Small Town, Big City
The annual Westchester Fourth of July Parade makes L.A. feel like home
By Joe Piasecki
Under the wingspan of a motorized 1/16-scale replica of Howard Hughes’ famed Spruce Goose, Dan Garr and his team of kids and parents from Westchester Lutheran School set to work on a miniature landscape of Westchester.
The light-up pylons of LAX, Loyola Marymount University’s Sacred Heart Chapel, Westchester Lutheran Church, model 1950s homes and even Randy’s Donuts make up a diorama of local landmarks destined to roll down Loyola Boulevard in the 17th annual Westchester Fourth of July Parade.
Since its humble start as a community celebration of the new millennium, the parade has grown into the already tightknit neighborhood’s destination family event.
Expect more than 1,000 participants and six times as many spectators from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday as 48 parade entries — many of them marching bands or community-constructed floats — make their way from Westchester Park to the LMU campus.
For the past seven years, building award-winning floats for Westchester Lutheran has become a healthy obsession for Garr, founder of the Hot Buttered Elves toy and product development workshop just southeast of LAX.
But this year he’s doubling down.
On top of his annual entry for Westchester Lutheran, where his son Luke attends third grade, Garr is also building a second float — a massive wooden pirate ship on wheels that can hold more than a dozen people — for St. Monica Catholic High School.
That’s where his son Max, who just graduated from Westchester Lutheran, is headed this fall — a transition that Garr says inspired his idea to portray the Spruce Goose (built just down the hill in what’s now Playa Vista) taking off into the sky.
“The beauty of making these floats is all the people who help. The parade is a celebration for all the families that are here. It builds pride, builds community,” Garr says.
The parade also speaks to the unique character of Westchester, says Gwen Vuchsas, who has chaired the committee that runs the LAX Coastal Chamber of Commerce-sponsored event since its inception.
“We may be part of the city of Los Angeles, but there’s a small-town spirit here and the parade really reflects that,” said Vuchsas, who has lived in Westchester or neighboring Playa del Rey for 45 years.
This year’s parade also takes on the added significance of kicking off celebrations of Westchester’s 75th anniversary, which locals date to the initial construction of homes in the winter of 1941.
Each year the parade has a theme, and this year’s is “Our Little Piece of Paradise – Celebrating 75 Years of Westchester,” an idea pitched by 86-year-old Dorothy Rose.
Rose moved to the Westport Heights neighborhood in January 1954 after her husband landed an engineering job at Hughes Aircraft Company. Back then, the Ralphs on Sepulveda Boulevard was a Piggly Wiggly, the local IHOP was a drive-in diner, and there were pony rides and bean fields at what’s now Howard Hughes Parkway.
“I always felt this was paradise — a little-town in the big city. It still is. With all the construction it’s changing, but I wouldn’t want to live any other place.” said Rose, who still lives in the house she and her husband paid $12,500 for 62 years ago. “I still love it.”
Westchester is still a neighborhood that’s rich in traditional community organizations such as the Westchester Elks, two local Rotary International clubs and the all-volunteer Emerson Avenue Community Garden. Each appears annually in the Westchester Fourth of July Parade.
This year’s Emerson Avenue Community Garden parade float brings a garden motif to the “Piece of Paradise” theme, with a flatbed of assorted flowers and topiary followed by about 30 marchers carrying a kaleidoscope of oversized monarch butterflies — one of them a large animatronic puppet that’ll be operated by three people, said garden volunteer Mary Ann Stern.
“We do it because we love the parade, and it’s fun for us. Over the years it’s grown, and the floats get better and better each year,” said Stern, who is also part of a synchronized wheelbarrow drill team that accompanies the float.
Dorothy Stone, treasurer and volunteer coordinator for the Emerson Avenue Community Garden Club, said the parade is an important community event because it brings locals together. She also echoed the idea that Westchester has maintained a community character much like a village despite decades of L.A. urban sprawl.
“I grew up in a small town in Nebraska, and the parade reminds me so much of my experiences there. For a lot of us in Westchester, it confirms our sense that we’re in a small town in the big city, and we love it.”
As the parade has grown, so has community interest in putting on a bigger and better show, Vuchsas said.
The 2016 parade sees the return of several crowd favorites, including the dancing charro horses, which will be accompanied by the band Mariachi Malibu on the Los Angeles Fire Department’s preserved 1932 bandwagon.
There are also new entries, including a St. Bernard High School drumline and the inaugural appearance of the revitalized Venice High School Marching Band.
The lineup is a giant step forward from that first parade, which mostly featured small walking groups.
“I remember folding 1,500 parade programs and wondering if we’d even have that many show up. The next morning, we probably had 4,000. With that kind of response, we knew
we had to do it again,” Vuchsas recalls.
“None of us are professionals at putting on a parade. We’ve just learned a lot over the years and got better at it,” she said. “It’s truly a labor of love.”
The 17th annual Westchester Fourth of July Parade steps off from Westchester Park at 11 a.m. and travels north on Loyola Boulevard, crossing the main showcase area at Loyola and West 83rd Street before wrapping up at 1 p.m. on the Loyola Marymount University campus.
For more information, contact the LAX Coastal Chamber of Commerce at (310) 645-5151.