Summer came late to Southern California.
Its invention had begun much earlier in the East. In 1861, the first summer camp opened in Connecticut. By 1875, the urban well-to-do were fleeing to cool Adirondack lodges. Eventually, there were more than 200 of them. In the 1880s, New York’s sweltering masses could ride the elevated trains to Coney Island and sit on the crowded sand.
In those turn-of-the-century summers, a young Sarah Bixby Smith walked along the four miles of broad, level shore below the bluffs at today’s Long Beach. Her beach was deserted, except for family picnics. “There were gulls and many little shore birds,” she remembered, “and never a footprint except the few we made, only to be washed away by the next tide.”[i]
Southern California before World War I was principally a winter destination for well-to-do tourists, a January to April sort of place, where the elderly, the rheumatic, and the tubercular sheltered from Eastern damp and cold in the warmth of Redlands, Pasadena, or Monrovia. Hotels and resorts made money when New England shivered through another blizzard, but monied tourists avoided the heat and glare of Los Angeles in August.
Creating a new summer tourist season was important economically, and not just because summer tourists would fill vacant apartment and hotel rooms. Tourism was a billboard for the business of selling house lots.
Harry Chandler, publisher of the Los Angeles Times, controlled a great many house lots in the San Fernando Valley, and he was dismayed that potential buyers stayed away half the year. Every season, he thought, should turn a profit.
According to the tourist guides of the time, Southern California was a semi-desert, a mistaken description that emphasized “desert” a little too much for summer comfort. But if eastern tourists could experience a Los Angeles summer and learn to appreciate its qualities, the casual visitor might be turned into a permanent resident.
In 1921, Chandler and 18 other businessmen spun off the All-Year Club of Southern California from the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, lobbied for funding from the county Board of Supervisors, and began the selling of L.A. summer.
Residents of Arizona, Texas, and Oklahoma, for whom L.A.’s 90 degrees and low humidity were actually summertime relief, became the first targets of the All-Year Club. Full-page ads published in 33 newspapers in the Southwest promised, “Sleep under a blanket every night all summer in Southern California,” idealizing weather that Angeleños knew could be far less comfortable.
The early results were impressive. One hotel’s head count increased by 100 people a day through the summer of 1921. Some visitors who came for recreation even stayed on as homebuyers, according to the optimistic accounts of real estate salesmen. Despite the national recession that year, the Southern Pacific, Union Pacific, and Santa Fe railroads sold a record number of tickets to Southern California in June, July, August, and September.[ii]
By October 1921, the railroads estimated that 200,000 more summer visitors had arrived, thanks to the advertising push. By the end of 1924, the number of summer tourists in Southern California equaled the number of winter tourists. In a trend that would accelerate through the following decades, the visitors brought by the All-Year Club’s ad campaigns were generally less affluent than their winter counterparts and tended not to linger beyond one or two weeks.
Success led other Southern California counties to join Los Angeles in funding the All-Year Club, whose promotional costs were $450,000 by 1926. As much as 40 percent of the club’s budget now came from city and county taxpayers.
The club hired the best admen, beginning with Donald Francisco, co-manager of the Los Angeles office of the Lord & Thomas advertising agency. The agency produced a series of large-format ads in 1921 and 1922 that appeared in Oklahoma newspapers and other “hot belt” states with the headlines “Cool Days and Refreshing Nights in this Summer Wonderland” and “That Vacation Land You’ve Never Seen.”
The ads were written by Robert Crane under the pseudonym of “An Easterner.” Because Southern Californians had a bad reputation as aggressive boosters, “an Easterner” was thought to be a more reliable witness.
Crane used Weather Bureau records from the previous forty-four years that seemed to prove an L.A. summer wasn’t desert-like. After all, average mean temperature in June was a cool 66 degrees; July, 70 degrees; August, 71 degrees, and September, 69 degrees. (Averaging to a mean flattened out highs and lows. Angeleños knew that a few days with highs in the upper 70s would be followed by days in the low 100s. And Crane said nothing about June gloom.)
