By Tony Peyser
I thought a bomb had gone off. I opened the door to my Fairfax District duplex and saw a huge plume of smoke several blocks south of me. Panicked people on the street headed that way, and sirens moved in that same direction.
I soon discovered this wasn’t a bomb or a plane crash, it was a fire. On that day in May of 1989, the whole neighborhood came out, first just to see what had happened but then to say good-bye: the Pan-Pacific Auditorium was burning to the ground.
Even in large cities like Los Angeles, there aren’t many old-school public venues so beloved.
Built in 1935 by the architecture firm Wurdeman and Becket, the Pan-Pacific Auditorium was the place where Dwight Eisenhower spoke shortly before being elected president in 1952 and where Elvis performed in 1957 shortly before inducted into the Army.
Pan Pacific Park now occupies that location, and all that remains as a reminder of the legendary auditorium is a smaller version of one of its iconic Streamline Moderne towers.
The only place in our neck of the woods with a history comparable to the Pan-Pacific is the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. The Civic has 3,000 seats (about half of the Pan-Pacific) and debuted a few decades later (1958), but it too was designed by celebrated architect Welton Becket of the aforementioned Wurdeman and Becket.
(For architects keeping score, some of Becket’s other quintessential L.A. projects include the Capitol Records building, the Cinerama Dome, Pauley Pavilion and The Beverly Hilton.)
The Santa Monica Civic is especially famous to baby boomers for hosting 1964’s The T.A.M.I Show, one of the greatest concerts (and documentaries) in rock history. Performers at this dazzling event included The Beach Boys, Chuck Berry, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, The Supremes, James Brown and The Rolling Stones.
The Civic was home to the Oscars from 1961 to 1967, and over the decades the venue hosted David Bowie’s concert-turned-album “Santa Monica ’72,” as well as gigs by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan, The Clash, The Eagles, Ella Fitzgerald and even an early concert by Weird Al Yankovic.
The Civic has been closed since 2013, but now’s as good a time as any to think about ways to revive it.
In The Argonaut’s pages recently, Santa Monica City Manager Rick Cole explained that bringing the auditorium up to code and ready to host a variety of public events could wind up costing around $50 million.
Yeah, yeah, we all know, finding public funding is hard to come by these days and tends to move at … an … incredibly … slow … pace. But couldn’t some kind of crowdfunding option be put on the table? The Kickstarter campaigns for a “Veronica Mars” movie and new episodes of “Mystery Science Theater 3000” each raised around $5.7 million. Considering the storied history of the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, it seems fairly reasonable that some real money could be raised in this kind of collective effort.
Another way to go can be summed up in two words: Silicon Beach. There are hundreds of tech startups on the Westside, along with several established tech industry players entrenched in the area — Snapchat, Hulu and a modest little mom-and-pop called Google, for starters.
If, as Cole noted, some philanthropic person or entity (I’m looking at you, David Geffen) wants to plunk down a cool $50 million, that would be a tremendous investment to preserve an eminently worthy local icon.
As for go-go Google boys Larry Page and Sergey Brin, a recent letter to the editor in this newspaper already offered a new name for the venue — the Googolplex, a mathematical term with an interesting history of its own
and one that reflects the near endless potential for what could happen there.
Without a willing billionaire, another viable option could be spreading the cost around and getting five, 10 or even 50 Westside movers and shakers to do the heavy financial lifting together.
The Pan-Pacific Auditorium had been in awful shape for a number of years at the time of its demise. I can imagine people approached back then about reviving the Pan-Pacific could’ve looked at it and concluded it didn’t appear worth resurrecting.
The Santa Monica Civic, while shuttered, still looks pretty good for its age. With so much of its surroundings doing so well, it’s time to give this venerable local institution the facelift she so obviously deserves.
John Betjeman was the best-selling British poet of the 20th century and equally famous as an ardent preservationist. Whenever someone praised him for this work, he was more than likely to sigh and talk about the classic old buildings he didn’t save.
I hope the Santa Monica Civic will long be part of the consciousness of the Westside and, unlike the Pan-Pacific, won’t ever be discussed only in the past tense.