SM PIER — Jim Harris fondly remembers his first visit to the Santa Monica Pier, landing a gig as a bartender at the old Boathouse Restaurant.
Little did the recent college graduate from Colorado know at the time that the job would spark a two-decade love affair with the history of the pier and later his own published book chronicling its 100-year past.
“The interactions with the customers there included numerous fascinating stories about the pier — what had been here, what was here today, and the people who made the pier what it is today,” Harris said. “It all piqued my interest, and I wanted to learn more and more about this place.”
The centennial celebration of the pier kicked off on Wednesday with the public unveiling of Harris’ long-awaited historical piece, “Santa Monica Pier: A century on the last great pleasure pier,” and an announcement of a series of events scheduled to take place before the 100th birthday on Sept. 9. The books were delivered mid-press conference by an officer driving a vintage squad car.
The 127-page book includes photos from the pier’s early days and passages on some of the biggest moments in its history, including the storm of 1983, which took out the top of the fishing deck as well as other sections, and the campaign to preserve the landmark when it was in danger of demolition. The foreword was written by actor Robert Redford, who was born in Santa Monica and visited the pier for the first time as a 4-year-old with his grandmother and was accosted by a 5-year-old child.
“I remember his hat (a sailor hat), behind him the merry-go-round on the pier circling and circling and the uneven sound of the calliope’s music, fresh and tantalizing,” Redford said in the foreword. “That was one of my first memories of childhood, and it burned its image in my mind forever.”
Redford and singer Joan Baez both serve as the honorary co-chairs of the Centennial Steering Committee.
Harris, who works as the community venue liaison and historian for the Santa Monica Pier Restoration Corp., which manages and promotes the pier, spent about two years actively putting the book together, though he had been reading old articles and collecting information for much longer. Shortly after he began working for the PRC in 2003, Harris discovered a half-dozen boxes of archives stacked in one of the office closets, using the information to publish a walking tour brochure.
During the research for the book, Harris said he discovered that the information in the brochure was not 100 percent accurate.
“I was embarrassed at first, but then realized that this was validation for my current undertaking,” he said. “With the book, we would set everything right.
“That is the accomplishment that we celebrate today.”
The next couple of months will bring a number of events to the pier in celebration of the centennial, including the Sideshow at the Pier on April 18, which will feature jugglers, fire-eaters and tap dancers. As a preview for the festivities to come, the press conference featured a performance by hula hoop artist Mat Plendl and a tango dance by partners Rachael McDonald, who is a TV choreographer, and Michael Espinoza.
The Sideshow at the Pier will be followed by a day-long event on June 20 for children called School’s Out! A Celebration for Kids, featuring fitness activities, a fashion show and dances.
A dance party recreating the days of the historic La Monica Ballroom will be held on July 23. The celebration will culminate on Sept. 9 with a pier grand reopening ceremony and fireworks show, the largest in 18 years, said Ben Franz-Knight, the executive director of the PRC.
“We are taking care to ensure our legacy is entrusted to the next generation of dreamers, preservationists, activists and pleasure seekers,” Franz-Knight said.