Lord & Thomas was hired to sell fear as well as leisure for the business leaders behind the All-Year Club. Time magazine said, in appreciation, that Donald Francisco was the man who had “organized the campaign that kept Upton Sinclair from becoming Governor of California” in 1932.
The ad campaign vilifying Sinclair, a socialist and popular novelist, was the flip side of selling the Southern California climate. Boosterism was politics, and it could have a mean streak. “Come to California for a glorious vacation,” urged ads for the All-Year Club through the 1940s, touting the fine weather. “Advise anyone not to come seeking employment, lest he be disappointed, but for the tourist, attractions are unlimited.”
In 1938, the Oklahoma City Times bitterly editorialized against the club’s ads that explicitly told rural families not to sample Southern California’s attractions, lest they decide to stay.
Despite the mixed messages, summertime tourism boomed. Thanks to better roads, it was increasingly easy for motorists to vacation inexpensively in Southern California. The All-Year Club published photobooks that lavishly illustrated the attractions of a summer vacation, emphasizing touring the region by car.
The most enduring reason for touring became California’s mission churches, restored or recreated. They were visited by millions beginning in 1906, guided by the commemorative bells that marked the route of the Franciscans along the Camino Real. (Summer road trips with my parents in the 1950s, East Coast relatives packed into the family station wagon, typically included a stop at yet another mission, which all looked the same to me.)
By 1939, when more than 1.5 million tourists visited Southern California, summer visitors outnumbered those in winter by 30 percent. What they came for changed, too.
Climate had been nearly a religion for Southern California’s first tourists, often men in poor health sent to Southern California to recuperate. Harry Chandler had been one who stayed, as had Charles Lummis (founder of the Southwest Museum, among many other Los Angeles institutions) and Abbott Kinney (builder of Venice of America).
The new waves of tourists after 1920 expected more than climate. When polled by the All-Year Club in the summer of 1938 and later in 1939, they listed movie studio tours, the Huntington Library art gallery, Forest Lawn cemetery, and Los Angeles nightlife as attractions equal to the good weather.
The war years between 1942 and 1945 dampened long-distance travel. Local tourists made do with limited supplies of gasoline and tight accommodations in resort cities like Long Beach, now filled with servicemen.
What the All-Year Club sold after 1945 was becoming harder for its admen to describe. Los Angeles was big and getting bigger. Orange groves and chaparral, once tourist draws, were turning into tract houses. Hollywood glamour was mostly honky-tonk. And there was smog, threatening the founding sales pitch of health and happiness in the sunshine.
In response, the club’s ad campaigns in the 1950s tended to throw together every icon of Southern California – from “Ramona”-inspired nostalgia to beaches to oil wells – in hopes that one of them would be the lure that worked. (And the club told radio and TV producers and comics not to make fun of the smog.) The All-Year Club struggled to give Los Angeles a brand identity, sometimes touting its big city qualities and sometimes ignoring the city altogether. The ads still told the unemployed to stay away.
Summer’s champion ultimately was a mouse. The opening of Disneyland in 1955 fully suburbanized summertime tourism and wrapped it in a superbly controlled environment, emulated, with varying degrees of success, by competitors such as Knott’s Berry Farm and Universal Studios Hollywood. The qualities of the Southern California landscape, which had once been the premier tourist attraction at the turn of the century, hardly mattered.
There has been no decline in the visitor count, however. During a news conference in January at Universal Studios Hollywood, Mayor Eric Garcetti announced that Los Angeles County had welcome 47.3 million visitors in 2016, a four percent increase over the previous year. Domestic travelers stayed an average of four days; foreign visitors stayed for eight.
The All-Year Club morphed into the Greater Los Angeles Visitors and Convention Bureau in 1968 and, later, merged with the Southern California Visitors Council. It went by the name LA Inc. until 2012. It’s now the Los Angeles Tourism & Convention Board, still selling a fantasia of potent images that had first been made to market summer.
[i]Sarah Bixby Smith, “A Little Girl of Old California,” Annual Publications of the Historical Society of Southern California (McBride Printing Co., 1920), 76.
[ii]All reported by the club’s director in glowing stories in Chandler’s Times newspaper.