Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Hollywood Park and the Great Fire of 1949

by Leonard N. Wynne

Above photo used with permission of Inglewood Public Library.

In early May, 1949, the Hollywood Turf Club was in busy preparation for the upcoming Spring meeting. In its relatively short history, Hollywood Park had achieved recognition as one the preeminent venues on the national racing scene, and there was much anticipation surrounding the start of the new season.

This happy optimism, however, would soon be clouded by uncertainty. Just after 11:00 PM on May 5, 1949, a fire broke out in the grandstand and, despite the efforts of local fire companies, the entire building was soon consumed in flames. When the sun rose over Inglewood the following morning, the grandstand and clubhouse, which for the past decade had been a favorite spot of both Hollywood celebrities and racing fans alike, had been reduced to a skeleton of twisted steel and smoking debris.

While the Hollywood Park fire of 1949 would become one of the darkest days in the track's history, the days to come would highlight some of the best aspects of California racing. In a great spirit of cooperation, the Los Angeles Turf Club, with the blessings of the California Horse Racing Board, extended the invitation to Hollywood Park to conduct its Spring meeting at Santa Anita. Although there were less than two weeks left to the opening, the tireless work and dedication of many individuals made the quick transition a success. On May 17, 1949, Hollywood Park at Santa Anita launched the Spring race meeting on schedule.

With the racing meet resumed at its temporary location across town, the Hollywood Turf Club quickly began the process of rebuilding. By the following Spring, Hollywood Park, like the Phoenix, had risen anew from the ashes. Just a year after the devastating fire Hollywood Park would reclaim the position it would hold for the next three decades as a driving force in North American racing.

Hollywood Park before and after the Fire of 1949.

Photos courtesy of The Thoroughbred of California, Vol, VIII, June 1949, 504.

Leonard N. Wynne is a lifelong fan of horse racing and its history. Wynne earned a Bachelor of Arts in History from Cal Poly Pomona, and holds advanced degrees in History from Cal State Los Angeles and the University of California, Santa Cruz. He is currently on leave from PhD program in History, UCSC. His areas of specialization include 19th Century United States with an emphasis on religion and gender and Popular Culture in the United States.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this great post!
Very interesting, I never knew about this!

Anonymous said...

I think that the opening was a little later on the calendar than usual in 1950 (late June). Hollywood had a month+ of dates that fall, including the Premiere, to compensate.

Len said...

Thank you for your comments. I did check some sources and you are correct that the Hollywood Park meeting for 1950 began in June of that year. The track had been allocated 50 days of racing which were split into two parts – the first running from June 27 – July 22, 1950 and the second running from November 7 – December 16, 1950.

I am not sure how much the opening date had to do with the completion of work on the reconstruction of the track, although work on finishing details continued right up to the opening day. Interestingly enough, Hollywood Park actually hosted the annual Western Harness Racing Association meeting from October 8 – November 26, 1950, although the only facilities used for this meet were located along the apron of the track.

What I have discovered in looking up this information is that in 1950 the CHRB was actively working to get California tracks to reduce the number of racing days. With all tracks but Del Mar moving from a six-day to a five-day race week, the tracks were looking to adjust the dates of their meetings to make up for the loss of that one day per week. This, however, added a complication to a conflict that had been brewing between the Northern and Southern California tracks. There had been complaints that overlapping race dates at the northern and southern tracks were detrimental to their individual interests.

Beyond finding that the CHRB realized that some overlap would be unavoidable, and that all tracks (Fair meetings included) would have to work out an agreement, I did not pursue any further research on this topic.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing this interesting local history, Len.
Am looking forward to your future posts on the Del Mar Race Track history, too!

Unknown said...

I was a young kid living in Inglewood when this happened. My brother and I got up and rode our bikes to the track and watch it burn... Never forgot what an impression it made on me. I recall the blamed the painters for leaving oily rags behind that started the blaze.

Unknown said...

I found old movies of my great grand parents and my grand parents at the track. There are movies of the horse races and of the pond. The pond has swans and a shepherdess complete with a crook, and lovely flowers. This must have been quite the place.
Kaye 2012

rhetta4 said...

Dear Kaye Vinson, my sister was the Goose Girl (shepardess) in June 1950. Would your old movies happen to be of this era?

Post a Comment