Local history: City’s 1963 Diamond Jubilee celebration ended on a tragic note

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Long Beach was buzzing with anticipation for its upcoming 75th Anniversary Diamond Jubilee in October 1963. The middle-aged city’s elite planned pre-jubilee dinners and cocktail parties at clubs and at one another’s stylish homes in Naples, Park Estates and Los Cerritos to get a jump on the official slate of civic celebrations that would stretch from Nov. 1 through Nov. 30 to celebrate the three-quarters of a century since the city’s incorporation in 1888.

A kick-off event called the Premiere Dinner was held on Oct. 31 in the new French Room of the Lafayette. The 300 invited guests dressed in formalwear dropped their cars off at the new Long Beach Arena and were shuttled by limousines the few short blocks to the Lafayette for cocktails and then back to the Arena’s Crystal Foyer for a 7 p.m. dinner, the first event to be held there, and listened to Mayor Edwin Wade officially open the Diamond Jubilee and describe the key events of the celebration.

The Independent, Press-Telegram’s fashion editor Mary Ellis Carlton gushed in her column, “Nothing from Adam to the atom has set off more of an enthusiastic chain reaction in Long Beach than the city’s coming Diamond Jubilee.”

The party was the culmination of work by the leadership team of 40 prominent citizens along with 26 co-sponsoring organizations, 28 committees and 250 volunteers.

The Jubilee swept through the city, in particular the mercantile district of Downtown where jewelers wondered in advertisements if there was a better way to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee than buying diamonds. Commemorative coins were circulated, worth 50 cents at selected retailers, and ersatz diamond lapel pins were sold for $1.50.

The Jubilee month was carved up into special themed days with tributes and histories. There was Harbor Day, a Sports Day, a Navy Salute Day, a Faith of Our Fathers Day and more.

The Long Beach Civic Light Opera performed “The Long Beach Story” from Nov. 1-11 in the Municipal Auditorium’s concert hall.

The highlight of the Jubilee? It’s difficult to tell, but it might have been the Diamond Jubilee Parade on Nov. 16, which ran for a mile and a half up Ocean Boulevard from Alamitos Avenue to Magnolia Avenue. The parade was divided into three parts. First, a homecoming celebration for Long Beach State College, then a “Hootenannies and Horses” section featuring folk singers and equestrians and finally “Moments in History,” a telling of Long Beach’s first 75 years through floats and music. In all, there were more than 100 units in the parade, including dozens of floats, 70 horses, 30 vintage cars and 10 marching bands.

Or perhaps the highlight was the Diamond Jubilee Celebrity Ball, which was described by the Press-Telegram as “the social event of the century!” The formal affair was open to all who could pay the $10 ticket price (a bit over $90 in today’s dollars) and featured music by Freddy Martin and His Orchestra. True to its name, dozens of mostly local celebrities were in attendance, many of them athletes, including Billie Jean Moffitt, Johnny Olszewski, Bob Lemon, Greta Andersen, Ben Agajanian and Pat McCormick. Also aviators Barbara London and Gladys O’Donnell, architect Ed Killingsworth and dancer/Mouseketeer Bobby Burgess.

The celebration was nearing the end of its month-long run when it came to a swift and tragic halt with the Nov. 22 assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

A story, fairly buried for obvious reasons, was headlined, “The bands stopped playing.” Long-planned parties, dances and charity events were postponed or canceled. Salute the Navy Day, with an open house at the Terminal Island base, was canceled as was the ecumenical Faith in Our Fathers event at the Municipal Auditorium, dropped in favor of individual places of worship holding their own memorial services.

The sole indication that such a celebration occurred in the city is in a plaque commemorating the Diamond Jubilee, placed at what’s now the 14th Street Park on 14th Street at Pacific Avenue.

Celebrating 125 years of ‘cityness’ for 134-year-old Long Beach

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Tim Grobaty is a columnist and opinions editor for the Long Beach Post. He began his newspaper career at the Press-Telegram in 1976 as a copy boy and moved on to feature writer, music critic, TV critic, copy editor and daily columnist. He’s the author of several books, including I’m Dyin’ Here, and he lives in Long Beach.
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