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. To celebrate the end of summer 2016, 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 L.A. 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!”
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.
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.
If Westlake Park was the park of the elite, then Echo Park in the 1910s was the park of the people.
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: