In the peak of summer, crowds crisscross the Colorado intersection, slowly shuffling their way onto the giant jetty and towards the peaceful Pacific Ocean. A multitude of sounds echo through the air along with the rhythmic roar of the waves. Wooden deck boards seemingly as old as the pier itself creak as people saunter and glorious sunshine fills the sky above. A cool breeze blows off the water and carries with it the salty smell of the sea along with the aroma of freshly caught fish and fried fast food. The rollercoaster roars past overhead and seagulls chatter endlessly. Santa Monica Pier is nothing short of iconic.
It’s synonymous with the City and is instantly recognizable whenever it’s seen on television or in a movie, which is surprisingly often. The historic Route 66 ends at the pier with the big, rolling blues waves of the Pacific Ocean offering a welcome sight after traveling 2,448 miles.
Since it first opened on September 9, 1909, the pier has endured just about everything both man and Mother Nature can throw at it. To begin with, it was a far cry from how it looks today and it was originally constructed to carry waste pipes beyond the breaking waves – so sewage didn’t wash back onto shore – and had no amenities whatsoever. Known then as the Municipal Pier, it quickly became a popular spot for locals and was touted as the best fishing spot in the bay.
Countless storms have unleashed their fury on the pier, boats have slammed into its pillings and even debris from other, less fortunate piers have battered it, but it has stood its ground through all of this time. The first of these unfortunate instances was just 10 years later when a 20 ft section of the north end suddenly dropped two feet while a sizable crowd was gathered to look at two battleships anchored in the bay. The City closed the pier immediately and reopened after repairs in January 1921.
A much more recognizable pier began taking shape in June 1916 when Carles Looff negotiated a 20-year franchise for the pier from the City and added an amusement arcade, a rollercoaster and carousel to the existing structure. In August of the same year, the Looff Pleasure Pier officially opened, but it was sold to the Santa Monica Amusement Company in September 1923 after his death. In 1924, more than 50,000 arrived to witness the opening of the new La Monica Ballroom, causing what has since been credited as Santa Monica’s first ever traffic jam.
Like much of the country, the pier suffered during the Great Depression and in June 1930 the Santa Monica City Council voted unanimously to begin construction of a breakwater and small boat harbor. As soon as it was completed, it became extraordinarily popular. Motion picture star Charlie Chaplin moored his yacht here and by August 1934, the harbor boasted 99 moorings. Those weird things that look like rocks, out to sea a bit and to the north-west side of the pier that you can still see today, are the remains of the breakwater and Santa Monica Yacht Harbor.
During World War II, almost all of the pier’s operations were turned over to the war effort and the constant use of heavy vehicles transporting massive fishing catches meant that emergency repairs were required. In the summer of 1945, a 28 ft fishing boat moored alongside the pier exploded after an ignition spark caused spilt gasoline to catch fire, resulting in debris from the boat rocketing 200 ft straight up into the air.
However, the breakwater was not considered a high priority and gradually began to fall into disrepair with many yacht owners simply moving their craft to other locations. Ongoing dredging and repair costs became a continuous financial drain on the City and by the early 1980s all that was left is what you see today.
Major changes to the Santa Monica coastline had been discussed as far back as the early 1960s and included converting the breakwater into a causeway connecting Santa Monica to Malibu and even a 35 acre island featuring a high-rise hotel, convention center and restaurants and four-lane bridge connecting it to Santa Monica. None of these plans however, included the pier.
In June 1972, the City Council unanimously approved the island project. Needless to say, the public reacted and local residents formed Save the Santa Monica Bay, rallying enough support to ensure the project would not receive the required state and national approvals needed to proceed. In January 1973, the Council scheduled an “Ocean Front Revitalization” public hearing at the Civic Auditorium and over a thousand people gathered to protest the island proposal.
