Thursday, March 15, 2007
1894: City of Los Angeles Stages Its First Week-Long Festival
By ROGER M. GRACE
Pasadena has its “Tournament of Roses” which draws spectators from near and far, an extravaganza which harks to a procession of rose-addorned vehicles, including buckboards and buggies, on Jan. 1, 1890. Little known nowadays is that the City of Los Angeles in the 1890s staged a far grander annual event, one comprising an entire week, a multi-themed, multi-cultural celebration featuring not only parades—note, that’s in the plural—but carnivals, athletic competitions, and balls.
It was called “La Fiesta de Los Angeles.” The event, which was brought into being by the Merchants’ Assn., took place in its seminal year from April 9-14, 1894.
The merchants’ group was formed the previous year to boost L.A.’s sagging economy in the wake of an economic plunge succeeding the land boom of the 1880s. A fiesta would be a way, it was thought, of bringing visitors—and needed cash—into the city. Oh, and yes, Hans Jevne was one of the prime instigators of the event.
Stationed as I am in our offices at 210 S. Spring Street, I’ve been taking a look over the past few weeks at happenings in Los Angeles during the period plus-and-minus 100 years ago from the vantage point of Jevne…who, in these very premises, conducted retail and wholesale grocery operations. Jevne never served in public office; no street or school is named after after him. But the Norway-born Jevne was a leading merchant and civic leader who contributed meaningfully to the development of the city.
Lee Shippey’s June 10, 1931 column in the Los Angeles Times recounts:
“Max Meyberg seems to have been the man who…got the idea that Los Angeles could have an annual week of gaiety which would rival the New Orleans Mardi Gras and the St. Louis Veiled Prophets. At any rate, he was chosen to head the movement and Hans Jevne was treasurer. A committee of our most prominent business men staunchly supported them.”
Meyberg’s recollection of the establishment of the event was also published in the Times in 1931. The reason for the renewed interest that year in the long defunct festival was that the city was celebrating its 150th birthday (that is, passage of 150 years since the founding of “El Pueblo de Nuestra Seńora Reina de los Ángeles sobre El Rio Porciuncula” on Sept. 4, 1781), and Los Angeles was readying to put on a festival to rival those of past years.
In his Feb. 18, 1931 article, Meyberg recites that he had been inspired not only by the mardi gras in New Orleans but by a “midwinter fair” being held in San Francisco “with the attractions, taken from the World’s Exhibition of Chicago, drawing crowds of people.”
After the Merchants’ Assn. embraced the idea and plans were formulated, “[l]ike magic, people began to forget their troubles and look forward to better times; the entire city was full of anticipation,” Meyberg recalls. “Without money or facilities we staged the Fiesta of 1894. It was a revelation to our people and to the crowds which came to Los Angeles to see our pageant and to have a good time.”
The event cost $10,000 and there was a $150 net profit, donated to the orphans’ asylum. More significant, however, was the influx of cash taken in by the merchants.
While the concept of the event was that of Meyberg, he didn’t name it. The Times’s news account of Feb 18, 1894 says:
“The merchants advertised for suggestions as to a suitable name for the carnival, and in response more than 250 names were received. The committee selected the following as being entitled to prizes: ‘La Fiesta de Los Angeles,’ ‘La Fiesta de Los Flores,’ ‘Feast of the Flower Land,’ and ‘The Angels’ Carnival.’
“The first of these was suggested by two persons, Miss Florence Mattice and Harry Brook, and the committee decided to divide the first prize between them.”
(The account neglected to identify Brook as a Los Angeles Times staff writer.)
“How many people witnessed this first Fiesta?” William Deverell poses that question in his 2004 book, “Whitewashed Adobe: The Rise of Los Angeles and the Remaking of Its Mexican Past.” He answers:
“There can be no sure way to know, but it seems likely that thousands gathered in the streets of downtown Los Angeles during the most popular events and processionals. Contemporary accounts suggest that the crowds might have been as large as seventy-five thousand people, an impossible figure (that would have equaled the entire population of Los Angeles in the mid-1890s). Whatever the figure, it is probably true that the first Fiesta de Los Angeles witnessed the largest gathering in Southern California history to date.”
How long did the event endure? Why was it ended? That’s to come.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company
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