Flappers and Indians in the Dream City: The Jazz Age Ends in Long Beach | KCET
Flappers and Indians in the Dream City: The Jazz Age Ends in Long Beach
It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. Calvin Coolidge was in the White House, presiding silently over a long economic boom. George Cryer was mayor of Los Angeles, taking orders from the “City Hall Gang” of bootleggers, gamblers, and grafters. In Long Beach, after two months of hectic frivolity, the Jazz Age was about to end with a crash.
It came on the last day of the 1928 Pacific Southwest Exposition. It had been put up in just ten weeks, hurried into existence in the spirit of 1920s Hollywood: spectacle for its own sake, cheerful vulgarity, and commercial hard sell. On nearly 65 acres of sand dunes, at the eastern end of 7th Street as it nosed into the Port of Long Beach, rose a canvas and stucco imitation of a Tunisian souq designed by local architect Hugh R. Davies.[i]
It was supposed to commemorate the founding of Spanish California in 1769. How minarets and camel rides symbolized the arrival of the Spanish was left unexplained. Authenticity was served by the real silks and silver bangles on “native girls” recruited from Long Beach women’s clubs and the reservation Hopi and Navajos displayed in front of a plaster pueblo.
“Giving the entire scene a touch of natural color,” wrote the Los Angeles Times, “dancers, musicians, market beggars, fakirs, snake charmers, magicians and other types which make the Orient picturesque will mingle with the crowds of visitors day and night ….” Romance and mystery were the exhibition’s goals, not history, as if the film sets of “The Sheik” (1921), “The Thief of Bagdad” (1924), and “Beau Geste” (1926) were more real than the places that were their models.
At night, colored lights played over the white walls of the 55 exposition buildings, and searchlights swung as if illuminating a continuous movie première. The newspapers called it the Dream City.
Strolling the fair
Visitors entered the “city” after crossing acres of sandy waste, meant to represent the desert but actually a parking lot. They streamed through a Moresque portal that opened into a landscaped courtyard enclosed on three sides by the exposition’s main buildings. The fourth side was a long, shady arcade. It formed the inner wall of another courtyard surrounded on three sides by more exhibition buildings facing the Pool of Reflections. Beyond the pool and its central bandstand, above the largest exhibition building, rose a tower 135 feet high topped by a minaret. From there, a hired muezzin chanted the Moslem call to prayer at noon and six p.m.
Past the exhibition buildings was a Fun Strip that offered carnival rides, freak shows, hot dog stands, somersaulting autos, and the unintentionally callous display of Hopi and Navajo reservation life.[ii] There also was a temporary stadium for sports contests and, in the harbor, power boat races, a sailing regatta, and a schooner that served as a floating restaurant. A huge cafeteria on shore expected to serve 24,000 meals a day.
From July 17 to September 3 1928, more than a million Los Angeles residents and summer tourists (along with movie stars, politicians, and celebrities) came to see what the Dream City offered for amusement and wonder. Visitors walked through “palaces” of commerce and industry, strolled the Avenue of Nations to visit the pavilions of 21 nations and American territories, took in the Fun Strip, and attended one of two daily performances of “Friendship of Nations,” the musical pageant that was the exposition’s signature attraction.
The pageant’s headliners were the Native American opera singer Daniel Simmons (known professionally as Chief Yowlachie) and the girls of the “disappearing ballet.” The ballet, thought the Los Angeles Times “was one of the most mystifying ever presented. It presents an assemblage of singers and dancers who at the conclusion of their act pass in groups of eight and ten into a tank of water and then disappear before the eyes of the audience.” (The Times said that the show included 62 girls, but it was unclear if all of them disappeared or only some of them.) The 40-foot-long tank was used by other water acts, including a demonstration by Olive Hatch, the champion diver.
