The Santa Monica History Museum explores the 50-year history of a once vital venue

By Michael Aushenker

Now a historic landmark with an uncertain future, the 1958 Santa Monica Civic Auditorium was a striking cultural venue in its heyday Photo courtesy of the Santa Monica History Museum

Now a historic landmark with an uncertain future, the 1958 Santa Monica Civic Auditorium was a striking cultural venue in its heyday
Photo courtesy of the Santa Monica History Museum


When the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium was shuttered in June 2013, many in the community balked.

With so many memories dating back to its summer of 1958 opening, there was a lot of emotional attachment to the venue — and still is.

A new exhibit at the Santa Monica History Museum dubbed “Cultural Mecca: 50 Years of Entertainment,” takes a nostalgic look back at the myriad concerts and other public happenings that took place at the Civic, telling its story through photographs, event programs, posters, ticket stubs and other paraphernalia preserved by the Santa Monica Cultural Affairs department.

“A lot of the bigger bands played here before they got big. Led Zeppelin played during their first concert tour in 1968 before they outgrew it, and that seems to be the trend with a lot of bands,” said Cultural Mecca curator Danielle Lewis.

But that wasn’t always the case. At the peak of their powers, the Clash played the Civic in 1978, 1979 and 1980, touring behind albums “Give ‘Em Enough Rope,” “Sandinista” and “London Calling.” So did The Doors in 1967 and Run-DMC in 1984, hot on the heels of their breakthrough album “King of Rock.” The Ramones shared a bill with L.A.’s all-female punk outfit The Runaways in 1978, while English metal kings Judas Priest rocked the Civic in 1979. By the mid-1990s, Cypress Hill, Sonic Youth and Rage Against the Machine had each performed there.

The list of the acts that have played the Civic is long and eclectic, ranging from The Rolling Stones (1964) and Albert King (1970) to Andre Previn (1959, 1960, 1970) and Cheech & Chong (1972 and 1973). Add Bob Dylan, the Eagles, Frank Sinatra, David Bowie, Ella Fitzgerald and that isn’t even the half of it.

However, this History Museum exhibit is about more than just the rock shows, Lewis noted.

The Dalai Lama held a residency there — a kind of Buddhist boot camp for 2,000 monks-in-training — for 17 days in 1989.

There was also the time Santa Monica Symphony conductor Raoul Gritenwaldt’s pants fell down during a performance.

“I’d say about half of it covers the rock shows, the rest highlights the other entertainment there,” Lewis said.

That includes, of course, the Academy Awards — held at the Civic throughout the 1960s. An entire wall of the exhibit is devoted to the Oscars.

“One of my favorite things is the poster board that security officers used during the televised awards to tell them where they ought to be,” Lewis said.

Given the myriad events that took place at the Civic over the years, the museum has set up a memory board for people to leave notes sharing their own experiences there.

“The culmination of the Centennial Celebration for Santa Monica’s 100th birthday was held at the Civic Auditorium in 1975. Lawrence Welk and his band performed for the dinner and dancing. I worked on the centennial committee and was there that evening,” Santa Monica History Museum founder Louise Gabriel remembered.

When it comes to the Civic’s future, that book’s still open.

Proposals for the Civic Auditorium’s future include a “dream scenario” $50-million full restoration to anchor a locals-focused arts and culture district,
but adaptive reuse for office and retail space is also an option.

The economic feasibility of various proposals for the Civic is the focus of a two-day public workshop set for Jan. 31 and Feb. 1. The Santa Monica City Council is expected to make a decision as early as May.

The museum’s Cultural Mecca display continues through Jan. 24. Come February, the focus shifts to cinema with an exhibit celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Aero Theatre and its 10th year under the proprietorship of the American Cinematheque.

“Cultural Mecca: 50 Years of Entertainment” runs through Jan. 24 at Santa Monica History Museum, 1350 7th St., Santa Monica. Tickets are $5. The museum is open Tuesdays through Saturdays at varying hours. Call (310) 395-2290 or visit