Creating advocates for history through the stories of greater Los Angeles.
by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As we celebrate the birth of the United States today, some of us will go to a parade, others to a firework show, and there also trips to the beach, picnics at the park, and barbeques at home.
More than likely, very few, if anyone, will be attending a pageant (and we’re not talking here about a “beauty pageant”), which one source defines as “a public entertainment consisting of a procession of people in elaborate, colorful costumes, or an outdoor performance of a historical scene.”
Back in 1926, however, and in commemoration of the sesquicentennial, or 150th anniversary, of the founding of the nation, Los Angeles held a massive pageant at the Coliseum, featuring processions, plenty of costumes, and historical reenactments outside, just as the definition indicates.
As expressed in the 27 June edition of the Los Angeles Times,
Determined that Philadelphia, the birthplace of American independence, shall not surpass the brilliance of its commemoration of the nation’s natal day, Los Angeles will observe Independence Day, July 5, at the Coliseum in the presentation of the “Pageant of Liberty.”
Why the 5th and not the day before? In 1926, the 4th of July fell on a Sunday and public events were not held on the Sabbath, so the event was moved to Monday.
Planning of the event began earlier in the year and, the event program, a copy of which from the museum’s collection is featured here, noted that 112 community organizations took part in the pageant. However, at least according to the Times article, none was more important than a key driver of the regional economy and main provider of its image:
its sponsors . . . feel confident that with the co-operation of the motion-picture industry and many of its individual stars, the “Pageant of Liberty” will take rank with the most spectacular patriotic display Los Angeles has known since the armistice.
These actors were part of what was touted as “accurate representations of scenes of the nation’s history” and it is interesting to peruse the pages of the program to see the thirty-one elements and what they represented about the nation’s 150 year history to date.
Actually, the first component was not about history, but about current life, as 1000 new American citizens, who’d received their citizenship in the previous year, marched into the four-year old stadium accompanied by local Boy Scout troops. The program indicated that the event was “primarily created” with the new citizens in mind and “for their enlightenment.”
Next were speeches on “The Meaning of Americanism” by Los Angeles Mayor George Cryer and President of the City Council Boyle Workman. Workman was the grand-nephew of William and Nicolasa Workman, owners of the Homestead from 1842 to 1876, and his father, William Henry, was mayor of Los Angeles in 1887 and 1888 as well as city treasurer from 1901-1909. Boyle presided over the council during most of the 1920s and was involved in many major civic initiatives, including the building of the Coliseum, the Central Public Library, and City Hall, among others. His sister, Mary Julia, headed a committee, and his wife, Frances Widney Workman, also helped with organizing.
As to reenactments, they began with members of the First Continental Congress meeting in 1774 in response to acts by Britain that fomented the Revolution. After an entrance of Colonial patriots, the ride of Paul Revere followed with the portrayal done by Tom Mix, one of the most famous Western actors of the silent era, and his “wonder horse of the screen,” Tony. Other Revolutionary War scenes featured the battles of Concord and Lexington; the creation of the American flag by Betsy Ross (actress Viola Dana); the heroism of Molly Pitcher (Diana Miller); the assistance of the Marquis de Lafayette and the French; and the surrender of Cornwallis to George Washington.
There were some interludes between the reenactments, featuring performances by a chorus of 1,000 singers conducted by Arthur Farwell, a noted local musical figure, including a “Group of Pioneer Songs” that transitioned from the Colonial period to the “Opening of the West.” This included reenactments featuring Franciscan missionaries, including Junipero Serra, and a “leader of Spanish soldiers.” Obviously, there was no room for the native aboriginal Indians of the region in the tableaux.
Immediately following was a reenactment honoring John Charles Frémont, listed as a “California Pioneer,” though his role in exploring Mexican California and then in its conquest is filled with questionable motives and actions–so much so that Frémont was court-martialed for several reasons, including his unauthorized acquisition of Alcatraz Island from F.P.F. Temple (who was given the island by its grantee, his father-in-law, William Workman) on a promissory note that was never paid.
Then came the “California Gold Rush Days,” with equipment, animals, and “characters” owned by Western star Harry Carey, whose ranch in Saugus (Santa Clarita) supplied the items for this portion of the program. Carey played a pioneer in this segment, which was followed by another major Western star, Hoot Gibson, portraying a Pony Express rider.
It was then on to the Civil War and the juxtaposition of Robert E. Lee and his Confederate troops and Ulysses S. Grant and Union soldiers. This was followed by “the Emancipator” Abraham Lincoln, played by George Billings, whose short acting career in films was based entirely on his stunning resemblance to our 16th president. The 25th segment of the pageant was called “The Blue and The Gray” and offered this historical assessment:
The end of the Civil War found the United States generally weak yet progressive and the greatest expansion the nation has known followed with the restoration of peace.
After another choral interlude, set, interestingly, to the song “There’ll be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight,” it was on to the Spanish-American War, starting with Teddy Roosevelt, played by E.W. Borman, and His Rough Riders in the conquest of Cuba. Among the latter were Mix, Gibson, Carey and other prominent Western actors of the era like Ken Maynard and Buck Jones. A “Phillipine Hut” included Los Angeles camps of the United Spanish War Veterans with an escort led by another famed actor, Monte Blue.
The last of the historical reenactments was provided by the “Overseas Hut,” provided by the Knights of Columbus and including escorts of veterans of “the World War,” concluded eight years prior. Representatives from the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion, Women’s Overseas League, Y.M.C.A., Salvation Army, Volunteers of America, and the Disabled Veterans of the World War also participated.
The program ended with segments devoted to the “Youth of the Nation” (Boy Scouts, Order of DeMolay, and others); a Military Escort including veterans of all wars from the Civil War to World War One; a minute of silence as a “tribute to those who gave their lives for liberty;” the singing of the national anthem; and a reading of the “Oath of Allegiance, led by Superior Court Judge Carlos Hardy.
It is noteworthy that what we call the “Pledge of Allegiance”, written in 1892 by a Socialist minister, Francis Bellamy, had recently been changed so that, in the event program it was printed as:
I pledge allegiance to the Flag (of the United States of America), and to the Republic for which it stands. One Nation, Indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all.
The parenthetical of the nation’s name was the change made in 1923, during a period when communism was considered a significant threat to the country and the rationale was that a person reciting the pledge could say “the Flag” but mean another flag (say, that of the newly formed Soviet Union).
Three decades later, in 1954, during the heightened tensions of the Cold War and more anti-Communist feeling, the words “Under God” were added after “One Nation,” to the publicly expressed disapproval of Bellamy’s daughter.
One more interesting aspect of the Pledge is that Bellamy originally called for reciters to give a military salute when beginning and then, upon coming to the words “the Flag”, to raise their right hand extended toward the flag with the palm held upward. Soon after, it was decided to have the palm down. However, during World War II, the obvious comparisons with the Nazi salute led Americans to abandon the extended right arm, palm down, and, instead, place their right hands over their hearts.
There is still almost a decade until then, but it might be worthwhile for the City of Los Angeles to consider having an event, if not a pageant that looks to have “accurate representations” of American history, held at the Coliseum in 2026 to celebrate the 250th birthday of the nation.