“Friendship of Nations” had something for everyone: trick lasso twirling, a Ukrainian octet singing folk tunes, “The Bounding Bagdads” acrobats, a “fire dance” by Mille. Glorine, and a Spanish dance by Señorita Cordova, plus a historical tableau of Spanish conquistadores, Mexicans, Chinese laborers, Russian fur trappers, and American 49ers along with dancing cacti and danseuse Renee Tumanova representing the sun. It was pure vaudeville, pitched to the tastes of “the Folks”[iii] who were making Los Angeles the biggest Midwest city in the nation.
A smaller theater next to the Palace of Education and Liberal Arts provided a home for amateur theatrical companies and a platform for lecturers like those on the Chautauqua circuit.
Flaming young flappers
The exhibition was assertively local, despite its international buildings[iv] and state and federal agency displays. Long Beach was booming with “the Folks” as much as Los Angeles was. The city’s port was busy. An assembly plant nearby was bolting together new Fords. More manufacturing was promised. The Signal Hill oil fields were making some residents rich. The Long Beach Chamber of Commerce, the oilmen, and the port officials wanted to celebrate their city’s recent ascendency.
If the shows and special events of their exhibition were of county fair quality, no one seemed unhappy. Alma Whitaker, the Times columnist, was positively giddy with anticipation:
The right way to visit a flaming young flapper exposition is by airplane obviously. So it was entirely comme il faut when the handsome young ambassadorial Mr. Kirby escorted me in a Ryan plane to Long Beach and saw that I was properly enthralled by the sight from the air. You see, the Pacific Southwest Exposition is the most precocious of flapper expositions. … They talk about Chicago, St. Louis, San Francisco, San Diego, but this exposition isn't anything like them. It's smaller, more compact, utterly youthful, dazzlingly flapperish throughout, even if twenty-two nations are participating. … They have gotten scores of real Tunisian Arabs, too, picked up on the waterfront from visiting ships. … But all the same, the Moorish idea pervades it all – a Moorish carnival deluxe, with the Pacific playing the role of the Mediterranean.
Completely flapperish for Whitaker was the tiny, but imaginative Guatemala building, a pyramid brightly painted in stylized Mayan patterns and edged with symbolic figures. It was the work of Rafael Yela Günther, sculptor, architect, and authority on indigenous art.
More conventional were other national buildings. Ecuador’s was a miniature version of the presidential palace at Quito. The Belgian and Czechoslovakian buildings copied traditional designs. The Bolivia building appeared to be a mission church with a belfry. The Persian building, with its tall arch and flanking minarets, was mosque-like. The Japanese building was described in news accounts as “typically oriental.” It had been designed in the style of Japan’s Nara era with interior decorations by the Japanese American artist and teacher Chiura Obata.
The French building housed a coach once owned by Napoleon. The California building had a pool stocked with trout. Mexico displayed contemporary paintings and sculpture by Francisco Cornejo (best known for his Mayan Theater decorations, completed in 1927). Denmark showed tapestries, embroidery, china, furniture, and linens. Holland and its colonies exhibited bulbs and seeds, traditional wooden shoes, spices, tea, sugar, tobacco, and tin. Fijians demonstrated weaving and metalwork.
There were several theme “palaces” at the fair: the Palace of Education, Palace of Transportation, and a Palace of Textiles and Modes.[v] The Palace of Industry, where the muezzin chanted each day, was the exposition’s largest. Its ten acres included sections labeled Varied Industries, Pure Foods and Household Equipment, Land and Community Development, Oil and Mining, and Manufactures, Machinery and Automotives.
“There is everything here to see and to admire, from baby food to immense aircraft guns from Fort MacArthur, from free travel movies to gas engines,” wrote one Los Angeles critic. Among the marvels was a booth devoted to the Tri-Clast machine for curing tuberculosis. The company’s motto was “Vibration – Magnetism – Radio-Activity: The Trinity of Life.”
