Exploring the Historic Santa Monica Pier

Nothing quite says summer like a day at the beach, especially if that beach is lucky enough to have a pier filled with a carousel, roller coaster, games and more.

Around the turn-of-the-century California’s coast was dotted with what was known at the time as “pleasure piers” a wooden boardwalk along the coast that offered a variety of amusements. For over 100 years the Santa Monica Pier has been an icon of the beach city, and it has quite the colorful history.

Neon arch above the pier, reading "Santa Monica Yachy Harbor, Sport Fishing, Boating, Cafes"

As wonderful as carousel horses and cotton candy are, Santa Monica’s Pier began a little less glamorously. As the small beach town of Santa Monica grew, as did its sewage, yes, you read right, sewage. The best solution was for it to be cast out to sea, but immediately having it pour out at the coastline wasn’t exactly ideal, as even in those early days, Santa Monica was already known and loved for its clean beaches. To fix that, city officials decided to build a pier to transport the waste far enough into the ocean, past the surf, so it wouldn’t end up back on shore.

Opening to the public on September 9, 1909, the Municipal Pier was originally built of concrete, the first of its kind on the west coast, as it was believed concrete was superior to wood. However just ten years later, after discovering much of it had eroded away, it was replaced with wood.

Quickly the pier became a popular fishing spot, but soon locals wanted their own pleasure pier. And their answer came with a man by the name of Charles I.D. Looff. Originally from Denmark, Looff immigrated to America in 1870, using his wood carving skills to secure a job as a furniture carver before making Coney Island’s first carousel, and thus beginning work in the amusement industry. He moved to Long Beach to expand his enterprise along California’s coastline. Soon Looff secured a lease with the city for the land stretching out and over the water to build his new pleasure pier, and connected it to the Municipal’s Pier.

Looff, along with his two sons, built what was named the Looff Hippodrome to house a carousel. In case you’re wondering, “hippodrome” is Greek for “horse racecourse” giving a unique and fun word to the building.

Looking down the pier, the Hippodrome, carousel, and buildings in the distance.

Me outside the Hippodrome, wearing a red halter top, dark blue jean shorts, red platform shoes, and a tooled leather purse.

Me outside the Hippodrome, wearing a red halter top, dark blue jean shorts, red platform shoes, and a tooled leather purse.

The carousel opened for the summer of 1916, and was followed by a rollercoaster known as the Blue Streak Racer, a picnic pavilion, bowling and billiard building, and a fun house called “What Is It?” During the late 1910s, Looff’s pier was the place to be. The original carousel that resided within the Hippodrome was crafted by Looff himself, and wasn’t limited to just horses, it also included camels, tigers, and more, all of which were jumpers. Above the carousel were apartments, which Looff lived in during construction. One of Looff’s construction managers did as well, and continued to live there with his wife and children for several years. A variety of colorful people resided above the circling horses until an arson fire on March 4, 1974. While the building was saved, the days of apartments above ended, and today is home to the offices of the City of Santa Monica’s Environmental Programs Department, and the Santa Monica Pier Restoration Corporation.

Side of the Hippodrome, a tan building, with navy blue trim, and painted on the side "Merry-Go-Round"

The carousel inside the Hippodrome, horses of a variety of colors, a sleigh painted turquoise also sits upon the carousel.

Me riding the carousel.

Close-up for a white horse with blue and gold bridal.

Me riding the carousel.

Along the top various murals of nature, including a large desert rock formation.

Me riding the carousel.

The Wurlitzer for the carousel, painted in many different colors, and a scene of a cabin with a water wheel on the speaker.

Horses frozen in mid-trot, some white, tan, black.

A goat is also an option to ride!

Me riding the carousel.

Long exposure of the carousel spinning - a blue of light and color.

In 1918 Looff passed away, and his son wasn’t spending time and money on his dad’s first California pier, instead choosing to focus on the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. As America entered the roaring ’20s the Looff portion of the pier fell under new ownership, being purchased by the Santa Monica Amusement Company, a group made up of several real estate investors. Under new ownership the Blue Streak Racer was replaced by the Whirlwind Dipper on March 30, 1924, and that summer the pier welcomed a new addition, the La Monica Ballroom.

