By Katherine Hon | Past Matters
The next Toyland Parade will be held on Saturday, Dec. 3, starting at 11 a.m. In a tradition that has spanned more than 80 years, marching bands, vintage cars, floats, dancers and many community organizations will travel along University Avenue to kick off the holiday season.
The North Park Historical Society devoted a whole chapter to the Toyland Parade in their book, “Images of America: San Diego’s North Park,” published by Arcadia Publishing Company in 2014. The following history is based on a summary written by George Franck, North Park Historical Society vice president.
Christmas festivals in North Park started as far back as 1930, during the early years of the Depression, when the North Park Business Men’s Association sponsored the dedication of a Christmas tree at the corner of Kansas Street and University Avenue. On Dec. 11, 1934, a parade of decorated automobiles, theme floats and four bands sponsored by the merchants was viewed by several thousand people at 30th Street and University Avenue. This event initiated a North Park parade tradition.
The Dec. 10, 1935 San Diego Union reported that nine divisions with representatives of every major business in the community marched in the 1935 parade, when an estimated 30,000 spectators crowded the sidewalks. Musical groups included the Bonham Brothers Band. This youth marching band was started in 1921 by the brothers who ran the Bonham Brothers Mortuary. The band entertained at concerts, parades and community events for 36 years before playing its last music in 1962.
In 1939, the parade was held on a Friday night. It lasted for more than an hour as entrants marched between 32nd and Texas streets. The 1941 parade, scheduled for the evening of Dec. 12, was cancelled following the attack on Pearl Harbor and was not held for five years during World War II.
Following the war, the parade grew. Inflated balloon figures were part of the 1949 parade. In 1954, an estimated 300,000 people flocked to North Park to watch the parade.
The selection of the Toyland Parade Queen became a major countywide event during the 1950s. In 1956, 15-year-old Kathy Huffman of El Cajon won the competition over 36 final contestants for Queen. Before the 1958 parade, the North Park sign was enhanced to read “Home of the Famous Toyland Parade” on a banner below the neon “North Park.” The San Diego Zoo was a regular participant in the Toyland Parade, providing camels and handlers in costumes for the 1958 parade.
The parade stopped for nearly 20 years after 1966, and the North Park sign was removed in 1967. In announcing the cancellation, the San Diego Union identified the parade as San Diego’s largest Christmas parade. The Toyland Parade was revived in 1985, and a replica of the North Park sign finally returned to University Avenue in 1993.
After the Toyland Parade was revived, the San Diego Zoo participated in 1986 by bringing an elephant along with the Zoo’s Goodwill Ambassador Joan Embery. Legend has it that when the elephant was unloaded, it suddenly took off and decided to explore North Park, causing some momentary consternation. But photographs verify that Embery successfully rode the elephant in the parade.
Through the years, the North Park Lions Club, North Park Main Street, and now Victoria House Corporation have worked hard to keep the parade as a North Park tradition. Contact Victoria House Corporation at 619-269-7880 if you want to help them with this beloved community event.
—Katherine Hon is the secretary of the North Park Historical Society. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619-294-8990.