the reviewing stand for herself and her three daughters. “Happiness can come in a small package. We just have to remember what the practice of Christmas really is — family, community and much love.”
As a high school marching band halted nearby to play “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” Dunn’s 3-year-old daughter, Savannah, stood up and waved a silver ribbon like a conductor’s baton.
Midway through the 21/2-hour parade, Los Angeles Police Officer Angelo Stewart estimated the crowd along the route at about 3,000. An hour later, as people steadily arrived, he sauntered by. “You could probably double that estimate,” he said.
Aliewine said that, by historic standards, this was not one of the larger parades. Past editions have featured some high-powered celebrity grand marshals, including Sammy Davis Jr., the Jackson 5 and the stars of “The Beverly Hillbillies,” she said.
This year’s grand marshal was Lee Wesley Gibson, a 100-year-old who is one of the oldest retired Pullman railroad porters in the country. He arrived not by train but in a horse-drawn carriage with his daughter, grandson and great-grandson. Asked when he last rode in a horse-drawn conveyance he didn’t miss a beat.
“When I was about 9,” he said, explaining that when he grew up in Louisiana his family used to rent a horse carriage once a year for the trip to a distant church.
Gibson, wearing his Pullman cap and leather gloves against the chill, was greeted at the reviewing stand by Aliewine, who marched up to his carriage to pose for photographs. It was something she did with most of the honored guests, who included City Council members Dennis Zine and Jan Perry, City Atty. Carmen Trutanich, Assemblyman Steve Bradford and U.S. Reps. Laura Richardson and Maxine Waters.
Aliewine tangled physically with the honorees in one convertible, who drew her ire by throwing candy that lured children too close to their car for her comfort. She wrested away a container of candy the size of a large fish bowl, then held it behind her back until emcee Rory Kaufman persuaded her to give it back.
Kaufman grew up in Watts and has been the public face of the parade for 27 years. He remembered when Aliewine helped start it, as well as the Promenade of Prominence, a walk of fame for South L.A. notables.
“For those of us growing up, she gave us a chance,” he said. “Something to do, something to be involved in. That’s why we call her the mother of Watts. She’s a cornerstone.”