In our eco-challenged world of global warming and deforestation, the holiday tree is struggling to survive as a family tradition. What do we do? Buy the artificial tree that’s not biodegradable? Support the sustainable -- but not local -- tree farm? Pick up a chemically fertilized cedar that’s dead by next season? Give up altogether and string a few lights on the palm out back?
Here in the West, we can always go natural. There’s no shortage of conifers in California forests: coulter and pinyon pines, redwoods and sequoias. But ever since the railroads plowed through the High Sierras, we’ve heeded naturalist John Muir’s call for preservation.
Instead of raiding mountain groves, turn-of-the-century Southlanders grew holiday pines from seeds supplied by Congress. For winter tourists, we planted Christmas Tree Lanes with sweet smelling deodaras. Whittier’s own Richard Nixon ended the presidential tradition of harvesting a fir; he planted a Colorado blue spruce on the White House Ellipse. The East Coast claims it has the national tree, but, in fact, the “Nation’s Christmas Tree” is the General Grant sequoia, more than 1,500 years old, in Kings Canyon National Park east of Fresno.
Almost a century ago, Sears, Roebuck & Co. introduced tabletop trees made of goose feathers and glue; by the 1950s, there were aluminum firs and plastic pines. But does PVC satisfy our desire for the real and our need to preserve? The history of Hollywood holds a solution to present-day needs: a tree that was at once real and fake, environmentally responsive and wondrous.
Harold Lloyd was a comedian and movie producer accustomed to making the unreal appear real in the black-and-white world of silent film. He and his wife, actress Mildred Davis, lived at Greenacres, a 1929 Beverly Hills estate along Benedict Canyon.
For a millionaire star, tinsel and mistletoe didn’t cut it for Christmas. Starting before Thanksgiving, the Lloyd family worked inside and out. Just off the first-floor screening room was the Orangerie. In this vaulted sunroom, hand-frescoed with trellis and grapevine, Lloyd and Roy Brooks -- actor, secretary and adopted family member -- willed the tree to life.
From several trees purchased at downtown L.A. rail yards, Lloyd chose the finest specimen. Nature isn’t designed for a close-up, so he drilled holes in its trunk and inserted branches cut from the remaining trees. He secured them with bamboo poles and wire to build a 14-by-9-foot symmetrical frame with limbs that never sagged.
Lloyd collected ornaments, and one year he bought a Saks Fifth Avenue Christmas display -- all of it. With his tree braced for duty, Lloyd laid out his collection of glass balls, flowers, butterflies and diamonds. For two weeks, hooks in hand and a ladder nearby, Lloyd and Brooks hung ornaments, layer after layer until the tree was a spectacle of beads, glass and gold.
The building and dismantling of the tree took longer and longer as the ornament collection grew. Then Lloyd made a time-saving discovery: fireproofing. No water was needed, and the tree still smelled of pine in July.
Lloyd died in 1971, but his holiday tree was still glowing when Greenacres opened to the public as a museum. In 1975, short of money and besieged by neighbor complaints, Lloyd’s foundation sold Greenacres at auction. A developer stepped in and later sold off the house, leveled the gardens and subdivided. After this Grinch stole Christmas, the tree was turned to kindling.
Watters is author of “Los Angeles Houses, 1885-1935.”
His columns are archived at latimes.com/lostla.