100 years of fun at the Santa Monica Pier

What do the films “The Sting,” “Funny Girl” and “Forrest Gump” have in common?
Each includes scenes featuring the Santa Monica Pier, that venerable West Coast landmark that celebrates its centennial Sept. 9. On that day 100 years ago, thousands of people swarmed onto the newly constructed 1,600-foot concrete structure to enjoy band concerts, swimming races and other festivities.
Since that opening day, the famed pier has gone through many incarnations until it evolved into today’s icon, “a single remnant of history on a coast that was once peppered with piers,” according to Ben Franz-Knight, executive director of the Santa Monica Pier Restoration Corporation. The organization was established in 1983 by the city of Santa Monica to oversee policy, events and marketing of the pier.
“The pier has a spirit of its own,” Franz-Knight said. “That sounds strange to those who have made only one visit, but for those of us who have been there many times, it’s like a close personal friend.”
Long Beach octogenarian Cal Porter would probably call the pier his friend, along with the grand La Monica Ballroom, which opened in 1924 and was most widely known for the Depression-era dance marathons.
Porter writes about the ballroom in his blog “Cal Porter’s Then and Now.” He remembers the La Monica as “gigantic and ornate with … ten Byzantine turrets soaring into the sky like something out of Arabian Nights. It claimed to be the largest ballroom in the world with room for 10,000 people and accommodating 2,500 dancing couples. I … poked my head in occasionally to take a look and hear the music during the ‘30s and ‘40s, but I was there mainly because … one corner of the huge building was used as the first Santa Monica Lifeguard Headquarters. The other corner … was where we jumped off the pier for a cooling swim.”
The ballroom stood for almost four decades and attracted celebrities and hosted television shows. Desi Arnaz and his orchestra entertained there several times.
Those who love the historic pier actually have been celebrating its 100th birthday for several months with events such as circus acts, workshops for kids and dances every Thursday night through Sept. 3. La Monica Ballroom Redux was held July 23, featuring a Big Band playing Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller music and other performers.
“The Santa Monica Pier has created long-lasting memories for many generations and will continue to do so,” Franz-Knight said.
The Sept. 9 centennial celebration includes live music, a 100-foot birthday cake, fireworks and undoubtedly a few celebrity sightings. Joan Baez and Robert Redford have been name honorary co-chairs, but no word on whether they will be present.
You can visit the pier any day and enjoy strolling its planks, shopping, dining, riding the Ferris wheel or the historic 1922 carousel, or visiting the interactive aquarium.
“The pier is a wonderful public gathering place and it’s open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year,” Franz-Knight said. “It has tons of history… and lot of private and public dollars have been invested for improvements and maintenance — $60 million since the ‘80s (when it was destroyed by storms). It’s been a substantial investment, but there has been a substantial reward.”
P.S. You also can see the Santa Monica Pier in these movies: “Beverly Hills Cop III,” “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” and “The Majestic.”
For an excellent slide show of historical photos and more information, visit www.santamonicapier.org or call (310) 458-8900

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