The Palace of Fine Arts was under the direction of artist and teacher Theodore Modra, who selected paintings and water colors by mostly Western artists. Modra’s preference was the California scene painting that artists in Laguna Beach and Carmel had made popular at the turn of the century. Sentimental and frankly nostalgic, the paintings and water colors he chose were another kind of fantasy.
The guiding theme of the Pacific Southwest Exhibition – and its motto – was “friendliness.” It was a modest goal, its earnest folksiness keyed to the values of the men’s and women’s clubs that supplied the exhibition’s volunteer organizers and staff. Middle-class Californians were exceptional joiners in the 1920s, seeking the friendship of their own kind in dozens of organizations that made “uplift” their goal. The exhibition made a point of announcing special days to honor each of them.
Uplift had its limits. The men’s and women’s clubs were racially segregated. Jews were not welcome in many of them. Prejudice went even deeper for some club members, who hid their hatred under KKK hoods. (The Klan had held a cross burning rally in Long Beach’s Recreation Park in 1924 with 20,000 in attendance.)
Keeping the exposition’s Arabs, Iranians, Native Americans, Japanese, Fijians, Guatemalans, and other “exotics” behind the plasterboard and canvas walls of the Dream City was an apt metaphor for all of Southern California.
Prosperity and the Jazz Age would go on forever, the exhibition seemed to promise, but the exposition itself had to end. There was a beauty contest (open only to the fair’s female volunteers), a special day for members of the Fraternal Order of Eagles, another day for sailors from the Pacific battle fleet anchored off Long Beach, and a visit by 3,000 Boy Scouts and several hundred postal workers. Spanish American War veterans paraded. Norwegians from Los Angeles arrived in a Viking longboat to attend a Lutheran church service.
Monday, September 3 was the fair’s final afternoon. Just before Secretary of the Navy Curtis Wilbur was to speak, as the last crowds streamed through the palaces of the Dream City, the Oakland Tribune reported:
Amid a crash of noise, the Pacific Southwest Exposition closed its doors here … after a thirty nine day run, but the noise was not the blare of horns and shouting of a joyous people such as often is associated with similar events, The noise was the collapse of the dome of the Fine Arts building almost within the final closing hour of the exposition, and as the wreckage was cleared away four persons were found prostrate beneath thousands of pounds of timber and plaster, all severely injured. … After a preliminary investigation …, the exposition officials agreed the collapse was due to a settling of earth beneath the building and it was indicated no effort would be made to fix blame, the accident being viewed as an “unfortunate circumstance” and “unavoidable.”
The injured were taken to Seaside Hospital. The Palace of Arts closed with some of the artworks damaged. Navy Secretary Wilbur eventually spoke, but only briefly. Signor Ardizoni, a Long Beach vocal coach, sang some operatic numbers. The crowd enjoyed a moonlight Mardi Gras under the exhibition’s shimmering lights. Gaiety was undimmed until the lights went out at midnight.
A year later in New York – another Dream City – all the illusions of the Jazz Age crashed with the stock market. The Great Depression was another “unfortunate circumstance” that was called “unavoidable.” Alma Whitaker’s “flapperdom” did not survive it. Embittered by California’s false dreaming, “the Folks” endured the Depression. The 1928 Pacific Southwest Exposition, called an “event of world significance” by its optimistic promoters, was mostly forgotten.
[i]. Davies is best known for the design of the Long Beach Main Post Office, which opened in 1934 and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1985.
[ii]. The wife of Edgar Miller, the Bureau of Indian Affairs agent on the Hopi reservation, was given management of the Native Americans at the exhibition.
[iii]. Historian Kevin Starr’s term for the middle- and lower-middle-class Anglos transplanted from the Midwest who defined Southern California through much of the 20th century.
[iv]. Exposition organizers listed Argentina, Belgium, Bolivia, Chile, China, Costa Rica, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Ecuador, France, Guatemala, Hawai’i, Holland, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Persia (Iran), Philippine Islands and Spain as participants.
A Q&A will immediately follow the screening with Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins.
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