Hollywood Boulevard decorated for Christmas in the 1950s.
Starting in the late 1920s, Hollywood Boulevard’s Christmas decorations dazzled shoppers and tourists with their thousands of twinkling lights, a spectacular backdrop for holiday shopping. While Col. H.M. Baine conceived the concept of presenting a parade to lure tourists and crowds to Hollywood Boulevard for potential holiday shopping, electrical king Otto K. Olesen introduced the spectacular decorations which beautified the street.
Born in Farup, Denmark, September 9, 1891, Olesen arrived at Ellis Island November 22, 1911, with $20 in his possession and a final destination of Los Angeles to join his uncle H.A. Jessen. The twenty-year-old found electrical work, quickly learning and expanding his skills. In 1921 Olesen opened his Studio Lighting Service at 1645 Hudson Avenue, which later evolved into the Otto K. Olesen Illuminating Co. at 6548 Hollywood Blvd. He provided studios with large incandescent lamps employed for filming, and provided klieg lights for grand openings all over Hollywood for such buildings as the Roosevelt Hotel and Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, productions at the Hollywood Bowl, as well as for most film premieres after 1923. Newspapers described him as “the light wizard of Hollywood.”
Christmas decorations on Hollywood Boulevard at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.
Olesen participated in many public and social groups, sharing his electrical and lighting skills. The socially minded businessman belonged to such groups as the Lions Club, Community Chest, and American Red Cross, and served on the Boards of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce and the Hollywood Bowl, eventually presiding as president of each. He also donated his electrical products and lighting skills to enhance productions and special events.
He also recognized great ideas to promote his products. In 1925, Olesen purchased ads in local newspapers weeks before Christmas advertising strands of sparkling lights for sale in his Hollywood Boulevard store. At the same time, he bought ads or provided press materials to entertainment trade magazines documenting his powerful lamps.
Olesen moved beyond just selling strands of lights and outfitted his store with fanciful displays. Devising an elaborate metal tree which he decorated with hundreds of twinkly lights to merrily illuminate the roof of his business in December 1926, Olesen influenced others to follow along. A December 14, 1926, article reported that businesses like the Guaranty Building, the Hollywood Storage Building, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, and the Security Trust and Savings Building purchased his bright decorations to “impart the true Christmas atmosphere to Hollywood Boulevard by decorating their stores and places of business with live Christmas trees, gaily illuminated.”
Carol Hughes with a light pole decorated as a Christmas tree.
In early December 1927, Olesen advanced beyond decorating Christmas trees to bring shoppers to downtown Hollywood. He devised a spectacular three-day skylighting display with klieg and search lights illuminating Hollywood Boulevard early in the month, drawing 65,000 to the street. Fifty of his electricians wired light strands on live trees along the boulevard, illuminated from dark until midnight, with power provided by business electrical outlets. The Hollywood Boulevard Business Association quickly realized the potential of decorating the street and devising family activities to increase business traffic and shoppers during the Christmas season.
Col. Harry M. Baine dreamed up the idea of an entertaining parade and visit by Santa Claus in 1928 to enhance business opportunities, building on Olesen’s ideas of adding beauty to the boulevard. As chair of the Hollywood Retail Bureau in 1928, Olesen ordered that 100 evergreen trees from the Big Bear area line and decorate the street, enhanced by strands of lights. Aided by Olesen’s elaborate and colorful designs and lighting, the Hollywood Christmas Parade would grow into a family tradition for decades.
Beginning in 1929, Leon Bayard de Volo designed colorful floats for the parade, gaily illuminated by Olesen’s electrical work. 100 live trees once again lined the street, beautifully decorated. Newspapers noted that Olesen’s dazzling work providing 10,000 lights of five colors for the trees, with a third of them blinking at a time. Unfortunately that year, bandits removed lights and decorations from several of the trees.
Olesen continued to refresh decorations every few years to bring beauty to the Hollywood area. In 1931 during the heart of the Depression, 25-feet-tall metal Christmas trees decorated to resemble European holiday trees and decorated with 90 lights each brightened Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street.
Recognizing the drawing power of the entertainment industry, Olesen’s 1932 holiday decorations featured stars’ likenesses, gaining Santa Claus Lane even more publicity in Hollywood trade journals and film fan magazines. Newspapers and magazines reported on new decorative wreaths lining light poles which incorporated 178 striking still photos of Hollywood stars, attracting attention from pedestrians or drivers going by. Olesen stated it cost $4,000 to light the globes decorated with the fanciful wreaths and that labor costs approached $10,000 to install.
Artwork from 1929 showing Christmas decorations in Hollywood.
Popular stars’ images graced busy intersections. Mary Pickford’s likeness appeared before the Roosevelt Hotel, with stars of the Cecil B. DeMille film Signs of the Cross decorated posts in front of Grauman’s Chinese. Maurice Chevalier’s wreath hung at Cahuenga, while Boris Karloff’s likeness adorned a pole at the Egyptian Theatre. Douglas Fairbanks’ and Greta Garbo’s photos decorated lights at Sycamore and Hollywood Boulevard. On December 12 and 13, an exhibit in the Egyptian courtyard featured a small gallery of the stars’ likenesses and the artwork advancing the concept.
100 19-foot tall papier-mache Santas lined Santa Claus Lane in 1942, providing a jaunty look to the street. Because of blackout conditions, no lights illuminated any of the decorations. Newspapers also reported that metal trees from previous years had been scrapped for the war effort. By 1943, however, white lights brightly twinkling returned to the street. After the war, new 26 foot-tall metal trees decorated with reflecting lights illuminated Hollywood Boulevard. Strands of lights crossed the street, providing additional color. Olesen’s staff continued to wire and decorate the area for the holiday season. They would create colorful Christmas trees for individual businesses throughout the area, including the one that continues to adorn the Capitol Records building each holiday season.
In 1952, Police Chief William Parker decreed the use of decorations only for civic and public events approved by the city, banning decorations for entertaining events like the Santa Claus Parade. This would lead to businesses and sponsors paying for city services and policing during festive events like the Christmas parade.
The use of dazzling decorations along Hollywood Boulevard/Santa Claus Lane waned after 1952. In 1953, minimal decorations lined the streets due to the parade’s cancellation because of work on the nearby Hollywood Freeway. Dazzling lights and the lovely trees disappeared in 1956 when the electrical cables were condemned and declared unsafe. Klieg lights were instead employed that year to illuminate festivities.
Otto Olesen’s colorful and endearing lighting and designs brought millions of adults and children delightful pleasure for decades, bringing Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street magically to life during the Christmas holiday season. Greatly missed now, these nostalgic designs capture the joyful innocence of the period.