There is nothing more heartening than taking a summertime stroll through one of the hundreds of public parks in Los Angeles County. Nowhere else will you see such a mix of cultures, styles, and ages, all enjoying the beauty of outdoor life in Los Angeles. Toddlers celebrate their birthdays next to 50-year high school reunions, and hikers power walk past sunbathers. The smell of barbecue fills the air, while yogis burn sage as they stretch their legs to the sky. From the biggest park to the smallest, a feeling of camaraderie and celebration is all around.
Today’s Angelenos are participating in a civic tradition that has been strong in Los Angeles for over a century. In 1916, before television, the internet, and (most importantly) air conditioning, the burgeoning park system provided crucial recreation opportunities for the city’s 300,000-plus residents. Let’s take a look at what summer was like 100 years ago in three of Los Angeles’s most popular parks.
If there was a jewel in the LA park system’s crown in the 1910s, it was Westlake (now MacArthur) Park. Opened in 1890, Westlake Park was situated in the most fashionable residential neighborhood in Los Angeles. Modeled on European parks, it featured elegant promenades and a shimmering lake dotted with various types of boats that one could rent by the hour. The park’s romantic beauty made it perennially popular with lovers both happy and sad.
During the summer months, live music was provided several times a week. This was the era of “park bands,” like the Los Angeles Park Concert Band and Gregory’s Band, which travelled from one big park to the next, playing a mixture of classical mainstays, popular waltzes, marches, and foxtrots. “One can enjoy it while rowing, entertaining friends, smoking a fragrant Havana or partaking of sweets,” a Los Angeles Times reporter explained. In 1914, Miller’s Military Band played many shows in Westlake. One concert in July was described thusly by the Times:
Westlake seemed to have taken upon itself a subdued festival attire last evening. Miller’s Military Band was playing to a large audience scattered around the edge of the lake. Numerous boats were lazily moving on the surface of the water, the red lanterns at the stern of each canoe casting long and dancing crimson shadows.
There were also more “exotic” offerings, like the popular McVea’s Jubilee Quartet, which specialized in newfangled "jazz" and old Southern melodies. In 1914, the park sponsored a “Night in Hawaii,” the first in a series of concerts featuring ukulele music, the new fad sweeping the country. "Several thousand persons, taking advantage of the warm evening, congregated around the lake, illuminated by Japanese lanterns, to listen to the tinkle of the ukulele and the haunting notes of a Hawaiian love song," the Los Angeles Times reported.
Sometimes, parkgoers made their own music. In 1914, Helen Peterson and Roy Latimer “were loafing along the lake” in “a snug canoe with cushions and a couple of Japanese lanterns.” Peterson played the ukulele and the couple sang “quiet little duets, intimate and subdued.” Suddenly, there was a ruckus on the mainland, as a man named Alvis Merenberg suffered a violent seizure on a park bench. According to one report:
The crowd became terribly excited. Mothers wheeled their babies away, nurse girls went flying for their charges and a score or more raced for a doctor. Miss Peterson and Mr. Latimer had just finished the song "Aloha." The noise attracted Miss Peterson and she turned to see what was the cause of the excitement. She saw the crowd surrounding the unfortunate, and stood up in the canoe to see better. Mr. Latimer was warning her to be careful, but she peeped just a little harder. The sensitive craft swayed to one side, gulped a little water, darted back, and then turned over. Miss Peterson and Mr. Latimer were in the water, shouting a duet, "Help!’ "Help!"
The crowd on the mainland, now torn between two dramatic events, ran to the shore. Peterson and Latimer struggled in the water. Peterson, who could not swim, threw her hands around Latimer’s neck, and he pushed her away so that she wouldn’t drown them both. Some in the crowd believed it was malicious and began to scream "murder!" Other boats rushed to the couple’s aid, and the farce continued:
A young man and a girl occupying another canoe rushed to the scene. The young man paddled so vehemently that his exertions destroyed the balance of his craft, and that capsized. Eight young men manned a big canoe and darted to the rescue. Their paddles did not harmonize. They caught and interlocked. A scurry, a scramble, and the eight, too, were in the water.
Luckily, everyone in the water was saved. A bonfire was built so that the ill-fated first responders could dry off. An unconscious Peterson and a dazed Merenberg were taken away in the same ambulance. All parties made a full recovery. Not surprisingly, some in the crowd were "skeptical of a motion picture ambush."
