John Scarpa rows his gondola on the waters of Newport Harbor in Newport Beach, California. Date of photo- unknown.
A while back, John Synco reminded me that I hadn't truly covered the subject of John Scarpa, or "the Balboa gondola" as he phrased it. My post today covers this man and his gondola who are legendary in these parts. The following text was also submitted to the book mentioned in my last post, and portions were used to tell Scarpa's story.
One of the thirty-six gondoliers brought to Venice, California by Abbott Kinney was a man named John Scarpa.
It is said that he was a man who was small in size but large in heart, a seemingly insignificant man who changed the world around him through his strong but fun-loving personality.
Unlike many of the gondoliers who had been shipped in by Abbot Kinney, John Scarpa didn’t like his working conditions.
Nobody knows if it was the pay, the job description, or just the attitude of his boss. What we do know is that Scarpa packed his things into his gondola one day and rowed out to sea.
Legend has it that large amounts of red wine were involved. He rowed down the coast to Newport Beach, arriving there around 1907.
The locals say he met a local girl and married her, and that he set up his own gondola tour business in the harbor.
Mrs. Scarpa would prepare food and wine for the passengers and John would row them around in his gondola, which was named "Alma". Nobody knows who Alma was - some speculate that she was his wife, mother, or maybe a daughter.
Scarpa’s most enduring legacy began in July of 1908 when he took out a family of nine who were annual vacationers from Pasadena, California.
It was on the evening of the Fourth of July (America’s Independence Day) and to observe this, John decorated his gondola with Japanese lanterns.
A Venetian gondola decorated with Japanese lanterns was apparently quite a sight, and his friends all talked about it for months after.
The next year, when the same family from Pasadena arranged another tour for the Fourth of July, John decorated his gondola again. He had many friends and they all decorated their canoes and rowing boats with the same lanterns.
That night, when a bunch of boats toured Newport Harbor led by a gondola, and all decorated with Japanese lanterns, history was made.
John Scarpa is credited with the world’s first lighted boat parade.
For nearly a century, Newporters have commemorated his lighted procession with bigger, brighter, longer and in some cases, louder versions. Eventually the Christmas parades became more popular that the Independence Day ones, and at some point, harbors around the country and in other parts of the world launched their own lighted boat parades.
While most of them don’t have any idea where the idea came from, in Newport Beach, local residents take pride in the fact that it was in their harbor, started by “their guy”,
a Venetian gondolier named John Scarpa.
John Scarpa on his gondola. Take a look at the clothing and hats on the passengers. This postcard photo is suspected to have come from 1907.