Life in the fun zone

Posted: December 4th, 2015 | Balboa Park, Columns, Featured, Homes & Garden | No Comments

In the spirit of the 1915 Panama California Exposition, the people again take over Balboa Park

By Michael Good | HouseCalls

San Diego’s greatest achievement of the last 100 years took place about 99 years and 11 months ago when the Panama California Exposition opened on Jan. 1, 1915. We’ve been trying to do something as big and do it as well ever since.

Credit for the success of the Expo is often given to civic “boosters,” the well-connected businessmen, politicians and Chamber of Commerce types who proposed what they had hoped would be a World’s Fair. But it was the voting public who overwhelmingly approved the ballot measure that funded the Exposition, and it was the citizenry that agreed to cough up more money during the six years it took to wrestle the Exposition into reality, and it was the citizenry who attended the thing — repeatedly — and brought some friends along for the ride. The 1915 Exposition was a triumph of the common man and woman.


Entertainment circa 1915 on The Isthmus in Balboa Park (Courtesy of Michael Good)

So what happened? How could this community of committed visionaries lose their mojo and find themselves adrift in some kind of civic Groundhog Day, caught in an endless loop of proposals, studies, referendums and inaction, with little ever getting done, except the decision to not do anything … for now. Let’s take a break!

Airports, convention centers, ball fields, stadiums, civic centers, an exposition centennial … San Diegans haven’t been able to get things done with the fortitude of their forefathers for the last 99 years and change. We began to lose our resolve pretty much the moment the Expo ended. Blame it on the upheaval of World War I and the worldwide flu epidemic. Blame it on the just-say-no ethos of Prohibition. Blame it on women’s suffrage, with suddenly twice as many potential voters and a new series of concerns and agendas. Blame it on the increased regulation of the 1920s, with stricter building codes, and licensing for contractors and architects. Blame it on a worldwide financial depression, another world war, and the fracture of society into two diametrically opposed political camps intent on taking sides on every issue, and blaming each other when nothing gets done. It seems the only thing we can agree on now in San Diego is the weather. It’s great here. But the drought? Don’t we have a water surplus? It’s all so complicated.

Of course the people who threw together the Expo didn’t agree politically, either. But that didn’t keep them from working together. There were a lot of egos involved, a lot of competing agendas. Some people just plain didn’t like each other. But they worked together anyway. They found some common ground in Balboa Park, and they got things done. There were setbacks, a few people got lost along the way. Punches were thrown, but they rolled with them. In a sense, the Expo — and the Park — was big enough to accommodate everyone.

After the Expo ended in 1917 (it was extended for a year), the squabbling over the future of the buildings began. Some wanted to tear the buildings down and return the space to parkland. Others wanted to use the buildings for a variety of things —from clubhouses to movie studios. The Navy stepped in and kicked the can down the road, taking over much of the park during WWI. When the war ended and the Navy moved out, various cultural institutions moved in, and the museum era of the Park began.

History is written by the winners, and it was the cultural institutions that won the war for the legacy of the Expo (and its buildings). So we tend to think of the Expo in a high-minded manner: art on the wall, dioramas behind yellow ropes, talking in whispers. But the Expo was equal parts entertainment and education. And the entertainment along The Isthmus was pretty raucous. There were dancing girls, an opium den, a mock naval battle, explosions and gunfire. The police raided the place. If you found it educational, it was because you’d never had the opportunity to study the female form dancing on stage clad only in feathers.

Last year at the unofficial kick-off for the centennial celebration of the 1915 Expo, the spirit of The Isthmus was back in Balboa Park. The amusements along the Palisades Midway were of the sort you’d find at a small county fair — a portable Ferris wheel, an “Octopus” amusement ride, games of chance and fried food. It was noisy and busy and bright — but children and those crazy young people loved it. (Thankfully, there was a beer garden nearby.) The Palisades Midway was completely out of keeping with the event’s predecessor, Christmas on the Prado. Which is what made it so appealing. It was as if Sally Rand climbed up and danced with the performers in the Living Christmas Tree. And did I mention there was a beer garden?

Organ Pavillion Christmas Tree

Traditional holiday entertainment at the organ pavilion at December Nights (Photo by Isaiah Leggett)

The amusements and diversions available at December Nights are too numerous to list, but the main attraction may be that much of it is free. They won’t charge you to watch the Santa Lucia procession. Many of the museums are free from 5 to 9 p.m. And many of the exhibits have some connection to the 1915 Expo. (Most of the Park’s cultural institutions have their roots in either the 1915 or 1935 fairs.)

Among the Expo-themed displays: The History Center has an enlightening exhibit on the making of the Expo. SOHO has a great collection of printed materials, photos and ephemera from the oft-overlooked ’35 Expo, which is celebrating its 80th anniversary. The Mingei Museum has been focusing on homegrown folk art and craft all year (its usual emphasis is international). The 1915 Expo was conceived as a World’s Fair, but lost that distinction when San Francisco was awarded the right by the federal government. Mingei’s upstairs gallery displays artistry from all 50 states. Included are everyday objects from baskets to blankets, furniture to furnishings, some handmade by self-taught craftsmen, some mass-produced by machine.

But the real reason to go to December Nights is the people. One hundred and seventy-five thousand of them a night. This is a bigger one-day crowd than ever attended the Panama California Exposition. This is entertainment for the masses, on a mass scale, and a reminder of what San Diego looks like today. Over the years the complexion of December Nights has changed. The crowd looks more like the people serving food in the booths and cottages at the House of Pacific Relations. It looks more like 21st-century San Diego.

Those food booths have something for everyone, prepared by people from around the world, using their traditional recipes. It’s a reminder that we are a nation of immigrants, and some of those immigrants have arrived pretty recently. If you can’t find what you’re looking for at the House of Pacific Relations, there are food trucks, food stands, food kiosks, the aforementioned beer garden and a brewpub outside the Museum of Art. You can pretty much eat and drink continuously as you walk around remarking on how overweight everyone but you looks this year. (I haven’t gained weight! It’s the puffy winter jacket.)

The one thing there won’t be enough of is parking. I don’t have any advice there, other than to arrive early and wear comfortable shoes. Maybe you could try contacting your city councilperson, or if that doesn’t work, the Chamber of Commerce, and suggest that they put in a streetcar up Park Boulevard from Downtown to the fountain in front of the Space Theater. There was a cable car there in the 1890s, and a streetcar there in 1915. Maybe some “boosters” could get behind this, if there are any of those left. This is how things used to get done in San Diego. Maybe they will get done that way again.

—Contact Michael Good at

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