Santa Monica Pier History
On September 9, 1909, after sixteen months of construction, the Santa Monica Municipal Pier opened to the public. Thousands of people swarmed onto the 1,600-foot-long concrete pier to enjoy a festive day of band concerts, swimming races and the novelty of walking above the waters of the Pacific Ocean. While originally built to satisfy the City's sanitation needs, the Pier quickly became a magnet for the fishing community and fueled the imagination of many local entrepreneurs.
Within just a few years, plans were put forth to build an amusement pier adjacent to the Municipal Pier. Famous carousel manufacturer Charles I.D. Looff arrived in February 1916, purchasing the land immediately south of the Municipal Pier for development.
Looff provided Santa Monica’s north beach with its first successful amusements, including the Blue Streak Racer roller coaster which opened in 1917 designed by Charles Paige . The Hippodrome housed the Pier’s Carousel, and the building still stands today with the distinction of being Santa Monica’s first National Historic Landmark. The Carousel was built in 1922 on the Pleasure Pier and features 44 hand-carved horses. It was rebuilt in 1990 inside the Looff Hippodrome. A calliope provides musical accompaniment.
In 1918 Looff passed away, and his family continued to run the pier until 1923, when they sold it to the Santa Monica Amusement Company, a group of local businessmen intent on expanding the famed amusement man’s dream. Their plans included expanding the Pier’s thrill rides, beginning with the removal and replacement of the Blue Streak Racer with a larger, faster coaster – the Whirlwind Dipper – in 1924 built by Frank Prior costing a whooping $75,000. They also added one of the richest chapters in the Pier’s history – the La Monica Ballroom.
Vast and ornate, the ballroom consumed so much of the Pier that, when viewed from the beach, it appeared as a monumental building floating magically above the sea. In 1948, famed country swing music star Spade Cooley televised his weekly TV program from this ballroom; it was the first time that a musical TV show was ever televised live.
Almost as soon as the Pier was conceived in the early 1900’s the notion that a breakwater and yacht harbor would make an ideal companion to the pier circulated regularly. In 1933 this became a reality, and Santa Monica Yacht Harbor was born. The harbor was home to a collection of yachts, fishing boats and a cruise liner to Catalina. It was also the home base for a shuttle service to offshore gambling operations run by mobster Tony Cornero until 1939 when then-Attorney General Earl Warren led a legal crusade to shut them down.
The last to go was Cornero’s flagship, the “Rex”, which was raided in 1939 during what came to be known as “The Battle of Santa Monica Bay”. After a three day standoff, Cornero surrendered because he “needed a haircut”. Government agents boarded the “Rex” and threw all of the gambling machines and tables overboard. Warren subsequently went on to become governor of California, and ultimately Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
The 1930’s also brought about another very popular attraction to the Pier’s atmosphere – world famous “Muscle Beach”. Famous bodybuilders such as Jack LaLanne and Joe Gold (Gold’s Gym) regularly worked out here, establishing Santa Monica as the birthplace of the physical fitness boom.
In 1940 the famous neon sign at the top of the Pier ramp was installed by the Santa Monica Pier Businessmen’s Association to celebrate the opening of the newly-built ramp. It is an internationally-recognized tourist destination and a symbol of the Southern California lifestyle.
In 1943 Walter Newcomb purchased the Looff Amusement Pier. Newcomb had been managing the Pier’s operations at the time, and also owned the arcade and gift shop. Not long thereafter, his name had become so associated with the southern half of the Pier that it became known as the Newcomb Pier. His family (some of whom are present here tonight) owned the amusement pier for 40 years until they sold it to the City in the early 1970’s.
In the 1950’s Enid Newcomb suggested to family friend Morris “Pops” Gordon that his two sons, George and Eugene, purchase and operate the Pier’s arcade. It didn’t take much persuasion, for the Gordons instantly took to the Pier and ultimately made Playland Arcade into the Pier’s longest running enterprise offering the day’s contemporary games alongside those of yesterday, providing inexpensive entertainment to a diverse crowd. George’s daughters Marlene and Joannie have kept the business within the family, and the next generation of Gordons is already in training to maintain the family tradition.
The Pier managed to carry on through the 1950’s and 60’s, satisfying fishermen, tourists and locals alike. The other famous piers along the Gold Coast, however, disappeared one by one. The glamour of the amusement piers had given way to the inland theme parks such as Disneyland.
In 1973, the fate of Santa Monica Pier seemed to be the same as that of its neighbors. The City Council had slated the Pier for destruction in favor of a man-made island which would host a resort hotel. Santa Monica, often referring to itself as a “sleepy little beach town”, woke up – its citizens in a rage over the thought of losing the last of its famous landmarks. After much publicity and the deliverance of a petition to their attention, the Council rescinded their plans to build the island. Three of the councilmen who had voted to destroy the Piers were overwhelmingly defeated in their run for re-election, and their replacements saw to it that the Pier would never be destroyed.
In 1983 Mother Nature was determined to accomplish what the former City Council could not. A pair of violent winter storms destroyed over one-third of the Pier’s length. Gone were the cafes, the bait shop, the rock shop and the harbor patrol station. The Pier in its entirety seemed too badly beaten to survive. But the people, true to their mission in 1973, put forth the effort to save the Pier again. The City formed the Pier Restoration and Development Task Force, which later became the PRC, to oversee the reconstruction, and the day-to-day operations of the Pier. By April 1990 the entire western structure had been rebuilt. The harbor patrol station reopened, along with a bait shop and restaurant – today known as Mariasol.
To bring attention to the Pier during its reconstruction, “Save the Pier Week” was held in 1983 sparking a series of annual concerts known as “The Twilight Dance Series”. Today the concerts are as regular a part of Southern California summer as sunshine, the sea and the sand.
In 1996 Pacific Park opened, bringing back the first full-scale amusement park on the Pier since the 1930’s,boasting a magnificent Ferris Wheel that became immediately iconic. Unfortunately a life on the water is hard on such a structure, so Pacific Park auctioned the Pacific Wheel off in 2008 on eBay, replacing it with a doppelganger with one key adjustment: It's solar powered and the first roller coaster, the West Coaster, since the Whirlwind Dipper let off its last customers over six decades earlier. The opening of the park was an invitation for families to visit the Pier again.
The new millennium has continued with that momentum and today the Pier is as vital as it has ever been, drawing over four million visitors annually. Today’s Pier atmosphere is decorated with a variety of street performers and artists who put their talents on display for crowds of admirers every day. Below the Pier’s eastern deck is the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium, where you can experience some of the denizens of the Santa Monica Bay up close and personal. And, of course, the Pier’s Carousel still offers old-fashioned entertainment for under a dollar. Pacific Park in the only admission free seaside amusement park in Los Angeles, today is a popular recreational destination as well as a vibrant reminder of the past.