Downey at Christmastime in the '50s and '60s

Thinking back, there were some lavish Christmas decorations in the city of Downey during the 1950s-60s.

Undated photo of the Christmas tree at the old Downey city hall. Photo courtesy Larry Latimer/Downey Historical Society

Undated photo of the Christmas tree at the old Downey city hall. Photo courtesy Larry Latimer/Downey Historical Society

Not every year was a glamorous year, the region had some recessions, mini-electrical utility brownouts, so there was minimum Christmas decorations during those dips, plus some years we had very bad storms, and Christmas decorations displayed outdoors were thrashed or destroyed by weather elements or vandalism.

Theft and vandalism was ramped up by layoffs from South Gate’s General Motors plant and Downey Rockwell, which caused mini–economic recessions in Downey. But then those special holiday years, (in between) Downey was home to one of the most decorated towns.

Sometimes Christmas parades on Firestone Boulevard and Downey Avenue were good, sometimes not so good. Why? The city had very low visibility fog banks, which made it hard to see, plus Downey also had flooding streets when it rained. Many parts of the city were serviced by open ditches with no curbs or gutters.

I also attended the Christmas parades in Huntington Park and Los Angeles during that era. Remember, Downey still had many old orange groves, and they were hit hard by killing frosts and smudge pots, so being outside to attend Christmas lane parades was only a marginal discomfort. Smudge pots burning made for poor air quality and very sooty and oily-smelling air.

Some years we had so much rain, city parks were under water because of poor drainage. My parents’ backyard garden could be very wet and boggy, if we had foot of rain in a week. I do remember standing in rain water, wearing oversized fishing boots, trying to keep dry and still see parades pass by.

Flooding at Firestone Boulevard and La Reina Avenue in the 1950’s. Photo courtesy Larry Latimer/Downey Historical Society

Flooding at Firestone Boulevard and La Reina Avenue in the 1950’s. Photo courtesy Larry Latimer/Downey Historical Society

I distinctly remember the outdoor Christmas train set very well, that was off of Old River School Road near Rio Flora Place, just north of Firestone Boulevard. Many residents who moved from Downey to Greater Dairy Valley, Calif., remember this private front yard Christmas train display. Located a few blocks northwest of Harvey Broiler Drive- In, the train was built by a 50’s circa engineer and displayed daily in the front yard of the wide ranch home by Rio Hondo Golf Course.

For security, at night time, the train was wheeled in to the garage for safekeeping by the owner. It was on display for more than four decades, with animated train personnel working inside the train cars. The train was in pristine condition.

Then there was the big, white 16-ft. tall white fiberglass animated snowman, near Luxor and Rives. It sat in the front yards of one of the founders of Tupperware. The front yard was a winter snow yard, with fiberglass sheathing covering the dichondra grass. It looked like a scene out of Alaska.

Many homes in north Downey had outdoor nativity manger scenes in their front yard, accented with electricity-sucking flood lights, hay and big, old-fashioned size Christmas lights. Then residents starting importing tropical plants, so orthodox manger scenes were accented with palm fronds. Palms and yuccas were sprouting everywhere in the city. Christmas azaleas/ camellias were blooming too.

I do remember there were numerous 40’s-50’s circa ranch homes that converted their living room windows to huge bay windows (floor to ceiling) and there would be an indoor Santa Claus, standing and waving in the window. Santa was located indoors to protect it from the storms. Colorful sprayed Christmas trees (many pink flocked trees) were on display in the front living room windows, along with revolving aluminum Christmas trees, with an electronic rotor color wheel shining up on the Christmas trees. Many homes had to put up two Christmas trees, one at Thanksgiving, followed by another before Christmas Day, and that one was up until Jan. 6, the Feast of Epiphany.. Back then, trees were seldom preserved in water pails, so they dried out quickly.

Wow, I remember many houses had their shake shingle roofs, their frames outlined with Christmas lights. Some had spun fiberglass white sheathing, so an underlayment of Christmas lights shined through the fiberglass to resemble snow sitting on top of Christmas lights..

Probably one of the most spectacular Christmas displays was at the former estate of Karen and Richard Carpenter's parents’ home on Newville in northeast Downey. The home was not only lavishly decorated on the outside, it was decorated inside too. Many times, they took us on a tour of their backyard and interior of the house to see all the decorations.

Photo courtesy Downey Historical Society

Photo courtesy Downey Historical Society

I bet the property had least 1,000 outdoor Christmas decorations. The home was spread over multiple lots on one of the newer custom tracts for north Downey homes. My parents almost purchased one of them. That street was bumper to bumper, gridlocked with cars during holidays in order to personally view the Carpenters’ spread and hear the neighbors’ gigantic waterfalls and streams.

