Ontario Nativity display has long, fascinating history

Celebrated sculptor Rudolph Vargas created the scenes in 1959.
Celebrated sculptor Rudolph Vargas created the scenes in 1959. Rob Strauss/ KPCC

For more than five decades the story of the Nativity has been told along a busy street in Ontario.

A dozen scenes line the median on Euclid Avenue, a bustling thoroughfare in the heart of Ontario. The idea for the scenes dates to the late 1950s, when the city held a carnival in its downtown area that featured rides and treats for the kids.

"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, a columnist with the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin.

Allen, who has researched the history of the Nativity scenes, says the event upset some local ministers.

"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,'" said Allen.

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."

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.

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