By Laura Shepard Townsend
If you can spare a moment to contemplate Abbot Kinney’s Venice when he hosted the annual and most splendid Christmas Parties at the Venice Dance Pavilion….The local papers described it this way: “Nowhere else in this country could be witnessed such a sight as was presented in the Venice Dance Pavilion. Had a page been torn from a book of fairy tales, enlarged and filled with animation, a similar picture may have been obtained, but no other way.”
Venetians at that time, already knew that they were living in a very rare place as evidenced by the crowds who piled into Venice for each holiday and weekend to savor the resort and its offerings, but perhaps this was even more true during the Christmas holidays. Think of it … starting in 1906, Abbot Kinney began his tradition of throwing what was to become the legendary Venice Christmas Party….this he continued until his death in 1920. Each year the tree got bigger, the attending children more numerous, and all were welcomed. To those in need, turkeys were given away for free, so that all Venetians could celebrate the holidays.
But of course, Abbot Kinney was no novice to generosity. From the start, his creation, Venice of America, a City of Canals, was built to not only enthrall the working man, but also the poet. Abbot Kinney would have it no other way, for though a rich man, he had once not been rich, and because of this, never viewed the poverty of a person as a crime. As Abbot Kinney explained his personal philosophy, “Why should a man want to die wealthy? It is far better that he build something that will be a pleasure and a benefit to mankind.” So, simply, he did.
Abbot Kinney spent his millions of dollars to transform a swampland into an enchanted city, where the aroma of the sea blended with the earthy perfume of exotic flowerings. Parrot tribes had begun to thrive in his desert landscape of eucalyptus and palms, their raucous calls a syncopation to the tinkling of piano tunes and strums of gondoliers’ mandolins. Venice was to be a Renaissance city that nurtured mankind’s souls as well as their intellects.
Not one to stop there in his gifting, the Doge automatically gave $50 to any child born in Venice, no matter what race, creed, color or religion. Abbot Kinney thought that just by being born in Venice justified a reward. Assuredly, there were fusses to be had, when an African-American child received the same amount as those seemingly more entitled.
It was in Venice, a city where there was “an air of constant excitement and the collection of gorgeous excesses”, that annually thousands of kids and their parents would stand outside the door of the Venice Dance Pavilion, all dressed in gala holiday attire.
Each year, the festivities had become more and more fanciful until 1918, the wintering Barnes Circus brought elephants to the pier to entertain those waiting for the doors to the Pavilion to open. Just the sight of an elephant in those days was magical, but this year, the elephants handed bags of candy to each child brave enough to receive it. The very chic Ship Café served free turkey dinners, never slighting those in need, and guaranteeing that all patrons would be finished in time for the main event of the day – Abbot Kinney’s Christmas Party. When the doors of the Venice Dance Pavilion finally opened at two o’clock, thousands of kids crushed to be the first to get inside.
No matter what the year, the vast hall was converted to a veritable fairy land. To those entering, Arthur Reese, fanciful decorator of Venice, transformed the Pacific daylight to the darkness of night in snowy mountains. There, a small town gleamed warm light from each one of its windows. Icicles hung from the eaves, and snow blanketed the ground.
An impossibly tall tree stood in the middle of the town’s square, decorated with colored lights and ornaments, candy canes, ribbons and pine cones. Garlands of popcorn circled the green boughs. Underneath, thousands of presents were piled, all wrapped in colored paper with satin bows. There were bags of penny candy, and stockings lumpy with goodies, topped by oranges. The cheer of red poinsettias was everywhere. From the stage, Lew Lewis’ orchestra played holiday music.
The Barnes Circus brought ponies for pony rides to entertain the “kiddies” until it was time for the annual Christmas Play. To make room for the performance, the orchestra left the stage; the lights dimmed. Winged Angels in glitter costumes flew above; a bright star appeared, and moved across the night sky to guide bejeweled Magi kings into the snowy village on real camels. It was a re-enactment of the birth of Jesus, the stable filled with live sheep and cows, which mooed and baaed throughout the production’s entirety. All too soon, the play was over. As soon as the lights were turned back on, it was time for the annual Venice Christmas Parade.
While the presents were being gathered, children marched around the 20 foot Christmas tree, clad in paper hats, blowing horns as loudly as possible. Abbot Kinney always helped “Santa Claus” distribute bags of candy, gifts and stockings to every single child there until all the wrapped gifts were gone. Every child had equal rights; no favorites were made of anyone. For those Venetian children who were ill and could not attend the festivities, presents were put into reserve for them. No one was forgotten at Abbot Kinney’s Christmas Party.
When the celebrants reluctantly emerged from the Dance Pavilion, it was night, the stars dancing twinkles in the black sky overhead. Three thunderous booms echoed, and fireworks began lighting up the sky. Flowers of light blasted into existence, blossomed, and then faded, only to be replaced by another flower. The spectacle ended with three booms of thunder. For the adults, this signified the beginning of the Yuletide Ball.
Christmas of 1919 was no different … except the tree was 40 feet tall, the largest tree yet. After all the gifts: Russian dolls, Kewpie dolls, fairies, snowbirds, jack-in-the boxes, and poinsettias were distributed, Abbot Kinney rose to give his traditional Christmas greeting to Venice. It has been reported that there was a special gentleness in his eyes that year:
“I have the hope that each of you will be granted all the wishes that lay deep within your hearts. As for me, my wish this Christmas is that we discover the formula for eternal peace and the entire absence of discord in all matters. God bless each and every one of us.”
No listener was aware that while he was making this poignant speech, Abbot Kinney knew he was dying. In fact, he did not make it to the next Christmas, dying on November 4th, 1920.
Venice mourned him by their exuberance of celebrations of the holiday season in 1920. Various periodicals wrote of Arthur Reese’s remarkable strivings to ensure that Abbot Kinney would be proud of his Venice, and every light post, nook and cranny was ornamented. The people of Venice joined in, seemingly decorating their homes to the max, but they also kept their curtains open so their neighbors and passerbys could enjoy them as well as tribute to their beloved Doge.
The Venice Christmas party was such a beloved tradition, that Thornton Kinney, Abbot’s son, announced that the Christmas holiday of 1920 would be much the same as it always had been, under his father’s care. However, on December 21st, a small stove caught fire, burning down not only the Venice Dance Pavilion, but the Venice pier and much of Windward Avenue close to the Pacific.
Reeling from the destruction, but determined to not let Abbot Kinney’s tradition die, a holiday tree was hurriedly erected and decorated in front of the St. Mark’s Hotel. For you see, the stockings had already been prepared, crammed full of goodies; presents were already wrapped, embellished with satin bows. Three thousand kids came and were not disappointed.
The presents were distributed, but it would never be the same without the presence of the kind and generous visionary human who had created Venice, the man who loved his city and its denizens so well.