Then there was the story book decorated home with Rossmoor wannabe architecture near the intersection of Firestone/ Lakewood where the original McDonald's still stands. We had to park our car and walk around to look inside the house and the garage and see all the elaborate Christmas Village gnomes scenes. Many times they served us a warm drink and cookies. My polio cousin. lived near this home; she spent hours at the poor farm, AKA Rancho Los Amigos Medical Center..

I definitely would say the homes north of Firestone were more overly-decorated compared to the homes south of Firestone. It was simple: economics were different, plus larger homes and lot sizes. North Downey was home to celebrities, judges, attorneys and doctors.

Brookmill Street on the westside of Rives was a heavily decorated village of custom homes. One home was owned by the Butler Brothers Furniture and they always had a nice display in the windows. Famous Guy Lombardo played his orchestra a few times on Brookmill for New Years.

Another home was owned by Weinman Department Store in Huntington Park. Many homes on this private street had circular driveways. Another Lavish multi- acre estate was the former owner of Grain/Feed supplies out of Norwalk. Many Hollywood celebs were entertained at that home. It was a completely private, guarded estate.

Many times we went to Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church to visit the outdoor nativity scene. At that time, midnight mass was considered illegal.

Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in the 1950s. Photo courtesy Larry Latimer/Downey Historical Society

Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in the 1950s. Photo courtesy Larry Latimer/Downey Historical Society

Probably one of the most spectacular holiday remembrances was cruising Harvey's Broiler Drive-In in the late fifties early sixties, in a Chevrolet Impala. It would take us over one hour of waiting in the streets behind the northside of Harvey's Broiler to get into the car hop, and we would stage our cars up and down 2nd Street and 3rd Street and look into all the beautiful decorated living room bay windows.

Across the street from Harvey's Broiler was Nowlings Oldsmobile, which always had a lavishly painted and decorated showroom. I remember cruising Harveys and looking out at Old’s Toronado and 98’s. To the east of that was the elegant white glove Regency restaurant, which was kind of a formal Italian building from yesteryears.

Photo courtesy Larry Latimer/Downey Historical Society

Photo courtesy Larry Latimer/Downey Historical Society

The parking lot at Harvey's Broiler was much larger back then compared to today and it was the home to Riely’s Public outdoor swimming pool. I remember seeing teenage skinny dippers from the Harvey’s parking lot, hop the wall and go for a swim.

Cars that cruised to Harvey’s had front grille wreaths, antlers on the roof and Christmas clad rear view mirror muffs dangling from the optional front window mirrors. Car hydraulics were just starting to come to market. Car hop cruising began after supper hour and ended at midnight. Glasspack tail pipes were all the rage! Cars were over painted with metal flake candy colors and side panels of flames. Tuck ‘n roll interiors were replacing the standard vinyl seats from the factory.

Shops at Stonewood Mall had coloring cartoon contests, with winners awarded free turkeys. One year, we won a free Sony TV from Ferndale’s Landscape Nursery after purchasing a Christmas tree. Christmas trees were shipped via railroad to LA and then trucked via 18 wheelers out to the suburbs. Stonewood back then was outdoor mall. Store window fronts were lavishly decorated in the holiday mood, many storefront windows advertising grand prize winning contests for their holiday visual shout out to shoppers. It was in vogue to display real fur pieces and safe to have expensive jewelry on mannequins. Thefts was very uncommon!

A 1946 advertisement in the Downey LiveWire newspaper. Photo courtesy Larry Latimer/Downey Historical Society

A 1946 advertisement in the Downey LiveWire newspaper. Photo courtesy Larry Latimer/Downey Historical Society

At Savon Drug Store on Florence, traffic was a mile long, with shoppers waiting to purchase Christmas toys and free gift wrapping. Toys and presents were stacked to the ceiling, back then it was legal with no building code restrictions.

The heart of outdoor Christmas decorations was north of Firestone, both sides of Rives, up to Florence. Then the neighborhoods over by the Carpenters’ grand estate were lavishly decorated too, north of Florence, on both sides of Lakewood Boulevard. Many times, crowds were so large in length that traffic poured out on to Florence.

Christmas trees in the 1950s-60s were much different than today. No farm grown, cultured Christmas trees, they were all natural, mostly Douglas fir and they were rather thin, and a lot of them needed trimming. Also, a different variety of more larger commercial Christmas trees called Knob Cone Pine Trees had a very long pine needle, maybe 6 or 8 inches in length, for flocking and commercial displays. There was very little noble fir or silver tip Christmas trees available during that time.