The ’20s and ’30s were a rocky time for the Santa Monica Pier. An Arabian theme was tried, the ballroom became a roller rink, as well as the temporary police department and jail (complete with two jailbreaks) during the construction of Santa Monica’s new city hall, and, in need of money, it sold its original Looff carousel, replacing with a less expensive one. The pier also had several different owners, eventually landing in the hands of the bank.

Meanwhile the bay that the pier extended out into became the setting of a scene right out of a Raymond Chandler novel. Those looking to gamble in California didn’t have to travel all the way to Las Vegas to try their luck, instead they could turn to the off-shore “floating casinos” aboard ships located just past the three mile boundary for gambling. The most infamous was the S.S. Rex anchored off of Santa Monica’s coast, and boasting “all of the thrills of Riviera, Biarritz, Monte Carlo, Cannes ‘surpassed!'” Opening on May 5, 1939, and owned by mobster Tony “The Hat” Cornero, the S.S. Rex was a quick ten minute trip by boat. While many flocked to toss dice, many were unhappy about the gambling, and on July 28, 1939 then California Attorney General Earl Warren (yes, later to be of the US Supreme Court) defined that the three-mile law was actually measured not from the shore, but from an imaginary line drawn Point Vicente to Malibu’s Point Dume, this including the entire Santa Monica Bay, where the S.S. Rex and many more gambling ships were anchored. One by one the casinos were taken out, but the S.S. Rex and Cornero weren’t giving up without a fight. In what was called “The Battle of Santa Monica Bay” an eight day stand off ensued including casino cronies dousing police boats with fire hoses. But eventually on August 10 Cornero surrendered. Why? Because he “needed a hair cut” he told the press. The months after were spent destroying the slots and tables, and in the process law enforcement discovered that many of the slots were rigged.

On the eve of World War II, the pleasure pier found a new owner with Walter D. Newcomb Jr., but with wartime shortages and soldiers overseas, the pier’s new life would have to wait.

After the war, the area that Looff built was now known as the Newcomb Pier, and it benefited greatly. Newcomb brought in new rides and shops, and in 1947 replaced the second carousel with one he had from the Venice Pier, which is the one that continues to operate today.

As soldiers returned home, California started jiving to Western Swing, and the La Monica was restored to its ballroom state and musician Spade Cooley became a staple. He performed a weekly variety show that eventually caught KTLA’s attention, and they decided to air it live each week. Eventually the show moved to KTLA’s studio in 1954, and the ballroom became the Hollywood Auto Museum.

A vintage lunchbox featuring a cartoon of Spade Cooley, along with an illustration of the pier.

A saddening blow arrived that year when Walter died, leaving his wife in charge. While Enid Newcomb had a college degree and already operated one of the shops along the pier, she needed some extra help, and looked to Morris “Pops” Gordon, a family friend and penny arcade man. Morris invited his two sons, George and Eugene to take part in the pier, and they opened up the Playland Arcade in 1954. Today it is the longest family-run business ever operated on the pier, and is run by the fourth generation of the Gordon family.

Exterior of Playland, a blue and white building.

Me outside the Hippodrome, wearing a red halter top, dark blue jean shorts, red platform shoes, and a tooled leather purse.

Inside Playland - the classic Big Mouth game where you knock the teeth out of the clown's mouth.

Me at a western themed shooting gallery inside Playland.

Me at a western themed shooting gallery inside Playland.

Inside Playland, pink neon reading "Prizes"

Me outside the Hippodrome, wearing a red halter top, dark blue jean shorts, red platform shoes, and a tooled leather purse.

Inside Playland - the skee ball games.

Inside Playland - a 1950s etched glass of a pin-up in a bikini and large sunhat to advertise what was likely a cheesecake show to watch.

Inside Playland - Jungle Hunt, a jungle themed shooting gallery.

Me outside the Hippodrome, wearing a red halter top, dark blue jean shorts, red platform shoes, and a tooled leather purse.

By the later 1950s, the aging pier began to face stiff competition from Pacific Ocean Park and Disneyland. The Hollywood Auto Museum didn’t last long, and roller skates graced the hardwood floors once again in 1961, but its return as a roller rink was short lived, as the walls began to buckle, and in July of 1962 the building was closed and demolished.

