In the park: Music Center employees, family and friends listen to music in the late 1980s. Courtesy photos

Fifty years ago, 31-year-old musician and Santa Monican Chico Fernandez had a dream of opening a practice space and photography studio for local musicians to jam, record, take lessons, shoot album covers and share music with the community.

Five decades later, Fernandez and his family are preparing to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the fulfillment of that dream: the Santa Monica Music Center. 

The Music Center has evolved over the years, with Chico’s brother Victor introducing the now integral retail shop and Chico’s daughter Lana founding a nonprofit based on Chico’s values of community and sharing a love of music. The shop has also moved from its original storefront on Lincoln Boulevard over to a larger space on Santa Monica Boulevard.

The festivities are twofold, Fernandez’s daughter Lana Negrete — a Santa Monica City Councilmember and now owner of Santa Monica Music Center — said in a recent interview, because Fernandez will also be celebrating his 82nd birthday.

In honor of the dual celebration, the Santa Monica Music Center (1901 Santa Monica Blvd.) will be pulling out all the stops: live music, DJ sets, local food vendors, a sale inside the Music Center and a raffle with proceeds supporting Negrete’s nonprofit Outreach Through The Arts. The community party is scheduled to take place on Sunday afternoon from 12-4 p.m. and will be open to the public and free of charge.

“Sometimes, it feels like we’re this metropolis city where there’s transient people passing through just visiting, but we are a city full of residents, and there [are] legacy businesses in the community,” Negrete said. “And, just kind of having that old school vibe of coming in and talking to someone that owns the local coffee shop or the local music store, and knowing your neighbor, knowing your business owner — this Sunday is really about celebrating that.”

But Negrete said preserving that community atmosphere and keeping the business alive has not been without its challenges.

“We’re a small, family owned-business that survived a car running through the front of our store, two riots and a pandemic, and we’re still standing,” Negrete reflected. “We’re still family owned and operated. And we still are serving the schools and the community the best we can, and we hope to still be here another 50 years.”

Over the years, through good and bad economic times, Negrete said, the business has been able to stay afloat thanks to Chico living in a rent controlled apartment.

“My dad — he wouldn’t have been able to afford to maintain it if he didn’t have a rent controlled apartment because there was times where they didn’t pay themselves for over a year,” Negrete said, later adding, “We live in these places and are able to have businesses here because of that, you know what I mean?”

Negrete, like many children of small business owners, grew up uninterested in taking over the family business. Instead, she pursued a career in retail and fashion, eventually attaining success working on Rodeo Drive and as a buyer for Fred Segal. But when her kids and step kids started going to school, she realized most high school orchestra students were white or Asian. 

“I was like, ‘That’s so weird, when everybody gets music [lessons] here, and they make it so accessible. Why, when it becomes a choice, is it not that?’ And I realized not having private lessons and quality instruments really puts you at a disadvantage in a community like this,” Negrete said.

So, 10 years ago she moved with her family back to Santa Monica and established Outreach Through The Arts. For the last four-and-a-half years, she has also run the Santa Monica Music Center.

“My dad started that [musical outreach] in his own way, and I’m continuing it in a different way — a different generation of it,” Negrete said. “And so, to me, this 50 years really culminates the years that we’ve been contributing to the community of Santa Monica, providing affordable access to both instruments and music lessons, and today how it’s expanded to a full thriving nonprofit that’s attached to it that really is contributing in a much larger way to the community by providing scholarships, consistent access to music, and then it’s expanded to DJing and music production and job skill and all that kind of stuff.”

Musical acts on Sunday afternoon, July 24, will include their own music students’ rock band, plus cover band Run for Cover, Cindy Speer’s and Martin Purtell, DJs and other entertainment. Food vendors will include Truxton, DK Donuts, Socolo and more.