Seven years ago, I made the decision to leave New York City for Los Angeles. I had never been to Southern California before, but I’d just put the finishing touches on a brilliantly sharp and grabby script complete with compelling characters, smart dialogue and a brand-spanking new approach to traditional themes that will have anyone hooked within the first four pages. I knew I needed to be in L.A. in order to sell it, but I didn’t know what part of the “City of Angels” I wanted to call home — until I visited my friend Katie’s house on Second Street near Marine. After one trip on a beach cruiser bicycle through the jasmine-scented streets to Bay Cities Deli and eating my first Godmother sandwich, I knew that Santa Monica was the perfect place for me. Three years after moving here, I can’t believe how lucky I am — how lucky we all are — to be able to celebrate the 100th birthday of our beloved pier today.
Truth be told, we’re lucky we even have a pier in the first place. It took the vision of a Danish wood carver turned amusement entrepreneur named Charles I.D. Looff to put it all together some 90 years ago. His ornate wooden horses took their first rides in the summer of 1916 and though the “Looff Pleasure Pier” wasn’t finished, the crowds that gathered that Fourth of July weekend were prescient predictors of the pier’s popularity. Thanks to Looff’s vision, the Santa Monica Pier has given our city’s residents and visitors countless hours of fun, relaxation, and recreation — and has given the world Hot Dog on a Stick, the inspiration for Popeye the Sailor, and the first beach volleyball doubles tournament. It was also the home of the original Muscle Beach, the first American home of Cirque du Soleil (returning this fall with “Kooza”), and features the first-ever solar-powered Ferris wheel.
Our pier also stands as a testament to democracy in the classic Greek sense of the word (people power). In 1973 when the City Council planned to build a 35-acre island offshore with a high-rise hotel, convention center, and restaurants connected by a causeway that would essentially have replaced the pier, so many protesters showed up that the meeting had to be moved to the Santa Monica Civic Center. The residents of this town saved the pier that night and two years later, approved a ballot measure that made it illegal to make any major changes to the pier without first putting it to a vote by the people, not the City Council.
Ten years later, between January and February of 1983, came the most momentous month in the life of the pier during which no fewer than five storms collaborated to do more than $6 million in damage — and dump an enormous construction crane into the bay. That fall the Pier Restoration Corp. (PRC) was founded. It’s important to understand that the magic of the pier doesn’t just happen — and that it’s the current PRC and its incredibly dedicated staff that make everything that happens on and around the pier possible. If you’ve ever grooved at the Twilight Dance Series, flown at the Trapeze School New York, taken your kids for the rides and games in Pacific Park and the arcade, or even just enjoyed a kissing moment with your sweetheart, the PRC is the reason. Our stoic (but never staid) pleasure pier is their baby and we’re all fortunate that they let us baby-sit whenever we want.
I’m happy I took the long way to get here because it makes me appreciate our fair city and our incredible pleasure pier that much more. My hometown of Boston has the family-friendly Central Wharf and the New England Aquarium, but the rest of the city’s waterfront seems to be suffering from an identity crisis. New York City has Coney Island (iconic home of Nathan’s hot dogs and a wooden roller coaster called “the Cyclone”), which is miserable to visit between October and May. San Francisco has the Embarcadero and the crossroads of the world that is Fisherman’s Wharf, but there is nothing to do except spend money.
None of these places can hold the proverbial candle to what we’ve got here. The pier is open 365 days a year and has activities aplenty for any budget — even zero dollars. Thanks to the dedication of Ben Franz-Knight and the great people at the PRC and the hard work of the people who groom the beaches and clean the bike paths and direct traffic into and out of the parking lots, we can all enjoy the last great pleasure pier on the West Coast. So as you partake of the festivities tonight, make sure to take the time to thank those amazing orange-vested, blue-shirted, and white-shirted people for their work. We don’t always see their faces and we don’t typically recognize their contributions, but we’d definitely miss them if they weren’t there.
Kenny Mack is a multi-platform content provider with four-quadrant crossover appeal whose favorite spot on the pier is the public viewing deck at the West End. His past columns are archived at www.ifyoumissedit.com and he can be reached at email@example.com