SM PIER — Shoes tap on the floor and the swish of skirts can be heard below the long arc of a trumpet and the quick beat of a drum. Young couples move gracefully along the hardwood floor, silhouetted by twinkling white lights overhead.
These are the images evoked when the historic La Monica Ballroom is described, but now they are merely memories.
The Santa Monica Pier is bringing back the spirit of La Monica today during the fourth week of the 25th Annual Twilight Dance Series, which will feature the La Monica Ballroom Redux to celebrate the 85th anniversary of what was once the pier’s landmark structure.
To recreate the atmosphere of La Monica at its height, the pier will be decorated with minarets and lights, all surrounding a dance floor in front of the stage, where two big band style music groups will perform. Swing dance lessons will be held an hour before the concert begins.
The pier has also invited members of the community who once danced at La Monica to kick off the night with the first dance of the evening.
“It’s one of the storied structures of the pier. Fewer and fewer people are around to remember the old thing,” said Jim Harris, pier historian.
“The image of a structure that size floating over the ocean is quite magnificent, and the stories that it holds within it are certainly interesting and unique.”
Often described as a palace floating above the sea, La Monica was built in 1924. The largest ballroom on the West Coast, it had a 15,000-square-foot dance floor and held 5,000 people.
On opening night, July 23, 1924, more than 50,000 people drove to Santa Monica to view the new structure — only 30,000 were actually allowed inside. The event was so popular that it created the first traffic jam in Santa Monica history, Harris said.
But La Monica didn’t survive as a ballroom for long.
“When it was built in 1924, that was really the heyday of the great amusement piers that used to be here in the bay, but when the stock market crashed and we entered the Great Depression, there wasn’t a whole lot to dance about so other uses were explored,” Harris said.
Over the years, after City Hall bought the building in 1934, the ballroom took on many varied roles as a roller rink, aquarium, apartments, auto museum, badminton courts and even a temporary city jail. It’s remembered today for hosting some of the first dance marathons, which would last for days, and the “Hoffman Hayride,” a KTLA show featuring Spade Cooley.
Colleen Creedon, a local activist who once lived in a unit in the Looff Hippodrome above the carousel, recalls driving from her childhood home in Ventura with her father to see Cooley perform.
La Monica’s glory days officially ended in 1962 when City Hall condemned and removed the building due to damage from age. Pacific Park now stands where the ballroom once was.
Tonight’s concert will attempt to embody the magic and history of La Monica for one final night with headliner Squirrel Nut Zippers, a North Carolina-based band that combines it’s Southern roots with blues and jazz in a style that hints at 1930s nostalgia.
They have put together a unique set list for the show, drawing from the great American songbook and jazz artists such as Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington to showcase music that would have been popular during La Monica’s heyday.
“We’re really excited about coming to do this show since it’s the anniversary of the pier,” said drummer Chris Phillips, one of the original founders of the band. “We wanted to present a setup that would be reflective of those past 100 years of American music.”
The band has released eight CDs since 1993 and has a live CD set to hit stores later this summer. They’ve been on a hiatus since 2002 that Phillips described as being “lost at sea.”
To prepare for tonight’s show, the band has been rehearsing in Joshua Tree, living in a house with no air conditioning.
“We’ve been rehearsing in our underwear for three days, collecting scorpions and lizards,” Phillips said. “It’s really quite something out here. It’s just great American music going down and I look outside and all I see are yucca trees and the desert.”
Also performing are Johnny Vana & the Big Band Alumni, musicians who have played with many of the great bands from the swing era, including Harry James, Woody Herman, Tex Beneke, Billy May, Buddy Rich and Spike Jones. Vana, the founder of the band, has been playing drums since he was invited to sit with the Glenn Miller Orchestra at the age of four.
Their swing style evokes the music that drew crowds when La Monica first opened.
For those who remember La Monica and the music that defined its early years as a ballroom, the redux will be a welcomed walk down memory lane.
“Oh gosh, I’ll be there. I’m really looking forward to it,” Creedon said.