Sizes of trees were shorter during that era; there were not very many homes that had cathedral ceilings except businesses. The cost of Christmas tree was between $5-$10, some were as cheap as $1.99. There was a few artificial Christmas trees, but most of the artificial Christmas trees were aluminum. Tree garland was starting to make its debut, replacing hanging tinsel, no mini lights yet had been marketed. Popcorn ball globes were popular, plus kinetic moving tree ornaments, which moved while hung over lights in the tree. Boys Town wreaths were just barely coming into market. Fresh fruit attached to the said wreaths were eaten by critters, since many neighborhoods in Downey were still surrounded by old citrus groves from farms.

Some of the homes were Jewish decorated, they had a nice display of blue or blue/ white Christmas lights, plus the 6-sided star of David .

Downey decorated for Christmas in 1951. Photo courtesy Larry Latimer/Downey Historical Society

Downey decorated for Christmas in 1951. Photo courtesy Larry Latimer/Downey Historical Society

After Dec. 26, many north Downey families traveled to Hawaii between Christmas and New Years. Homes did not have light timers, so they relied on keeping lights on for 24 hours a day or neighbors helped turn them on/off.

Blooming poinsettias were starting to make their debut from Mexico, bringing in holiday cheer; there were no cyclamen. Flowers were scarce over holidays because of the Rose Parade . My cousins got married on Jan. 6 because churches and homes still were decorated with holiday cheer and weddings used rebooted flowers left over from the holidays.

No matter if the families were rich or poor, mommies and daughters always did a lot of holiday baking. If not they relied on the mobile Helms Bakery truck vendors to purchase gingerbread cookies and holiday jelly rolls. Fruit cakes were awesome, full of Palm Springs dates, varnished with thick liquors. Wines were still far and few between, families drank hard liquors: gin, vodka, bourbon; thick, syrupy liquors.

Most turkeys, ducks and geese were freshly purchased from meat market lockers because home refrigerator freezers were small and would not fit turkey. There were no such things as turkey pop-up temperature gauges. Booze holiday decanters were the rage and still can be purchased at antique stores for huge bucks today. In the 1950’s, dishwashers were just being introduced as a mobile roll-up unit, hooked up to the sinks. Some countertops were stainless steel, never marble nor granite. Most homes had two-tone colored traditional tiles.

A parade on Downey Avenue between Firestone Boulevard and 2nd St. Photo courtesy Larry Latimer/Downey Historical Society

A parade on Downey Avenue between Firestone Boulevard and 2nd St. Photo courtesy Larry Latimer/Downey Historical Society

Downey churches provided roaming door to door singing chorals, which were roaming carolers. Since most homes only had black and white TVs and AM radios, the mobile chorals provided the closest thing to stereo singers or holiday cheers. Few homes had pianos back then and even fewer had organs. Performing arts was just being seeded.

Not all Christmases were filled with celebration; the city had some raw bah-humbugs Christmases too. Some homes caught fire because of faulty electrical wires, no circuit auto-breakers, no GFI and because of non-permitted forced air heating units incorrectly installed. Christmas trees caught on fire because of the old fashioned 110 lights causing fire explosions. One of my neighbor’s homes did catch on fire, on Christmas Eve; daddy burned to death as the Christmas tree exploded next to him. The family lived near the intersection of Luxor/Horton.

There were also many motor vehicle accidents during the holidays. If the people were employed, they got off from their job a few hours early on Christmas Eve and were given gifts of liquor, a vogue Christmas gift. They got drunk and had motor vehicle accidents over Christmas Eve.

Also there was a lot of kitchen fires over Christmas time because we didn't have the modern stove and built-in ovens nor microwaves, so there was a lot of flash fires on the stove. Bottled milk spoiled very easily during that era as refrigerators were not very good, and we relied on milk deliveries daily. The milkman delivered the glass bottled milk through the metal milk doors off the kitchen/laundry room. Rotten and perishable goods were not thrown into the garbage disposals (not invented yet) so cooking waste was thrown in a side-door delivery pails for twice-weekly pick up services.

Many traditional brick fireplaces in Downey leaked, because they didn't have the money to rebuild the fireplaces from the earthquakes, so it was not uncommon to have smoke filled interiors. From the ‘40s to ‘60s, the entire country was rebuilding from WWI and WWII.

Silver Saddle, Pink Pancake Parasol, Kings Imperial, Del Mar, Grand Prix, Memory House, Regency were all packed restaurants in Downey during the holidays. Serving steak and lobster feasts, along with tableside gimlet martini drinks. Dinner and wine was not very popular and beer was more blue collar.

Granada Pizza, in their, 3-wheel carts, could be seen delivering their store goods to front doors. Pizza was form for holiday hors d’oeurvers. That era of socializing really filled with red meat eaters.

During my early times, Downey was a very decanted city to be born in to. It was city, with many transplants from Europe and Midwest USA.

Jim McMahon is a longtime Downey resident.