From turkey and tamale dinners to Hollywood parades and PR stunts, Thanksgiving in Los Angeles County has always had a unique Southern California flair. Though the first official Thanksgiving in the new American state of California took place in 1850, when the first elected governor, Peter Hardeman Burnett, issued a proclamation of celebration, Thanksgiving did not become an official national holiday until 1863. However, many in L.A.—particularly those of Hispanic descent—had already been celebrating a day of thanksgiving on their family’s patron saint day.
In 1959, Mary Ann Callan, the women’s editor of the Los Angeles Times, interviewed elderly Californios (family members of Latin American, Spanish and Anglo descent who wielded enormous power in Southern California) to get a sense of what these earliest Thanksgiving feasts had been like. One woman, noted historian Ana Bégué de Packman, whose family had owned the Rancho San Jose de Buenos Aires (roughly Westwood and Bel Air), recalled:
…sitting on the front porch of the family ranch house in the La Brea area before the turn of the century shouting happily to passersby that they were having turkey for thanksgiving dinner and that it weighed-in at 19 lbs. This, she remembers, was cooked in an iron stove by wood, not coal, gathered from the ranch.
According to de Packman, the dinner would include not just the turkey but also “chicken tamales, enchiladas, and a Spanish concoction of rice and chicken … combined with a toasted red chili and olive sauce …, fresh salad, salsa and pumpkin preserves for dessert.” Another Californio matron, Mrs. Charles R. Bond of Alhambra, recalled eating a thanksgiving dessert called membrillate, which was “made of quince and served in slices, resembling a dry apple butter in texture.”
As the Victorian era progressed, L.A. County became a popular holiday destination for tourists from chilly Eastern locales. “Many and hearty were the self-congratulations of those who had escaped the eastern blizzards, so graphically described in the morning dispatches, to luxuriate in the soft sunshine and balmy air of this ideal Thanksgiving Day,” the Los Angeles Times reported in 1891. Many tourists spent the day at the rustic Alpine Tavern atop Mount Lowe, where they ate turkey, pumpkin pie and cranberry sauce in front of large fires. They then spent the day hiking, going on sleigh rides, tobogganing, and—in the Times’ words—“snow-balling.”
According to the Times, down below in genteel Pasadena, Thanksgiving 1899 kicked off with a rather problematic masquerade parade of cowboys, Indians, “monks, and freaks” on their way to a ball at the town’s auditorium. At the Pasadena Country Club there was a turkey shoot, while others participated in a rabbit hunt on Baldwin’s Ranch, which netted 12 rabbits and one human when a man named C. Schmuck fell off his horse.
While the well-heeled shot turkeys for sport at Pasadena, in the San Fernando Valley ranchers had long raised turkeys as a commercial enterprise. In 1925, the Times reported that folks in the Valley had to reserve their turkeys early, before they were slaughtered and transported to L.A. markets for Thanksgiving. Nine years later, the Times estimated that 15,000 Valley turkeys were ready for the holiday season, and would cost 30 to 35 cents apiece. In other words, they were valuable.
“This is the season when turkey thieves are active,” the Times reported in 1934. “Valley police have warned growers to keep a 24-hour watch on their flocks. One ranch keeps a watchman and a gun in a tower in the middle of the ranch, with flood lights gleaming in the darkest corners. Several police dogs back up the watchman, the shotgun and the klieg battery.”
In downtown Los Angeles, residents of Skid Row had been served Thanksgiving dinner by various outreach organizations since the early 1900s. However, by the teens and twenties, Tom Liddecoat, founder of the Midnight Mission, and William Gooding, head of the Salvation Army, were serving hundreds of men in one sitting for the holiday. In 1921, the Times covered one such Thanksgiving feast for four hundred at the Midnight Mission. To gain entry, the men first had to sit through a long, tedious religious service. According to the reporter:
They tried to be reverent and succeeded fairly well, as they joined in singing old-fashioned hymns, to the accompaniment of Miss Ruth Clayton, but when the song and prayer service came to an end and Mr. Liddecoat “announced dinner,” religion was temporarily forgotten in a unanimous rush for the dining room… such a feast it was! Roast beef and gravy, “green” of all varieties, great stacks of white bread, tea and coffee, ice cream and candy- nothing was wanting.
