SM BEACH — Nick Steers was apprehensive, concerned that besides 12 hours crammed full of facts about 1930s era Hollywood, early Santa Monica beach culture and Georgian revival architecture, that he would still be stumped.
The Santa Monica resident had just undergone four weeks of intensive training with the Santa Monica Conservancy to prepare for tour guiding duties at the new Annenberg Community Beach House, learning about the history of the former estate of Marion Davies and the long and challenging process of turning it into the nation’s first public beach club.
Now it was opening day and Steers, 64, was making sure he got his facts straight.
“They provided you with a lot of information so I was trying to figure out what information was going to be pertinent to the public that was going to be there,” Steers said during a recent interview.
Turns out visitors just wanted to view the architecture of the buildings on the property, which features the original pool and guest house and newly constructed club house. Regardless, Steers can recite with ease the facts that he learned during the training sessions at the Ken Edwards Center.
For example, Julia Morgan was a prevalent architect who was the first female to graduate from the University of California Berkeley’s school of engineering, Steers said.
The former Santa Monica and Los Angeles County lifeguard is one of about 75 docents who give tours several times a month at the silent film star’s one-time home, which was transformed into a public beach house thanks to a $27.5 million grant from the Annenberg Foundation.
The property was once the site of a 110-room mansion, later sold in 1945 to a hotel operator. It had several identities over the next half century, including as the Sand & Sea Club. The location was also popular for filming, including serving as the fictional Beverly Hills Beach Club on 1990s drama, “Beverly Hills 90210.”
Steers came into the role of docent with more than 40 years knowledge of Santa Monica Beach through his career as a lifeguard and time serving on the Recreation and Parks Commission. It was during his term on the commission when the issue of the beach club first came up after the Sand & Sea Club stopped its operations.
He also closely followed the long process of transforming the mansion into a beach club, an idea that at one time was met with resistance from neighbors.
“I always liked the idea,” Steers said. “I don’t know how viable it is going to be in the long run and whether people can afford to come to this kind of place.”
Born in Holland, Steers moved to Santa Monica in 1959, graduating from Santa Monica High School five years later.
He went on to Santa Monica College where he played on the water polo team under whom he calls the “greatest coach,” John Joseph.
It was the coach who told him about the lifeguard program and in the summer of 1965, Steers began his career. About four years later, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in political science at California State University Northridge.
Steers remembers receiving a call once about a 7-week-old baby who wasn’t breathing. He ran from Tower 16 to the headquarters next to the Santa Monica Pier, performing CPR.
“It was enlightening to see a blue face turn color again,” Steers said.
The incident occurred just a few months into the job.
He remembers Santa Monica Beach before it became an international tourist destination, a relaxing spot for locals to gather.
Then came the I-10 Freeway during the 1960s, bringing with it more visitors, he said.
Steers, who has been married for 34 years and has two children, retired in 2005 as a county lifeguard at Zuma Beach.
While Steers had a deep knowledge of the beach house’s relatively recent history coming into the docent program, he admitted to lacking information about its early years.
That’s where the training sessions came in handy.
Approximately 125 people applied for the docent program, about 25 of whom ended up on the waiting list because the capacity for the classroom in the Ken Edwards Center was 100.
The program focused on three interpretive themes that were developed by a city consultant about the beach house — “Three remarkable individuals,” which centered on Hearst, Morgan and Davies; “A beach like no other,” which discussed the Santa Monica beach culture; and “A public place henceforth,” which was about the evolution of the site from a private estate to public beach club.
Everyone who survived the four weeks of training became a docent. The conservancy requires a commitment of two full hour shifts a month to maintain docent status.
“Nick stands out among our docents because of his long connection to Santa Monica beach as a lifeguard and as a surfer,” Ruthann Lehrer, who ran the docent training program, said.
Steers has worked a handful of shifts since the beach club opened in April. He said the most challenging aspect of the job is coming up with information the guests might want to know.
While most of the visitors have been locals, Steers said he expects that to change come this summer when the tourist season begins.
He said one of the most interesting aspects of the beach house is that it’s made with sustainable building materials, including an insulation of blue jeans.
“Hopefully people will enjoy the building and it will have many years of life,” he said.