Posted by: acooksca | 05/27/2009

100 years of fun on Santa Monica pier

Historic Carousel on Santa Monica Pier

Historic Carousel on Santa Monica Pier

Like so many children before me, my first visit to Santa Monica Pier was on the arm of a parent re-visiting their own childhood. While my father pointed out features he remembered on the pier, my mother ordered a take-away clam chowder, my sister found a dried sea horse and I gawked at the wonderful carousel.

It was the mid-sixties and the pier may have been a little dowdy looking but we thought it was magnificent. The road way was crowded with fishermen and families enjoying the amusements, rides and eateries. The pier was a nostalgic favorite…everyone who grew up in So. California had happy memories of time spent on the Santa Monica Pier, surrounded by colored hanging lights and the sea.


When my father was a teenager in the 1940’s he and his friends would travel from the suburb of Van Nuys to Santa Monica Beach and Pier using the superb Los Angeles electric railway system. It connected nearly every corner of the Los Angeles area until after World War 2, when it was ripped out in favor of freeways. The story of Santa Monica and the success of the pier began with railways.

In the 1880’s Collins Huntington, (the sole survivor of the Big Four railroad tycoons from San Francisco), acquired the lands around Santa Monica. He wanted to create Port Los Angeles in Santa Monica and he built The Long Wharf there in 1893. Huntington lobbied to convince congress and President McKinley to concentrate federal harbor monies on Santa Monica, but rival San Pedro was awarded the port-site instead.

Huntington’s nephew, Henry E. Huntington, took up the cause of developing the family holdings in Santa Monica. He understood that the rapid growth of Los Angeles Basin during the previous 30 years was due to railroads. Towns sprung up along railroad lines. Huntington took over the fledgling street car system in L.A. In 1901 be began to knit together Los Angeles with a web of electrified urban railways. Within a decade Los Angeles had a first-class rapid transit system that included Santa Monica. The sleepy seaside village on a beautiful golden beach burst forward as a recreation destination.

The Santa Monica Municipal Pier opened on Sept 9, 1909 with thousands of people enjoying bands, swimming
contests and the novelty of walking above the Pacific Ocean. At once, entrepreneurs offered plans to increase amusements on the pier. It was a famous carousel maker from The East Coast, Charles Looff, who built that vision.

Santa Monica Pier, 1911

Santa Monica Pier, 1911

He developed a separate pleasure pier and gave Santa Monica the Blue Streak Racer roller coaster and the Hippodrome carousel house. Today you can stand in the Hippodrome, a National Historic Monument, and admire his carousel of hand carved horses in their enchanting orbit.

In 1924 the largest ballroom in the country, the La Monica Ballroom, was added to the end of the pier. It was capable of holding 10,000 dancers. 1948 saw TV’s first live music program, with country-swing star Spade Cooley, televised weekly from the ballroom. The 1930’s also brought another icon attraction to the beach surrounding the pier. Famous body builders such as Jack LaLanne and Joe Gold (Gold’s Gym) worked out on “Muscle Beach”, establishing Santa Monica as a birthplace of the physical fitness boom.

Another interesting chapter in the pier’s history began with the building of a breakwater and yacht harbor in 1933. The harbor became the home base for a shuttle service to off- shore gambling boats. In 1939 the mobster Tony Cornero came head to head with then-Attorney General Earl Warren. After a showy three day stand-off on his flagship “The Rex”, Cornero stated he “needed a haircut” and surrendered. When government agents boarded the vessel they made a much-publicized photo-op of tossing gambling tables and slot machines into Santa Monica Bay.

By the time I first saw the pier in the mid 1960’s the other famous amusement piers up and down the Gold Coast had disappeared, losing customers to Disneyland and inland theme parks. The Santa Monica City Council slated the dilapidated pier for destruction in 1973. Public out rage saved the pier, only to have it closed to severe damage by a pair of storms ten years later. Rather then lose this piece of history, Santa Monica determined to reconstruct the pier and develop the property. By 1996 the pier was again a destination for 4 million visitors a year enjoying a full scale amusement park, dining, fishing, street performers and the historic carousel.

This September Santa Monica Pier celebrates its centennial. Expect the atmosphere to be nothing but fun with the arcades and rides in full swing, street performers entertaining crowds and a new aquarium under the pier to visit. The carousel, made in Philadelphia in 1922 by Italian and German artists, is still gorgeous. Choose one of the 22 painted wooden horses or 2 carriages, each unique, and pay $1.00 for a ride into history.

Big Dean's Ocean Front Cafe

Big Dean's Ocean Front Cafe

As long as you are feeling nostalgic, step across the boardwalk and refresh yourself at the 1902 landmark eatery now called Big Dean’s Ocean Front Cafe. The walls are decorated with faded photos of stars and dignitaries who elbowed into this classic beach bar for a beer and burger or fish tacos. Dean’s has a good selection of brews and probably the best casual food at the pier. The staff is as welcoming to visitors as to locals who have a regular stool at the bar. Find a table on the patio out front and enjoy the skaters who role by, the buffed volleyball players on the beach and the relaxed attitude Santa Monica and its pleasure pier are famous for.



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