Not every dramatic event at Westlake had such a happy ending. There were several intentional and accidental drownings over the years, and the park became a popular place for suicides. A husky bean cultivator named Floyd Mayhew shot himself on a warm June night in 1914, hoping to get away from his five girlfriends by “beating them to another world.” A bigamist named Walter Warner shot himself on a “bed of flowers,” no longer able to bear his “false reputation of a model husband.” In a note found in his pockets, he explained, “I have had the marrying fever since I was 18. I have more than one wife living. Wine, women and rheumatism drove me to this.”
Today, the music still continues at MacArthur Park, thanks to the beautiful Levitt Pavilion Los Angeles, which hosts 50 free summertime concerts every year. The park as a whole, like Westlake, the neighborhood that surrounds it, is in a state of transition. For decades rife with gang activity and drug use, it is slowly becoming a vital community asset once again. That is especially evident during the summer, when the park is illuminated late into the night, providing recreation opportunities for residents in the surrounding areas.
If Westlake Park was the park of the elite, then Echo Park in the 1910s was the park of the people. Founded in 1892 on the site of a failed reservoir, the park was an especially popular spot for families, who frequented its large, kids-only playground, a rarity at the time. This playground would become one of the first welfare stations in the city, where mothers could come to consult with government doctors about their children. There were weekly concerts, many featuring the same park bands that played in Westlake. There was a boathouse with boats for rent. Most popular of all were the ample, tree-shaded picnic areas, which helped make Echo Park one of the premiere "get together" spots in Los Angeles.
Summertime in Los Angeles was a time for people to reconnect. As the population grew by 200,000 over the 1910s, newcomers and oldtimers alike sought to keep their bonds with their birthplaces strong. Annual state and country picnics were held in parks all over Los Angeles, but particularly in Echo Park. In 1914, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times described the activities at the annual Canadian picnic. “Off in one corner of the park, a football game was in progress, the tennis and croquet courts were occupied, and the boating advantages were completely utilized.”
Prizes were given to the oldest Canadian in attendance, and under a bough of pepper trees draped in the Union Jack, Mrs. Ruie Meek, “a clever woman with a fund of stories, brought many laughs to the day’s pleasures by her drolleries.” In 1917, over 1,500 native Canadians and their families attended the all-day event, practically taking over the entire park.
Colleges, veterans associations, women’s clubs, and civic organizations also held frequent events in the park. At a Y.W.C.A. picnic in 1916, the girls participated in a track meet, learned to folk dance, canoed, ate doughnuts, and drank hot coffee while “wandering musicians” played mandolins.
The Echo Park Playground also sponsored many summertime events, including a large, family-friendly program every Fourth of July. The day typically consisted of swimming races, boat races, baseball games, pie and orange eating contests, something called watermelon-swallowing, and apple dunking. There was the cruelly popular “fat man’s race,” and the “mothers race” during which some of them surprised their offspring with their agility and stamina.” At night, educational and patriotic films were shown. The 1915 celebration was particularly festive:
[E]mbryo athletes walked the greased pole to the accompaniment of the shouts of their friends and admirers, nimble feet danced the Highland fling, clever youths tussled and boxed, a selected class gave a fine exhibition of Indian club swinging, and fleet feet ran races.
Perhaps because of its warm family atmosphere, Echo Park seems to have been particularly popular with young runaways. In 1914, 10-year-old Hebert Ciprico was found sleeping on a park bench, having disappeared from his home in Pasadena the week before. When asked how he had survived, “all he would say was that he had made his way selling peanuts and popcorn at the different ball grounds when there was a game.” A year later, an eight-year-old runaway named Vilos Haight survived for two weeks in the park:
Vilos told quite frankly of wild life in Echo Park. He described his roost in a tree and the kindness of numerous picnickers, who gave him food enough to meet all his needs. But he had nothing to say of any joy in the nature life and nodded from sheer exhaustion while he talked.
Today, Echo Park in the summer is not all that different than it was 100 years ago. The playground is still swarmed by children, and paddleboats rent for $10 per adult, per hour. Picnickers from all walks of life loll on the grass, while breezes from the lake cool down the hot summer sun.
