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Here Comes Santa Claus…

By Kim Sudhalter

November 24, 2015

Click here for a full run-down of street closures and tow-away zones courtesy of Curbed LA.

Since it’s almost time for everyone’s favorite Hollywood holiday tradition, the Hollywood Christmas Parade, we thought it might be fun to take a look back at how it all began, many, many decades ago.

Updates: The Hollywood Christmas Parade will air on Friday, December 11 at 8:00 p.m. on The CW.

The year was 1924 and the Retail Merchants Bureau, a division of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, was looking for a way to increase business. They decorated Hollywood Boulevard light poles with four foot tall Santa Claus heads and live trees and strung lights across the street.

In 1928, Colonel Harry Baine, who built the Baine Building on the northwest corner of Whitley & Hollywood, decided to take things up a notch or ten.  Utilizing funds gathered from property owners and the Hollywood Merchants Assoc., Baine made arrangements with the LA County Park Department to acquire a team of two live reindeer. Declaring Hollywood Blvd. “Santa Claus Lane,” Baine had the reindeer pull a sleigh carrying Santa Claus and silent move star, Jeanette Loff, along the one-mile stretch from Vine and La Brea. The reindeer were then stabled in a pen at Hollywood and La Brea for all to enjoy throughout the holiday season.

Live reindeer were used in the parade, once upon a time.

Live reindeer were used in the parade, once upon a time.

For the next couple of years, Hollywood went all out at holiday time. Otto K. Oleson Illuminating Co, whose headquarters were at Selma & Vine, lit Hollywood Blvd for a few holiday seasons using more lighting than any other city street in the world. Storeowners competed with window displays to bring people to Hollywood to see the decorations. The Pig n’ Whistle even added a guest choir to its regular evening organ concerts.

The depression hit in late 1929, and Santa took a break in 1930. But he returned on December 12, 1931. Instead of the real reindeer, Otto K. Oleson placed a sleigh and four model reindeer on a flatbed, and pulled the display by truck. As the brightly lit float made its way down Hollywood Boulevard, it sprayed artificial snowflakes to create the effect of real snow.

The next year, Otto designed a new Santa Claus Christmas float that made its debut in the very first official Santa Claus Lane Parade, held December 10, 1932. Sponsored by the Hollywood Merchants Assoc, it started at Vine and made its way down toward La Brea. The float featured movie stars, Gloria Stewart and Lawrence Grant, and was accompanied by a color guard, drum & bugle corps and marchers from American Legion Post 43.

The Santa Clause Lane Parade in the 1930s.

The Santa Claus Lane Parade in the 1930s.

According to Hollywood historian, Greg Williams, because the live trees “died from lack of water and were knocked over by cars,” fireproof metal trees were introduced in 1932. Measuring 16 feet high, each contained 160 lights and weighed 750 pounds. The parade expanded greatly the following year to include bands, movie stars, equestrian teams and city officials. Actress Patricia Ellis pulled the switch to light the trees and decorations. And every night until Christmas, Santa Cause and his float drove down Hollywood Blvd. accompanied by such celebs as Noah Beery and Rita La Roy.

The metal trees on Hollywood Boulevard.

The metal trees on Hollywood Boulevard.

The flatbed truck float that carried Rita La Roy and Slim Summerville.

The flatbed truck float that carried Rita La Roy and Slim Summerville.

Over the next eight years, the parade included such hugely popular stars as Mary Pickford, Bette Davis, Dorothy Lamour, Rudy Vallee, Tom Mix, George Burns & Gracie Allen, Bob Hope, Basil Rathbone, Fanny Brice and Bing Crosby.

Hollywood Boulevard, looking east from Highland, decorated for the holidays in the 1940s.

Hollywood Boulevard, looking east from Highland, decorated for the holidays in the 1940s.

During the war years (1942-44) the parade was put on hold, but a local souvenir shop offered an “elf grotto” that people loved. The metal trees were donated to the war effort and replaced with large papier mâché Santa heads. When the parade returned on November 23, 1945, Gene Autry served as Grand Marshall on his horse, Champion. Hearing children call out, “Here Comes Santa Claus,” he got the idea for the world-famous song (“…right down Santa Claus Lane”).

Gene Autry and Johnny Grant in the Hollywood Santa Parade.

Gene Autry and Johnny Grant in the Hollywood Santa Claus Lane Parade.

A few years, later, in 1948, the first televised version of the parade aired in Los Angeles. In 1978, the parade was renamed the Hollywood Christmas Parade with more than a million spectators every year. Johnny Grant, who went on to become the Honorary Mayor of Hollywood, was then Vice President of Public Affairs for KTLA, and broadcast it locally on KTLA for the first time. In 1979, some fifty years after the first parade, the route was lengthened to 3.5 miles.

In a 2006 Los Angeles Times article, Grant reminisced about his adventures as parade director for 25 years. “One year Santa’s float got stuck behind paramedics delivering a woman’s baby,” he said. “Tinker Bell got hung up on a wire for about 15 minutes as the Disney float continued down the boulevard without her. Another time, a Santa got here early and got bombed with too much holiday cheer. And one time I had to arrange for a Fire Department helicopter to get Stevie Wonder to the parade on time.”

Over the years, celebrities that have served as Grand Marshals have included Bob Hope, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Charlton Heston, Sammy Davis Jr., Roy Rogers, William Shatner and Mickey Mouse. This year, the Grand Marshalls will be Penn & Teller when the parade takes place on Sunday, November 29th 2015 at 5:00pm. Co-hosts will be Laura McKenzie & Erik Estrada. Tickets are available online here.

Kim Sudhalter has worked with the Hollywood Entertainment District since its early years, helping to attract investment and revitalize the area. Originally from Europe and New York, she is an architecture and history buff who has a deep and abiding love for Hollywood and its past.

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