SM PIER — Thursday nights at the Santa Monica Pier, as the warm summer sun shines a ruddy gold in the evening sky, thousands of people begin streaming into a large parking lot on the south side of the edifice.

Their destination, a large stage set up against the edge of the pier. Below, even more people sit on towels and blankets on the sand between carefully constructed rows of cones, looking up attentively toward the stage, waiting for the music to begin.

They’ve come to see one of 10 shows that comprise the Twilight Dance Series, a 27-year tradition in Santa Monica dating back to when the iconic pier was a broken shadow of its current self, and the event raised funds to bring it back to life.

In that time, the series has grown in size and scope, welcoming popular and wildly eclectic bands alike to share in the free concert’s ambiance.

Perhaps no year, however, has seen the changes to the fundamental structure of the series as 2011, alterations in the composition and execution of the event that, organizers hope, aren’t palpable to the average attendee.

The biggest change is the departure of King and Company, the firm that has not only produced the event since its beginning, but deserves some credit for creating the concept in the first place.

Three firms bid for the opportunity to produce the series — King and Co., Rum & Humble and Cary Sullivan.

“The committee analyzed them and all three [applicants] were very qualified,” said Steve Gibson, the interim executive director for the Pier Restoration Corporation (PRC), the nonprofit that manages and markets the historic landmark.

There was a large difference in price, Gibson said.

That wasn’t the only problem, however.

“When it came time to sign the contract, there was no money,” said Katharine King, president of King and Co., which produced the series from its inception. “I wouldn’t sign a contract where I would have to negotiate with artists not knowing if there would be money down the road.”

That was in February.

Part of the hiccup was another underlying change in the series, namely how it would be funded.

This was the first year that the PRC did not have to go to City Hall to ask for money, said Jim Harris, deputy director of the PRC and pier historian.

Instead, the PRC brought on consultant Craig Hoffman to seek out big name donors, called “partners,” to help fund the shows and ensure that the event was solvent.

That makes the 2011 series the first time in the Twilight Dance Series’ long history that it has had a flagship sponsor, in the form of One West Bank.

The bank provided $100,000 to the event, or one-third of its total budget, Gibson said.

In so doing, One West may have simultaneously provided a model by which the series can perpetuate itself, a conclusion that was not so certain even last year.

“The Twilight Dance Series was meant to save the pier and revive its energy,” Harris said. “Ironically, it was the Twilight Dance Series that needed to be saved.”

In 2010, the PRC was still hurting financially from the extravaganza it put on in 2009 to mark the pier’s centennial, Harris said.

It was uncertain if there would be a dance series at all, and the PRC had to go to both City Hall and the public to ask for cash. In the end, a seemingly-impossible nine shows were funded.

This year, the fiscal house is in order, with 10 shows coming in between $20,000 and $30,000 under last year’s budget, Gibson said.

The timing still presented a challenge, said Martin Fleischman, president of Rum & Humble, the firm that won the bid to produce six of the 10 shows.

“The booking process started a little late,” Fleischman said.

In an ideal world, he would have begun booking concerts for the summer series at the end of the previous year, and then begin to close deals in the first quarter of the year that the performances were going to take place, Fleischman said.

“We started doing the booking in the beginning of May,” he said. “It went great. I love a challenge.”

The rush job and reduced budget is barely apparent given the quality of the acts performing, including the headliner of Thursday night’s show, 1980s band the Bangles, most famous for their catchy tune “Walk Like an Egyptian.”

On the other hand, the acts are more homegrown this year, with only one night featuring performers outside of North America.

That was less a product of style, and more one of practicality, Fleischman said.

“It’s not that we had a philosophy of keeping things local,” he said.

He hopes to get a chance to program next year’s shows, hopefully with a little more time to get in a broad variety of acts.

“This is our first year, and we’re excited to see how it goes as everybody else is,” Fleischman said. “It was a privilege to be able to put it together.”

King hasn’t necessarily counted herself out, but isn’t committing to anything at the moment.

“You never know about that,” she said. “Maybe, maybe not.”

The producer isn’t the only change that’s come to the show this year.

Also new are what Harris refers to as “toys,” including the large video screen that gives a stage-side view to the thousands of people watching on the beach with their picnic baskets.

“There was one concert where the beach filled up,” Harris said, an eventuality no one had planned for since the beach audience couldn’t see the stage.

Since, the PRC has added both a police presence and makeshift aisles to hem in the crowds.

Two more amenities concert-goers may have seen are expanded merchandise, including T-shirts and water bottles, and an improved beer and wine garden put on by Santa Monica Place’s Sonoma Wine Garden.

Although the series is only two shows in, the new formulation seems to be working. Certainly the crowds are still coming, beach towels in hand, ready to enjoy the sun, surf and tunes floating off the pier.

After all, the show must go on.

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