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The Lookout NewsOriginal Article »
June 02, 2011
Pacific Park -- Los Angeles’ only admission-free amusement park, on the Santa Monica Pier -- celebrated its 15th anniversary last week with the introduction of new rides and refreshments.
When it opened in 1996, Pacific Park brought back a full-scale amusement park featuring arcades, rides and a first of its kind solar-powered Ferris wheel.
Fiften years later, Jeff Klocke, Pacific Park’s director of marketing and sales is enthusiastic about the park newest rides, like Inkie’s (the park’s octopus mascot) Pirate Ship and VIP passes that give frequent visitors unlimited rides and substantial discounts on park food and merchandise.
“Shaking things up has taken on a whole new meaning this year at Pacific Park,” Klocke said, referring to Americana-themed summer treats: Churro, Caramel Apple and Banana Split milkshakes.
While the park might have been enjoying a teenage birthday bash this Memorial Day weekend, the pier’s history of family-style entertainment stretches back many decades before the Pier Restoration Corporation was formed in 1983, tasked with returning the city landmark to its former glory.
The pier originally debuted on California Admission Day on September 9, 1909, and became an instant city attraction.
One of its early admirers was Charles Looff, the man who built Coney Island’s first carousel in Brooklyn, New York and believed that California’s year-round sunshine might offer even greater profit potential from daily fun-seekers. He started construction on his “pleasure pier” in 1916.
Eventually, according a history of the Pier written by spokesman Cameron Andrews, Looff’s Pier featured the Hippodrome building (the very same housing the pier’s current carousel), a succession of vintage merry-go-rounds, Wurlitzer organs, the Blue Streak Racer wooden roller coaster, the Whip and a funhouse.
By 1924, the La Monica Ballroom opened on the pier, part of the explosion of luxury bathhouses, amusement parks and music halls that flourished along Venice and Santa Monica beaches in the early part of the 20th century. The La Monica occupied most of the pier at that time and was famous for its live radio (and, eventually, television) broadcasts.
In the 1930s, the pier functioned as launching pad for shuttles to ferry gamblers out to the yachts and cruise liners anchored in the bay that catered to the well heeled. Mobster Tony Cornero ran a thriving gambling business this way until then-Attorney General Earl Warren shut Cornero down in an extended legal crusade in 1939 (and was rewarded for his efforts with a Supreme Court Chief Justiceship).
But the pier’s glory days were waning.
“During the 30s, most of the pier was closed down and sold off in pieces,” James Harris, author of “Santa Monica Pier, A Century on the Last Great Pleasure Pier” and official pier historian, told the Lookout. “It was the Depression.
Unfortunately, we lost the Ballroom and by the early 70s, the city (which acquired the pier in 1973) was talking about tearing it down and building a resort island in the middle of the Bay.”
Local activists were incensed at the idea of losing their piece of coastal city history and delivered petitions to the city council.
Three of the councilmen who had voted to destroy the pier were promptly voted out and their replacements hurried to make sure the pier received historic landmark designation.
But a decade later, most of the pier was destroyed by violent winter storms, and the city formed the Pier Restoration and Development Task Force (eventually evolving into its current iteration, the Pier Restoration Corporation).
Improvements to the pier accelerated 27 years ago with the introduction of the summer Twilight Dance Series, which has featured major acts such as Los Lobos and Joan Baez.
Harris said that he was happy to see the pier returning to its status as “the people’s playground.
“But I’d still like to see a live performing arts theatre here, like the old La Monica,” he said. “The pier should continue to explore its roots and be true to that.”
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