In 1944, while World War II was raging, 11-year-old Elaine Jones and her four siblings moved cross-country from Rhode Island to Santa Monica with their British-born parents. Actually, Eric, her artist father, had come first in search of work and housing, both in short supply during wartime. Fortunately, Eric soon secured a job, which came with a unique residence for his family. Really unique.
Eric was hired at the Santa Monica Pier to maintain the carousel, including painting the ponies, which he would do with extraordinary expertise. By the time he was done, every horse had its natural coloring and a shiny bright saddle, making Santa Monica’s the most beautiful merry-go-round in the state. The job also included a tiny apartment above the carousel.
Seven decades later, Elaine, a retired elementary school teacher, has written a charming and nostalgic memoir about those days, “My Life Above the Carousel in Santa Monica.” The collection of short stories begin with 11-year-old Laney, who’s full of curiosity, mischief and prone to day dreaming, to Elaine, a young woman of 18 and ready to find her place in the world.
One of the first stories, “Not Love at First Sight,” describes Laney’s reaction when initially she saw her future home. The shabby, byzantine Hippodrome with its Gothic towers looked to Laney like something out of a horror movie. It housed the merry-go-round and upstairs, the tiny apartment in which she and her family would live for the next seven years. (Laney and her four siblings, ages 13 to a baby of a few months, and their mother, Lily, had just completed an exhausting, five day, cross-country Greyhound bus trip.)
In coming to Santa Monica, Laney had to leave behind friends, school and a wonderful teacher. (Not to mention a tremendous comic book collection.)¬† All for a new life in golden California, where seemingly the sun shined all year around and fruit grew on the trees for the taking. Instead, she would be living above a carousel and it’s pounding Wurlitzer organ music playing Johann Strauss.
But Eric and Lily Jones were strong, hard-working and prideful. They taught their children to make the best of life’s many obstacles. Sure enough, with the big, beautiful beach as her backyard, and the pier and all the rides her playground, before long Laney felt like Dorothy in the land of Oz.¬† ¬†
However, Laney discovered that kids in Santa Monica did everything differently from those on the East Coast. This included everything from how they dressed so casually to the games they played, like volleyball on the sand, body surfing, paddle board racing, gymnastics and body building at the famous Muscle Beach.
But as the new kid and about to enter the fifth grade, Laney had a giant problem. She desperately wanted to fit in but feared if her classmates found out she lived above the carousel, she would be teased unmercifully. (Or hounded for free rides.)¬† To her relief, the girls even invited her to join their Girl Scouts group.
One serious glitch, however, was that Laney’s application, filled out by her mother, listed their Pier address.¬† (Yikes!)¬† Even worse, the well-meaning scout leader asked Laney to share with the group what it was like to reside above the merry-go-round. Laney almost fainted.
At 14, along with her sister, Mona, 16, Laney was in the paddle board ballet off the pier. Posing on the beach with a lifeguard, she was once featured on the front page of the Evening Outlook. She was a “ring girl” at the merry-go-round, and rigged the game so cute guys always won the brass ring.
Laney chatted with actor Charles Laughton who visited their neighbor who was British. She also knew Rita Hayworth whose brother owned Laney’s second favorite restaurant near her apartment. (Her “fave” was Dipsy Doggie.) In fact, in 1949, Rita (then Margarita Cansino) bought a TV for the bar,¬† a tiny black and white, around which patrons huddled to watch wrestling. (First Sports Bar in history?) But, of all Laney’s colorful family and friends, my favorite was baby sister, Essie, at four a fearless gymnast at Muscle Beach with an irrepressible sense of humor.
Like a “Twilight Zone” episode, Stephenson’s wistful memoir takes us back to a simpler Santa Monica full of adventure and joy. With each delightful story, the reader returns to that time and place and, if they’re like me, probably longs for more.
“My Life Above the Carousel in Santa Monica” is available at Amazon.com and at the Carousel Gift shop on the SM Pier. Elaine is at: email@example.com.
Jack is at facebook.com/jackneworth, twitter.com/jackneworth and firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo credit: Bill Stephenson