Despite the island proposal being rejected and while many of the assembled residents were outside celebrating, the Council surreptitiously passed a motion to tear down Santa Monica Pier. Two community groups were created immediately, Friends of Santa Monica Pier and the Save Santa Monica Pier Citizen’s Committee and set forth to sway public opinion and ultimately save the treasured landmark.
“We started printing flyers, sending out press notices, and highlighting the pier’s danger of extinction in our menus and sharing that news with customers – who were up in arms at the prospect,” says Larry Barber, who was Chair of Friends of Santa Monica Pier and instrumental in its salvation. “We started attending every City Council meeting from that day forward to keep an eye on what council members were doing.”
Weeks of almost nonstop political push-and pull followed until late February when the Council agreed to rescind the decision to demolish the pier. The local election in 1973 proved to be a turning point and the newly elected City Council negotiated the purchase of the amusement park section of the site, bringing the entire structure under the ownership of the City of Santa Monica for the very first time.
“Eventually, it took the defeat of three of the city council members in the 1973 election in order to defeat the misguided idea of tearing the pier down,” Barber says. “It turned out to be one of the most exciting times of my life, and I go back often to soak up the unlimited bounty of the ocean as viewed from the deck of Santa Monica Pier.”
An initiative was passed to not only preserve and restore the pier, but also to improve it – and it needed a lot of work. In August 1976, it was declared an official landmark of the City of Santa Monica. The pier’s woes didn’t end here though sadly, as it was well and truly walloped by a storm in March 1983 where one-third of the structure, including the entire west end, was washed away in the most violent storm the pier has had to withstand. Naturally, after such an event there was some debate over exactly how to rebuild the pier. One proposal even included building another breakwater, but a decision was ultimately made to replace the aging structure with an $11.3 million all-concrete pier, which is what we have today.
This weekend marks the 50th anniversary of the date that the Santa Monica Pier was officially saved and many who were involved in this labor of love gathered for a group photograph to commemorate the occasion.
“Our family had owned both the carousel and the Arcade since 1950. We couldn’t believe it when we heard of the city’s plan to demolish the pier and build a luxury island,” says Joanie Gordon, current co-owner of the Playland Arcade. “We went to countless Council meetings and spoke emphasizing that the pier was a family pier enjoyed by everyone and destroying it would be a terrible mistake.”
The pier in pop-culture
Santa Monica Pier has featured in an almost countless number of movies, television shows and novels. Rumor has it that the creator of Popeye, Elzie Crisler Segar, was heavily influenced by characters that used to frequent the pier in the 1920s and 30s. It also guest starred in the first Iron Man movie and the historic aesthetic of the carousel was used to recreate 1930s Chicago in the epic Paul Newman and Robert Redford movie The Sting. Moreover, the magnificent movie Fletch, based on the best-selling Gregory Mcdonald novel and starring Chevy Chase, featured many scenes under and around the pier.
Every year, the Pier Corporation produces a show called Save the Pier! that’s free to watch at the west end of the pier for a full weekend in either September or October. It’s an endearing, one-hour story recounting the true story of the grassroots community effort to save the structure from demolition
The people who made it possible
Those who were able to make it to the official photograph taking were Danielle Tikker, John Tikker, Stephen Randall, Brad Carl, Theresa Dahlin , Erick Dahlin, Marylee Dahlin Carl, Julie Stone, Joanie Gordon, Janet Dahlin, Larry Barber, Pat Lennon, Van Vibber and Garth Sheriff. Sadly Kris Dahlin and Marlene Gordon were unable to attend, but were sneakily snuck in by way of some Photoshop magic.
Fifty years is a long time and tragically some key members of the community have been lost, including Jack Sikking, considered to be the mastermind in the community’s efforts, Diana Cherman, whose energy and efforts were crucial to the effort, Joan Crowne, who took out a second mortgage on her home to help fund the Friends of Santa Monica Pier efforts, Maynard and Sheila Ostrow, who also helped fund, plan and drive the effort.