Today, shopping malls hang garland, pipe in holiday tunes, and build showy reproductions of St. Nicholas' polar hideout, attracting customers to their privately owned concourses and encouraging the buying spirit. But before malls, holiday shoppers flocked to Los Angeles' downtown and suburban retail districts where shops and department stores lined publicly owned streets. To attract business, retailers in these districts banded together to transform these public spaces into flashy winter wonderlands.
Hollywood boasted one of the most elaborate Yuletide displays. Each November beginning in 1928, extravagant holiday decorations transformed a one-mile stretch of Hollywood Blvd. between Vine and La Brea into Santa Claus Lane.
The brainchild of businessman Harry Blaine and the Hollywood Boulevard Association, which promoted the thoroughfare as the "world's largest department store," Santa Claus Lane lured shoppers away from downtown's dominant Broadway retail district with winking lights, daily processions featuring a reindeer-drawn sleigh, and plentiful, brightly decorated Christmas trees.
The first year, 100 living firs were dug up from the forest near Big Bear and placed along Hollywood Blvd. in wooden planters. Once fully dressed in nearly 10,000 incandescent light bulbs, the trees lit the path for a nightly parade. Joined on his sleigh by a silver screen star, Santa Claus greeted passersby as a team of six live reindeer pulled him down the boulevard. After New Year's Day, the trees were replanted on the grounds of the Hollywood Bowl.
In later years, metallic decorations replaced the living trees. Drawings of film stars' faces smiled at shoppers from the center of tin wreaths hung from lampposts. Whimsical, shiny toy Christmas trees blinked with colorful lights. At the annual promotion's peak, organizers boasted that Hollywood Blvd. was the most brightly lit street in the nation.
To complete the wintertime transformation, Hollywood Blvd. took on a new name. For one month, signs at intersections read "Santa Claus Lane," and merchants updated their street addresses to reflect the temporary name change.
Though the elaborate decorations are no more, Santa Claus Lane gave birth to a Tinseltown tradition that survives today. In 1931, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce expanded Santa Claus' nightly procession into an annual extravaganza, since renamed the Hollywood Christmas Parade. And in 1946, grand marshal Gene Autry, who rode on horseback just paces in front of the parade's main star, turned the screams of delight he heard from children into a classic holiday tune: "Here Comes Santa Claus (Right Down Santa Claus Lane)."