As the pier continued to age, and with the lease of the Newcomb Pier expiring in 1973, the City Manager proposed a resort on a man-made island, demolishing the pier and replacing it with a bridge. The City Council approved the plans, but the community was in an uproar. The City Council ditched the resort plan, and back-peddled on demolishing the Municipal Pier, however there was no movement to save the Newcomb Pier. In the meantime three City Council seats were up for re-election, and their original votes to demolish the pier was their downfall, finding themselves ousted on Election Day.

With new blood in City Council, they voted to save the Newcomb Pier from demolition, and in 1974 the city purchased the Newcomb Pier. Now both the Municipal Pier and the Newcomb Pier were finally under one owner, the people of Santa Monica. To further protect the pier, “Proposition 1,” an initiative to preserve the pier forever, passed in 1975.

The fishing pier stretches over the water.

The year 1983 brought with it a series of storms unlike the Santa Monica Pier had ever seen. After decades of amusement, and heartfelt fighting, a storm of swells over ten feet high arrived on the morning of January 27, which ate away at portions of the pier, including the lifeguard station, a rock shop, and a cafe. But the biggest storm was yet to come. On March 1, a storm wiped out one-third of the pier. But the city had spoken, and their pier was worth rebuilding. A victory was scored in 1987 when the Hippodrome received the honor of being listed on the National Register of Historic Place. Meanwhile, the remainder of the 80s and early 90s were spent rebuilding the pier.

On May 25, 1996 Pacific Park opened, calling back the early days of the pier, with a variety of rides, including a roller coaster, ferris wheel, and games.

Entrance to Pacific Park, a large abstract octopus sculpture high above the arch.

The ferris wheel at Pacific Park, with baskets of red and yellow.

Shark Fury, a Tilt-a-Whirl type ride where riders sit in a shark's mouth.

Such an icon cannot live so close to Hollywood without being featured in movies and TV shows from time to time. And most notably the Looff Hippodrome and carousel were featured prominently in one of my favorite movies, the 1974 Oscar winner for Best Picture, The Sting.

Screencap from The Sting, which features the Hippodrome, and instead of a pier, a road goes into Chicago.

The Hippodrome, with the pier stretching into the ocean along the right.

Robert Redford as Johnny Hooker arrives at the Hippodrome

Hooker talks with Billie along the outside staircase of the Hippodrome.

The outside staircase of the Hippodrome, leading to what used to be apartments, now offices, also as seen in The Sting.

Paul Newman's Henry talks with Billie as she overlooks the carousel from one of the high above windows.

Billie looks out from one of the windows.

Hooker walks away from the carousel.

The carousel inside.

Filmed during the tumultuous early 1970s, stars Robert Redford and Paul Newman, despite being “press-shy” posed for photos, and expressed support for saving the pier, even signing the petition. A native of Santa Monica, Redford told the Los Angeles Times “The pier is a landmark. Everybody likes to visit the pier. I think it should be made into a museum. Not just out of nostalgia, but for a sense of history.” Decades later, as the Santa Monica Pier reached its 100th anniversary, Redford wrote the Forward for Santa Monica Pier: A Century on the Last Great Pleasure Pier, and said he “spent many hours enjoying the rides and games, marveling at the skill of the fishermen and enjoying the ocean air, wide open skies and endless horizon.”

The pier was also featured prominently in the opening the show Three’s Company in its fourth and fifth seasons, among many other films and television shows.

Today the Santa Monica Pier continues to be a hot spot for locals and tourist alike, as you can see, our summer Saturday was quite busy. The pier is free to visit, with a variety of shops, vendors, and restaurants. Playland Arcade and Pacific Park are also free to enter, but games and rides to cost money. There is also the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium to visit on site, available for an admission price.

Visit the Santa Monica Pier at 200 Santa Monica Pier, and check out their website for more details.

What’s Nearby?

Hot Dog on a Stick

Mel’s Diner inside the former Penguin Coffee Shop

Top: ???
Shorts: Buffalo Exchange
Shoes: Re-Mix
Purse: Found by my dad

Harris, James. Santa Monica Pier: A Century on the Last Great Pleasure Pier. Santa Monica: Angel City Press, 2009. Print.
History.” Santa Monica Pier

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