In the waning months of the first decade of the 20th century, in a section of the coast just north of where Abbot Kinney founded his Venice of America only a few years prior, Santa Monica dedicated its 1,600-foot-long municipal pier.
A structure that was initially built as a public utility to handle the city’s sanitation needs soon became a popular spot for fishermen, and not long after drew the attention of amusement ride builders. As the early years went by, bigger, faster rides were added to the structure that stretched out to sea, along with restaurants, various attractions and other uses.
After years turned into decades and with its growth of offerings, the Santa Monica Pier no longer was a structure frequented primarily by residents of the city and surrounding region but an international attraction. Its history has now spanned 100 years through times that were not always hopeful, for it has faced challenges both physical and political, but in the end it has lasted.
The city plans to recognize that story of survival and success with a host of celebrations on the centennial anniversary of the pier’s dedication, Wednesday, September 9th.
“It’s a great honor for all of us to be involved in the celebration and it’s a very exciting time. It’s not often that you get to take part in a centennial celebration, particularly here in L.A.,” said Ben Franz-Knight, executive director of the Santa Monica Pier Restoration Corporation.
“(The centennial) is the recognition of a wonderful public space that has been preserved by the people and the city.”
The 100th birthday festivities will kick off with a grand re-opening ceremony featuring musical performances, celebrity participants and a few centenarians who will cut the pier’s 100-foot-long birthday cake.
A major highlight of the September 9th event will be at night, when the first large-scale fireworks show over the Santa Monica coast in 18 years will be launched from three barges. The festivities will begin with pre-fireworks entertainment offered in several locations along the beach. Franz-Knight said officials are anticipating the pier to reach capacity early during the celebration and suggest that some of the best viewing areas for the fireworks are on the beach.
“We hope that the centennial is an opportunity to reflect on the gift we have with the pier,” he said.
City officials are quick to note the significance of honoring the century-long existence of their municipal pier.
“The pier’s centennial celebrates the fun and entertainment that the Santa Monica Pier has brought to generations for the last 100 years,” said Misti Kerns, Santa Monica Convention and Visitors Bureau president and CEO. “We are proud to be the home of the West Coast’s last great pleasure pier and look forward to the next 100 years of enjoyment that the pier will bring to Santa Monica’s residents and visitors.”
The celebrations have not been limited to the actual day of the anniversary, as commemorative activities have been held throughout the year. In February, author James Harris, with the assistance of artist Amy Inouye, released a book on the pier’s history, “A Century on the Last Great Pleasure Pier.” The Sideshow at the Pier featuring variety acts and circus artists was held in May, and in June, Schools Out! offered workshops and performances for youngsters.
An event that has been synonymous with the pier, the Twilight Dance Series, has had the 25th anniversary of its free music concerts leading up to the centennial.
Harris noted that with its various features, including the neon entrance sign and Hippodrome carousel building — a national historic landmark — the pier is the “most recognizable symbol that sets Santa Monica apart from any other community.”
“It is the last of its kind of what used to be prevalent in the bay — amusement piers,” said Harris, referring to other nearby coastal venues such as the Ocean Park Pier that have since been torn down. “This being the last one, it’s preserving that history that defined the bay in the early 1900s.”
The pier got its roots in the amusement field when carousel builder Charles I.D. Looff built rides such as the Blue Streak Racer roller coaster after 1916 and other ride makers added to the thrills in the early 1920s. The theme park reached another level with the 1996 opening of Pacific Park, an admission-free amusement park where the highly popular Ferris wheel lights the ocean water below. Pacific Park has joined with the city organizations expressing excitement at the 100th anniversary.
“The owners of Pacific Park have always viewed it as a true honor and privilege to be part of a true historic icon,” said Jeff Klocke, park director of marketing and sales. “The park relies on the overall diversity of the pier and its ability to draw large and diverse crowds from all over the world.”
Among other attractions that have contributed to the pier’s storied history is the La Monica Ballroom, a palatial looking building that was the largest ballroom in the world when it opened in 1924. During its nearly four decades, the facility was the site of dance marathons and country swing music star Spade Cooley’s weekly TV program.
Cooley, the ride builders, and numerous other people throughout the years have had a hand in the progression of the pier.
“There have been so many people involved in the pier in meaningful ways big and small,” Franz-Knight said.
The pier’s notoriety has also extended to the big screen, as it has appeared in a number of popular movies including “The Sting,” “Forrest Gump” and “Iron Man.”
Those familiar with the pier’s history note that it has fulfilled many different roles in addition to being simply a pleasure pier.
“The most important role it plays today is an escape from the city without actually leaving the city,” Harris said.
Mayor Ken Genser referred to the pier’s involvement in political debates, as the City Council in 1973 proposed to tear down the structure for a planned resort but a community campaign fought against the plan, ensuring the historic pier’s preservation.
“It’s played an important role in the politics of the city and been sort of an iconic symbol of the city,” Genser said.
The challenges to its longevity have also been weather-related as powerful winter storms in 1983 destroyed over one-third of the pier. But as it had done before, the pier overcame the obstacles, paving the way for the 21st century.
With the pier heading into its next 100 years, Franz-Knight said the restoration corporation is preparing for future projects and reviewing the structure’s master plan that will help ensure its preservation for the next generations.
“My expectation is that it will be here for a long time and it will continue to evolve and respond to the needs of the city as the years progress,” Genser concluded.