Issue: Winter 2021-22
Santa Claus Lane...
By Michael Darling
Here comes Santa Claus. Here comes Santa Claus, right down Santa Claus Lane.” We all know that famous Christmas song written by Hollywood’s celebrated singing cowboy, Gene Autry. But did you know that Santa Claus Lane was our very own Hollywood Boulevard? In 1946, Autry was riding his horse Champion down the boulevard, serving in his role as Grand Marshall in the annual Santa Claus Lane Parade, when he heard members of the crowd chanting “Here comes Santa Claus.”
Seventy-five years later, Hollywood is ready to celebrate again. After skipping 2020 because of the pandemic, the Hollywood Christmas Parade (as the Santa Claus Lane Parade is known today) will return this year for a festive (and COVID-compliant) holiday celebration on Sunday November 28th, 2021. The nearly two-mile route heads west from the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Sycamore Avenue, turns down Vine Street until hanging a right on Sunset Boulevard and finishes at the corner of Sunset and Orange Drive.
The parade was founded in 1928 by Harry Blaine, a Hollywood business owner and head of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. Inspired by the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and other regional holiday parades, Blaine wanted to create something to draw attention to businesses on Hollywood Boulevard. One mile of the boulevard—from La Brea to Vine—was rechristened as Santa Claus Lane and marketed as the “world’s largest department store,” the perfect place for a Prohibition-era Angeleno to get gifts. The boulevard was decorated with a hundred fir trees in wooden planters shipped in from Big Bear and decorated with lights. In later years, metal “trees” were used as a less expensive, reusable option.
But at the heart of Blaine’s Santa Claus Lane promotion was the parade. In the very first Santa Claus Lane Parade, Santa Claus was accompanied by Universal Pictures star Jeannette Loff, riding in a sleigh pulled by six real reindeer. By 1932, Santa’s procession had become a nightly event throughout the month of December, with a different film and radio star, including actors like Harold Lloyd and Marlene Dietrich, riding with Santa every evening.
Eventually, having a nightly parade on a major thoroughfare became a challenge, so the Chamber of Commerce made it a one night only annual event loaded with stars, bands, and equestrian groups. It was in 1978, as part of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce’s celebration of the 75th anniversary of the founding of Hollywood, that the parade was rechristened as the Hollywood Christmas Parade, and broadcast nationwide for the first time and championed by Hollywood’s Honorary Mayor, the late Johnny Grant.
By the mid-2000s, declining attendance and TV ratings were causing significant financial losses for the Chamber of Commerce and, in 2007, they reluctantly had to end the parade. According to former Hollywood Chamber of Commerce President Leron Gubler, “The chamber was sorry to give up the parade after so many years—it was strictly an issue of cost and risk. We were not in a position to guarantee the parade.”
Many throughout the southland were sad to see the end of this holiday tradition. Bill Lomas, the parade’s producer since 1987, started politicking the city—especially Councilman Tom LaBonge. “Tom went to work with us and got the now-mayor, then-Councilmember, Éric Garcetti, to champion it,” says Lomas. This led the city of Los Angeles to support a replacement called the Hollywood Santa Parade which traveled down the traditional Hollywood Boulevard route. “We struggled through because we believed in the parade and the city. Looking back on it now, I don’t know how we did it,” says Lomas.
Still, some refused to let the Hollywood Christmas Parade name die. According to John Goodwin, president of Galaxy Press and the Hollywood Christmas Parade’s honorary President of Volunteers, “When I first became a member of the Hollywood Chamber, I wanted the Hollywood Christmas Parade to return. He was thrilled when in 2009, Associated Television International stepped in to bring new life to the parade, adding large inflatables and a concert stage, once again securing world-wide television coverage.
While the Hollywood Chamber was no longer involved with the parade, Gubler says the organization was thrilled when they heard this news. “We were very pleased when Associated TV expressed interest in getting involved and saving the parade. We had previously been looking for a company like Associated,’ says Gubler.
With ATI’s commitment—at least for the time being—the parade’s future seems secure.
“We love Hollywood and the parade, and we had so many ideas about how it could be great. We added those great huge balloons and those are a huge hit,” says Laura McKenzie, who hosts the parade broadcast with co-host Erik Estrada. “It was brought up-to-date. It’s the single biggest community event in Los Angeles, and the balloons make it look very impressive on television,” adds Goodwin. Apropos, the newest Hollywood touch that Associated added was a massive red carpet on Hollywood Boulevard. Since Associated took over, the parade has since become the biggest Christmas parade in the country with a reported million people in attendance in 2019.
For the McKenzies, the parade is a family tradition. “When my daughter was five years old, we began the tradition of going to the parade,” says Laura McKenzie. For many parade participants who grew up in Los Angeles, there’s a thrill to taking part in something of which they have fond childhood memories.
For the parade’s organizers, they view it as a way to celebrate the Hollywood neighborhood. “The people who live in Hollywood are the ones who keep the neighborhood alive, so it’s great to give back to them this way,” says Goodwin. It’s not just Hollywood locals though. People come from all over the region to attend the parade. According to Goodwin, “Thanksgiving and the Hollywood parade is a family tradition.”
Fittingly, just as the parade’s original intent was to draw attention to the businesses on Hollywood Boulevard, it keeps the boulevard’s restaurants very busy on parade night. The parade supports the Marines’ Toys for Tots charity gift program. This partnership gives the parade the unique distinction of being the only Christmas parade in which the U.S. Marine Corps Color Guard are allowed to appear in full uniform.
When the pandemic forced the cancellation of the parade, this wasn’t the first time the parade had to go on hiatus. During World War II, wartime restrictions put the parade on hold between 1942 and 1944, but Hollywood still found a way to celebrate the season. According to a November 25th, 1942 Los Angeles Times report, 100 19-foot-tall Santa Clauses “made of non-vital material” were placed along Hollywood Blvd. replacing the famed metal Christmas trees, which the Times reported “have been given to Uncle Sam” for the war effort and turned into “20,000 pounds of scrap.”
Last year, while there was no proper parade, ATI produced a Hollywood Christmas Parade television special featuring some of the best performances and stars from past parades.
As is tradition, each year the Hollywood Christmas Parade is on the first Sunday evening after Thanksgiving, November 28th. Sheryl Underwood, co-host of CBS’ The Talk has been named Grand Marshall, as have appearances by celebrities like Danny Trejo and Tom Arnold. McKenzie and Erik Estrada will return as the event’s primary hosts, with Dean Cain, Montell WIlliams, and Elizabeth Stanton serving as correspondents along the parade route. The Parade will can be seen on The CW Channel on December 17th at 8PM and American Forces Network in December. DH