But across town, Hollywood movers and shakers were using Thanksgiving to drum up some good old fashioned publicity, no matter how distasteful. In 1926, producer Joe Rock invited all men over 250 pounds to a dinner honoring the big-boned comedians Fatty Alexander, Kewpie Ross, and Fat Karr (also known as the “A Ton of Fun” comedy team). However, at least one woman was allowed to the feast according to the L.A. Times, after aspiring actress Verna Gettle wrote Rock the following letter:
The enclosed clipping from the Sunday Los Angeles Times prompts the writing of this! I want to be invited to the big feed. I have been in Hollywood seven months and haven’t earned a dime nor a million. I weigh 270 pounds. If it’s a stag I have knickers and a necktie.
Other more allegedly sophisticated Hollywood folks planted items about their elegant Thanksgiving soirees in local papers. In 1936, movie star Jeanette MacDonald hosted Thanksgiving dinner at her home with her mother, Ginger Rogers and her mother, and other guests. That same Thanksgiving, Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Taylor, Claudette Colbert, Joe E. Brown, and Zeppo Marx had a more raucous dinner at the legendary Brown Derby.
These café society celebrations made famed gossip columnist Hedda Hopper long for the good old days, when she had been a struggling actress in traveling productions. As she wrote in her syndicated column:
I’ve always believed actors of today—movie stars, that is—missed out on lots of fun that trouping in show business used to bring us. These were rugged but happy times and bring back fond memories not of great feasts, yet we got our share of those, too, when…civic leaders in various cities took pity on poor players and arranged home-cooked meals for us. I remember well, and so can others, when we hopped a day coach in dead of winter at 5 am after crunching through the snow, and ate a stale ham sandwich for our Thanksgiving dinner.
Other pastimes were also popular. From at least the early 20th century, rival SoCal sport teams, from high school to college to semi-pro, often played each other on Thanksgiving Day. Celebrated preachers gave rousing sermons during Thanksgiving morning services, and these were often reprinted in papers like The Los Angeles Sentinel, L.A.’s leading Black-owned newspaper.
In the downtown shopping district centered on Broadway, Thanksgiving Day often marked the inauguration of the holiday Shopping season. In 1929, DTLA merchants sponsored a Thanksgiving Day Fairyland Parade, featuring floats populated by Cinderella, Snow White, The Wizard of Oz—and, of course, Santa. According to the L.A. Times:
During the early morning hours, the downtown streets were deserted, but several hours before noon children and grownups by the thousands began to crowd sidewalks waiting for the fairyland parade scheduled for the morning. With the parade out of the way, the downtown crowds melted away to Thanksgiving dinners and for the rest of the day the downtown portions of the city were almost deserted of both pedestrians and traffic. With the coming evening, however, the streets again became packed with celebrants, and theaters and other places of amusement throughout the city were thronged with a gay crowd.
But the Thanksgiving week parade that would become a Los Angeles tradition was not downtown but on bustling Hollywood Boulevard. According to historian Gregory Paul Williams, in 1931 Hollywood hosted its first Santa Claus Lane Parade (now called the Hollywood Christmas Parade and held the Sunday after Thanksgiving) to celebrate the opening of “Santa Claus Lane,” a decorated stretch of the boulevard, which had been turned into a winter wonderland every year since 1928.
By the mid-30s, the opening ceremonies and parade were pulling in big names. In 1936, none other than Bette Davis flipped an electrical switch that turned on Christmas tree lights, plus animatronic polar bears, drum majors, and windmills that dotted Santa Claus Lane. Cutting the ribbon to start that year’s parade was Hollywood royalty Mary Pickford. Over the years, hundreds of thousands of people would crowd Hollywood Boulevard to watch as stars including Gene Autry, John Barrymore, Wallace Beery, Anita Louise, Bob Hope, Gracie Allen, George Burns, Alice Faye, Jack Benny, Sabu, Roy Rogers, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, and Santa waved to enthusiastic crowds.
In the 1940s, a moment out of a Hallmark movie occurred when Louise Waddell, a tourist from Texas, stood on Hollywood Boulevard waiting for the Santa Claus Lane parade to begin. She soon became fascinated with a man in the crowd who she was sure was her cousin Richard Tomkins, a Huntington Beach insurance broker, whom she had not seen in 25 years.
“He looked familiar, but I wasn’t sure. Finally, I saw him light his pipe. Then I knew I was right—because he held his hands just as my uncle used to,” she told the Times. A giddy Waddell approached him and then threw her arms around him in a big, thankful hug. After their reunion, she recalled, “I was too excited to watch Santa Claus.”
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