My sister lives in a historic downtown area in California just off the Euclid Exit. There are oodles of Huge Old homes in these neighborhoods.
Euclid Ave is a beautiful drive. Not only are their huge old houses and huge trees lining this busy street, there are also huge medians in the center, they are like parks! Grass and trees in the center of the road, its enough room for another 2-3 lanes in there. This photo is of Euclid Ave Circa 1930 but it looks the same today, just the trees are even bigger and fill the sky.
As you head down Euclid towards Holt where I go thrift shopping, you encounter after Thanksgiving these beautiful life size nativity scenes. I have seen them and always found them beautiful. And I also wondered how they came to be. With so many people trying to remove anything religious or showing Jesus from public areas.
So this time I got my camera out and took some photos then went to Google to look up the story behind these displays. Its even more fascinating to hear!
These scenes date to the 1950s, when the city held a carnival in its downtown area that featured rides and treats for the kids.
Found ONE photo of one of the nativity scenes when searching this out that was from 1967, would love to find more pictures of it back in its early days if anyone else can track any down.
“It was a way for parents to keep their children occupied and watched over while they went and shopped in the stores for Christmas presents,” said David Allen who has researched the history of the Nativity scenes, says the event upset some local ministers.
(Same 1967 scene above now in 2014)
“A group of local ministers went to the city council and said, ‘This is really tacky to have this sort of thing going on on the parkway and we’re destroying the spirit of Christmas. We should do something that’s more religious-themed,”
A group of business leaders decided to commission a well-known sculptor named Rudolph Vargas to build the Nativity scenes. Vargas had built a Nativity display down in San Diego and also designed characters for Disneyland rides, including “Pirates of the Caribbean.”
Rudolph Vargas an immigrant from Mexico in the 1920s, during an era of religious persecution in his native country, Vargas became first a furniture carver, then a mannequin maker, before being discovered by Walt Disney Imagineering, the theme-park designers. Disney used him extensively to model the plaster figures of history and fantasy displayed in the theme parks.
Originally sculpted by Vargas between 1959 and 1968, the Nativity statues are being restored and will be unveiled Nov. 22. 2014. Vargas, who worked on “Mary Poppins” and Disneyland’s It’s a Small World and Pirates of the Caribbean attractions, died in 1986 at age 82.
“Because he was a professional mannequin maker, he had the ability to understand and anticipate where clothing goes on the body,” said Blaine Gibson, who retired recently as director of sculpture for Imagineering. “Most sculptors overemphasize anatomy.”
Between the 1964 New York World’s Fair, for which Vargas created figures of President Abraham Lincoln and the characters of the “Small World” display, to the opening of the Epcot Center in Florida, Vargas was a regular Disney contributor.
An unassuming man, bald, high-domed with a far-seeing look, Vargas earned his living doing what his family called “commercial” work.
“He would work all day in his studio, doing the commercial things, then come home and work till 12 or 1 o’clock on religious figures,” said Vargas’ wife, Margaret.
Vargas created the first two in 1959, while two Hollywood scenic artists created the backdrops. Ten more scenes went up over the next nine years.”
“The display is on public land and that has led to some controversy. A local atheist filed a legal claim against the city in the 1990s after he saw public workers putting up the scenes. Montclair City Councilman Bill Ruh, who has been involved with the Nativity scenes for more than two decades, says Ontario and other public officials came up with a solution.
“Then-Assemblymember Nell Soto worked with the city and worked with the chamber and the state and managed to get a resolution done that they rented the parkway space for a dollar,” said Ruh. “And no city monies could be used as far as storage was concerned.”
The Kiwanis and other local service clubs now help raise money for the maintenance of the display.”
I found this article about other work Vargas did in a Hospital in Duarte, Ca. The end of the articles says he left his autobiography with Mother Maria who was 85 at the time. I wonder what became of it? I hope it was saved and is in safe hands.
Santa Teresita Hospital pays tribute to ‘El Maestro,’ a carver of wood
“Vargas died at Santa Teresita in 1986 at the age of 82. He was commissioned to do the works at the hospital by Mother Margarita Maria, who founded the facility as a women’s tuberculosis sanitarium. The two met in 1932 after Mother Maria saw Vargas’ work at another church and contacted him. Both were natives of Mexico, according to hospital spokeswoman Michele Dulin, and the pair became fast friends until Vargas’ death.
Mother Maria said she wanted classical art, “not something just semi-artistic” on the hospital grounds, to serve as therapy and inspiration for her patients, and the young Vargas was eager to oblige.
The sculptor worked on the religious pieces in between commercial assignments and viewed the carving he did for the hospital as “the one opportunity he had of leaving something behind where he felt it would be cared for and appreciated forever,” said his son, Rudolph Vargas Jr., an electrical engineer in Chatsworth. The artist more often than not was paid only for his materials.
According to the pamphlet, Vargas’ relationship with the sisters “took off strong in the 1950s,” when Mother Maria commissioned him to create an 8-foot crucifix for the hospital’s chapel over objections from the architect, who wanted to order a piece from Europe. The riveting figure of Christ still hangs over the altar. It was Vargas’ greatest pride, said his son, and one of his best works. The 500-pound piece is said to be Vargas’ first major work in which the wood was left in its natural state, and took over a year to complete.
A patio with a waterfall outside the hospital’s intensive care unit was designed by Vargas just before his death. “Here he was in the hospital, supposed to be sick, and he was up at 9 a.m. in the cellars” giving classes to the nuns on how to make ceramic molds, his son recalled.
On the day before he died, Vargas presented Mother Maria, now 85, with two notebooks containing his autobiography, handwritten in Spanish during his hospital stay. “This is my life that I give to you because you have been my inspiration. . . . I am leaving for home tomorrow,” he told her. The books remain in a drawer in her office as part of Vargas’ legacy. On July 10 and Aug. 14, nuns will lead “Vargas Excursions” through the hospital, and Vargas’ son and his daughter, Christina Vargas Rosine, will share anecdotes about him.”
Im even more intrigued to hear about Rudolph Vargas the Artist, the person, what he wrote down in his autobiography and gave to the 85 yr old Maria in the 1980s.
I also found it puzzling that I couldnt find much of his work when looking on the internet. Lots of mentions of it and locations, but very little photos. So I wonder if its in places where they dont allow photography? Or why there is very little when I go searching.
I was able to get out on foot in Ontario, park my van and walk up and get close to all of the scenes. It was moving and made me want to cry, I love history, I love the story of Jesus, I love seeing traditions stand the test of time and shifting culture.
God Bless Ontario for keeping this up and for all of those who were involved in the restoration work to preserve all of these. Merry Christmas!
For more info on the restoration work and process you can read here