During the 1910s, Griffith Park was a place in search of an identity. Compared to MacArthur Park and Echo Park, which were smaller, traditional parks, the sprawling, untamed 4,000 acres given to the city by Griffith J. Griffith in 1896 presented many challenges. Should the Parks Commission accept the controversial Griffith’s offer of money to build an observatory and Greek theater within the park? What to do with all that land, much of it mountainous? With the advent of the automobile, one of the first answers had been to build a winding, 14-mile road that cut through some of the park’s most scenic acreage. As more and more Angelenos became enamored of the automobile, this breathtaking drive became popular, especially during the warm summer months. On July 4, 1914, the Los Angeles Times reported:
[Griffith Park] had perhaps its biggest day, with the Vermont-avenue entrance as a sluice through which humanity by the hundred ebbed and flowed all day long, while the honk of automobiles along Los Feliz Road made a diapason to which there were few interludes.
Then as now, the secluded environs of the park’s roads were a convenient place for those engaged in illicit activities to hide. In 1917, 14-year-old Leonard and Lawrence Johnson, nicknamed “the terrible twins,” were discovered with two stolen cars in the park. The tykes had escaped from Juvenile Hall a few days before, after being placed there for a string of burglaries.
The gates to the park, at both the Hollywood and Vermont entrances, closed at 8 p.m., stranding many motorists inside the great park, unless they were lucky enough to stumble upon the caretaker’s home. “The paramount reason for the 8 o’clock curfew stunt,” an amused reporter for the Los Angeles Times wrote, “seems to be the spooning bees held by youth of Los Angeles under the fragrance of the Griffith pussy-willows.” However, getting locked in for the night wasn’t all bad as long as you had a blanket. As one stranded motorist reported:
After climbing the easy grade, the motorist suddenly debouched onto the south face of Mount Hollywood, and there was a blaze of glory indeed. Above the clear moon and below the carpet of light from Hollywood and Los Angeles—around mysterious mountain peaks. It called for a gasp of wonder and got it.
Over the course of the 1910s, two major attractions would open in the park, bringing a new, diverse group of visitors with them. The city zoo, built between 1912 and 1914, opened in Bee Canyon to the delight of children and adults alike. Although today we would be appalled by the conditions the animals were kept in, at the time the accommodations were considered incredibly modern and humane. According to the Los Angeles Times:
In the canyon of Griffith Park, an assiduous effort has been made to keep the surroundings of the animals as near those of their native homes as possible. The bear pit, for instance, is a rocky hillside surrounded by a high iron fence. Within the pit there are man-made caves in the hillside and also a swimming pool. A little way off, foxes peep from holes of the same kind that we knew as a boy; while the raccoons and the opossum and the wolves are surrounded with all the accessories of their native homes … ‘Animals are like most folks—the better you treat them, the better they act," said [head zoo keeper] Mr. [W.A.] Calhoun yesterday as he tickled the chin of a lion that could have laid him open from head to foot with one stroke of his paw.
In 1915, the Los Angeles Municipal Golf Course opened in Griffith Park and, despite its lack of an adequate clubhouse, it soon became the hottest ticket in town. Designed by Tom Bendelow, known as the “Johnny Appleseed of American Golf,” it featured oil-and-sand greens, which were very popular at the time. By June 1915, it was reported that around 100 people a day played on the links. By 1917, several summer tournaments were held at the course, including the Red Cross Golf Tournament. Columnist Alma Whitaker described the upcoming scene:
Today positively the most stylish golf event that has been staged in these sunny democratic climes opens on our Los Angeles Municipal Golf Links at Griffith Park this morning. Golfers are just naturally a superior race anyway, and today Griffith will be a veritable mecca of golfing effulgence. Not only that large army of golfers who weekly haunt the municipal links, but all the country club golfers as well, the very crème de la crème of sportsmen and women deluxe will assemble for this particular tournament.
By 1918, after escaping several close calls with fire, Griffith Park was well on its way to becoming the multifaceted natural wonderland that we now enjoy. Every year, the former zoo is filled with the roar of Shakespeare instead of the roar of trapped lions, when the Independent Shakespeare Company is in residence for its annual summer series.
The ongoing popularity of MacArthur Park, Echo Park, and Griffith Park is a powerful reminder that humans don’t change all that much. We are all after a little summertime fun in the sun and a place where we can safely and communally enjoy the great outdoors.